Changing Times Recognizing Women's Roles on the Farm
By Lee Ann Pearce, Wells Fargo Commercial Banking, Food and Agribusiness Industry Advisors Sector Manager (August 17, 2021)
The thrill of the gold rush in the 1800s lured away my husband’s great grandfather, who lived in a very remote area of Eastern California. His wife, Rachel, was left with a young child and a very sizeable cattle ranch to tend to. Distance and a lack of communication devices made interactions extremely difficult (social distancing, anybody?) so she relied on her nearest neighbors and day laborers for help. Despite this cattlewoman’s unfathomable struggles, she succeeded in keeping both the family and cattle ranch growing. My husband’s family owned that ranch for more than 100 years, but without that woman, it may not have survived.
Why do I mention this? Because this story came to mind when we celebrated International Women’s Day earlier this year as I read many stories about strong and capable women. I have known so many amazing female agricultural producers throughout my banking career, yet as I reflected on their vital roles in the industry, I realized what little recognition they receive in helping their businesses operate and succeed.
CAPTION: The woman that sparked the article – Lee Ann’s husband’s great grandmother, Rachel, at 45. Picture was taken in 1898 on a trip from Owens Valley through Yosemite. The young boy is Lee Ann’s husband’s grandfather.
Observations from My Side of the Table
Lucky for me, I grew on up on a farm, and my parents did not discriminate between boys and girls when it came time to pitch in on farm work. If it was time to shovel weeds or tie vines, you were expected to do your share. The experience has benefited my career as a banker specializing in ag lending, a position I’ve enjoyed for 30 years.
One of the things I enjoy about my role is having the opportunity to sit around a lot of kitchen tables absorbing the essence of the people who are stewards of the land. They share their family histories, success and failure stories, and exhibit their particular culture in the food and drink they serve.
What I’ve noticed is that while many of my male customers were the daily operators of their ag businesses, it was often the women in the family business who kept the books and many times made the final decision on key expenditures. The male operators I interacted with tended to view the women in their business as key managers, and if we were talking about budgeting or capital expenditures, the women often drove the conversations. The women operators embraced their knowledge and worked well in what many would see as a “man’s world”, and the male operators within their community supported them as spouses, partners, or lifelong friends.
On my own small farm, my husband and I discuss farming practices, budgeting, sales, and bookkeeping regularly. Our kids know how and why we fertilize grapevines, and how to take sugar samples to test for ripeness, among other tasks. It’s an inclusive conversation that comes second nature to our family, where the need to get the work done according to Mother Nature’s time clock is the first priority. This feels natural and normal to us as it was how our parents managed their businesses -- a vineyard and tree fruit operation in my family, and a cattle ranch in my husband’s.
Tending the Diversity Garden
I see this inclusive attitude permeate agriculture, from the largest companies to the smallest farms. I am happy to see more women join the conversation and be featured in the media more robustly than they have been in the past. Maybe they feel like it’s the perfect time to explain how agriculture has evolved and to showcase the role that women have played for many years, to help people understand something about a business that touches their lives daily.
I particularly noticed this evolution in the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture data, where prior to 2017, women were characterized most often as secondary operators. In 2017, the census did away with this term and simply counted people on the farm who had a decision-making role, identifying both men and women as producers.
According to the 2017 Census, female producers are continuing to emerge as agribusiness operators, either on their own or in tandem with male producers.
The 2017 Census also highlights a growing number of women producers all across the nation. Although male producers still outweigh female producers by far at 91 percent of total farms with at least one male producer versus 56 percent with at least one female producer, the numbers are encouraging. As women take a greater interest in being the face and voice of their own businesses, whether that be a family business or an agribusiness where they are employed, it will create momentum for others to do the same.
The 2017 Census was recognition of something that has been evolving for a long time: women producers are passionate and knowledgeable about agriculture. As time goes on, we may continue to see a rise in the number of female operators, as more women feel empowered to “own” their contributions to the industry.
As for me, I’ve known for some time that strong women live and work on farms and ranches throughout the U.S. My husband’s great grandmother was such a woman, and so were the women I have been very fortunate to meet around kitchen tables, in family offices and in company boardrooms throughout my lending career. My own mother managed a family, an off farm career, and plays a major role in our small family farm. I credit my mom for showing me how to be strong, and how to have a voice in agriculture. As the saying goes, “Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Ann Pearce is a senior vice president and manager of the Food and Agribusiness Industry Advisors team at Wells Faro Bank. With more than 30 years in the industry, Pearce also acts as sector manager within the Specialty and Non-Grain Crops sector with emphasis on wineries, vineyards and tree nuts. Pearce lives with her family in Templeton, California, on a small farm growing grapes used for premium wine production. She can be reached at Leeann.Pearce@wellsfargo.com.
Opinions and information included in this article are general and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or entity. Contact your banker, attorney, accountant, and/or tax advisor with regard to your individual situation. The author’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Wells Fargo Commercial Banking or any other Wells Fargo business.