Closing The Gap

Women farmers earn about $58,000 a year—but they still outearn their male counterparts

A woman stands on a small holding farmland holding a box full of freshly picked kale.
Dougal Waters | DigitalVision | Getty Images
A woman stands on a small holding farmland holding a box full of freshly picked kale.

Kriss Marion wasn't planning to become a farmer when she moved to Blanchardville, Wisconsin. The goal was to get out into green space with her family and be around farms, she tells CNBC Make It.

But after working on farms in the area and growing her own garden, Marion took the plunge and opened a community supported agriculture operation (CSA) in 2007. Today, her farm, CircleM Market Farm, continues to grow for CSA, offers a bed and breakfast for guests and raises sheep and cows. "It's been really delightful to grow and change on this farm, and I feel like a rural place like this offers a lot of opportunities," says Marion.

Marion is one of a growing number of women making a living running her own farm. In fact, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers outearned their male counterparts in 2017, one of just 10 occupations in which that's the case. The weekly median salary for women in this field was $1,114. Men took home $963.

A changing landscape

According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the most recent data available, women make up 30 percent of all farm operators in the United States. While the number of principal farm owners decreased slightly from the 2007 to 2012 census, the trend has gone up over the last decade, driven by a few key shifts in farming. More women today are in leadership positions in farming and agriculture. In addition, there has been a surge of women starting their own small farms, which has likely tipped the scale in women's favor when it comes to compensation.

"It's a catch-up of the past but it's also this new movement of fresh farm entrepreneurs," Lisa Kivirist, a farmer, entrepreneur and the author of "Soil Sisters, a Toolkit for Women Farmers," tells CNBC Make It. Much of the growth is in organics, small-scale localized farming that doesn't fit into traditional agriculture boxes, she says.

"Women embrace diversification on a higher level, I would say, than a male traditional farmer," says Kivirist. Women farmers are also creative, optimizing every inch of their farms, which is good for business.

"We like to have other businesses off the farm," Kivirist says, highlighting CSAs, bed and breakfasts and small crafts as examples. "Not putting all our eggs — literally — in one basket."

Marion's farm is good example. "I've added or subtracted something every year I've been farming," she says. "That's the privilege of being in a small, direct market."

Daphne Holterman, a partner at Rosy-Lane Holsteins near Watertown, Wisconsin, never thought she'd be a farmer, but she's now been at it for 30 years. In that time, Rosy-Lane Holsteins has grown from 80 cows to 950.

"I think when I was a youngster, there were not women farmers, or if there were we didn't call ourselves farmers, we called ourselves farmer's wives," Holterman says. She's worked on many parts of the farm over the years, from caring for calves to working on safety and communications. "Whatever our farm needed I just jumped in."

Holterman said that over her time farming, she's seen women farmers earn greater acceptance. There are, of course, still some spots "where it's not all roses every day," but she's glad that women are being encouraged to enter the field.

"I have three male partners," she said. "That's a challenge some days."

Collaboration and innovation

Many women farmers are also actively involved in advocacy groups and other organizations dedicated to improving farming. Karolyn Zurn, who runs a family farm with her husband in Minnesota, tells CNBC Make It that she and her husband have always been involved in local agriculture groups.

They are both liaisons to the U.S. Soybean Board, an organization focused on the success of U.S. soybean farmers. Zurn was also voted onto the board of the Northern Crops Institute, a collaborative effort among North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana to promote, develop and market crops. She was the second woman to be chair of the board, something she is proud of.

Today, she's the first vice president of American Agri-Women, the nation's largest coalition of farm, ranch and agribusiness women. She also advocates for improved broadband signals in rural communities.

"I knew that without me being out in these groups that our farms wouldn't proceed the way we wanted to," Zurn said. She says that over the years, she's grown to think of herself as a farmer more and more – now, she's sure that she's listed alongside her husband on farm statistics.

This points to some of the generational changes that have shaped farming. Women have always had a role in farming, said Jeanette Lombardo, the president of American Agri-women. But today, they're out in the fields running operations as well as getting degrees in science to have the skills set to compete.

Women farmers are also driving innovation and helping create new ways of farming in cities. "I definitely see it more and more and I think people are less surprised by it and women farmers are getting a lot more respect in terms of their work," said Sarah Ann Horton, farm manager at Squareroots, an urban farm in Brooklyn. "That's really exciting."

The Squareroots farm that Horton manages is an indoor, modular hypdroponic farm, which means that plants are grown in water solvent instead of soil. Horton is passionate about farming and thinking about the challenges of what it means to be a farmer — especially one using new technology to farm.

"Indoor runs the risk of being obsolete quickly — the tech could change," she says. In addition, land access and stability is a huge problem, and Horton hopes that people can look at urban farms like Squareroots and realize that you can do a lot of farming on a half-acre or acre of land. If land isn't available, there are other options. Squareroots, for example, grows plants in containers at the former Pfizer factory.

"The plants don't know what holidays are." -Sarah Ann Horton, farm manager, Squareroots

Horton also manages the next-gen farmer training program, a year-long program that teaches potential urban farmers about all aspects of farming, from taking care of crops to managing a business and engaging a community.

"It's a really hard job. People get into it for passion, not for money," says Horton. "I always say, the plants don't know what holidays are."

The women farmers that spoke with CNBC Make It were quick to point out that while they may have earned more than their male counterparts in 2017, farming is not a luxurious or necessarily lucrative career. "It's not just a job, it's not just a paycheck, it's a lifestyle," says Kivirist. "And it's often driven by a passion for the land, passion for their families."

It requires lots of hard work and physical labor — and the land dictates what needs to be done. The weekly median earnings of male and female farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers ends up translating to an annual salary somewhere between about $50,000 and $58,000.

Women farmers have banded together in many communities and bring a collaborative drive to farming. Many help each other out with new business models, diversifying offerings on the farm and navigating systems like the health department for bed and breakfast owners.

"There's enough to go around economically when we know each other and work together," says Kivirist. "If the water rises, all our boats rise."

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