SANFORD, N.C. — From the earliest days of American agriculture, women have been a cornerstone of everyday farm life. But as culture and agriculture change, women are more engaged than ever in the core business — as farm operators and strategic decision makers.
“Over the past three decades, the number of women-operated farms increased substantially,” says a report issued four years ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, using the most recent census data available.
“In 2007, women operated 14 percent of all U.S. farms, up from 5 percent in 1978,” the report continued. “Women-operated farms increased in all sales classes, including farms with annual sales of $1 million or more.”
That’s not just a national trend. More women have been emerging as movers and shakers in Lee County agriculture as well.
“There’s no doubt that more local women are taking important leadership roles — whether they’re running their family farms, helping shape public policy or leading statewide organizations,” says County Extension Director Bill Stone. “In many ways, women are reshaping the landscape of agriculture and agribusiness.”
Stone points to leaders like Mandy Thomas Johnson, who is helping Gary Thomas Farms, her family operation, make a successful transition to larger-scale production.
Then there are others like Tina Gross, who are helping take agriculture in entirely new directions. Gross, who is co-owner of Gross Farms, also serves as president of the North Carolina Agritourism Networking Association, a nonprofit helping agricultural operations and events statewide attract visitors to the farm as a source of income.
And Stone lists many more. He says women are already prominent across Lee County’s agricultural industry, and their numbers — along with their influence — continue to grow. That’s welcome news for people like Johnson, who are finally seeing serious career opportunities open up for capable women trying to break into what she calls a “male-dominated” industry.
Still, it’s not always an easy transition. “It can be intimidating if you’re on the outside looking in,” admits Johnson, sitting in the business office for her family’s expansive farm, an operation that produces six cash crops and also features a produce farm and six-house, egg-laying hatchery. “You need to learn how to stand your ground …. It’s finding your voice.”
Minda Daughtry, a horticulture agent and another local woman reshaping the landscape, notes that 27 percent of all North Carolina farmers are now women and many more have found their voices as agricultural executives, scientists, veterinarians and economists.
She believes that growth will continue in Lee County thanks to N.C. Cooperative Extension and its long history of supporting families and women in agriculture. “We’re working to present a complete picture of what women contribute to the business of farming and that should help attract even more to the industry,” Daughtry says. “Because of the diverse roles women fill and the balancing act that requires, they have a complex blend of responsibilities.”
Others agree and are equally optimistic about what the expanding role for women means for the future of agriculture. Zack Taylor, a field crops and livestock agent, says breaking stereotypes and elevating the role of all farmers will only strengthen the next generation of agricultural leaders.
“New ideas and perspectives are the key to innovation and growth in any business,” he says. “That will be especially true as we all work to meet the changing needs of our consumers.”
Editors Note: This article is the first in a monthly series highlighting the impact local women are making on Lee County agriculture. The series, which is expected to run through November, has been developed through N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County. For more information about the project and a promotional video trailer please visit leewomeninag.com This website will go live Wednesday, March 22nd at 7:00am.
— NC Cooperative Extension-Lee County Center
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