When you picture a farmer, you might imagine an older man in plaid, leaning on a pitchfork. And mostly, that image is still realistic—the average age of farmers in the US is 56.3 years, and 70% of them are men. However, in Maine at least, the numbers are beginning to change.
From the most recent agricultural census data (taken in 2012), 41% of farmers in Maine are female. That’s a much higher percentage than the rest of the US, where 31% are female. That data represents all farmers, however, and 45% of those women are spouses of the principal operator (compared to the nationwide average of 59%). This doesn’t necessarily mean that the women have less of a role at the farm; the data just doesn’t give enough detail to know for sure.
But where Maine really stands out is in the change in female “principal operators,” which has grown from 16% in 1997 to 29% in 2012, which means that almost a third of all Maine farms are run by women.
As you can see, the percentage of female farmers is growing much faster in Maine than much of the nation. The actual number of female farmers nationwide actually decreased from 2007-2012—but so did the number of male farmers. In Maine, the number of female farmers has continued to grow, faster than that of male farmers.
Others are noticing the expansion of women in agriculture. Marji Guyler-Alaniz, a photographer, created a series of portraits depicting women farmers, entitled FarmHer. Audra Mulkern has also been sharing the stories of female farmers, National Geographic examined that status of women farmers internationally and the Gender in Agriculture Partnership assessed agricultural innovation for women worldwide, and a couple of female entrepreneurs have begun creating farm tools especially for women, who have previously had to use tools not designed for their bodies.
As one of the top 5 states for women farmers, we should be encouraging these and other projects that support female farmers. Women farmers tend to younger than male farmers, which means they will play a major role in the future of farming, and that means the future of our food and rural economies.
For another take on the numbers, and some thoughts on why Maine is different, read this article by Abigail Curtis from the Bangor Daily News.