The Growth & Impact of Women in Agriculture ~ Q&A with EWG’s Kari Hamerschlag

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Lydia Sisson, Mill City Grows, Massachusetts

There has been unprecedented growth in women farmers across the US in recent years. Paralleling this upward trend, the number of women-focused agriculture networks, funding opportunities, and technical assistance training also continues to climb. Women farmers are [finally] being recognized for their contribution to agriculture, not only as farmers’ wives, but as farm owners and operators themselves!

This week we spoke with Kari Hamerschlag, Senior Analyst for the Environmental Working Group, who was the keynote speaker at last month’s 4th National Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN) Conference,”Cultivating Our Food, Farms and Future,” in Des Moines, Iowa. Kari spoke about the need for better policy-making to build a more democratized food system, and the important role that women farmers play in the future of agriculture.

Read on as Kari tells us why we need more women in the food and farming world, what obstacles they may face, and why support networks and community are so vitally important!

And, just today: We launched our New Women in Agriculture Toolkit with resources on the growth of US women famers, women farmer networks, funding opportunities and more. If you have additional resources to share, please let us know!


FarmsReach: This was the 4th National Women in Sustainable Ag Conference. Did you get a sense of what attendees were most excited and/or concerned about?

Kari Hamerschlag: This was my first time attending the conference, and there was a lot of excitement about the power of women farmers and advocates coming together in supportive networks — and a sense that women are in fact changing the face of agriculture in this country. This year’s focus seemed to be a commitment to seriously explore how to build statewide chapters of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) so that the organization can expand its political influence and support more localized information exchange, mentoring, and other support functions.

Kari Hamerschlag

Kari Hamerschlag, Senior Analyst for the Environmental Working Group & Keynote Speaker at the Women in Food & Agriculture Network Conference

FR: Your keynote address was titled, “From Crisis to Opportunity: Connecting the Dots for Food System Transformation”. Can you give an overview of the message you wanted to convey? What kinds of feedback did you get?

KH: My main message was about how the food movement, and how each of us in the movement, must get more political in order to fight back against the near total dominance of big food and industrial farming interests in US food and farming policy. The dominance of corporate and large-scale commodity interests in our political system is nothing new, but as the economic power of these industries has become more concentrated, their political clout has grown stronger, and the consequences, especially to our health and the environment, more serious than ever.

In order to counteract that influence and put the public interest back into policy-making, I talked about how the good food movement must channel more of the energy it devotes to building a healthy food system into blunting the power of industrial agriculture and building a healthier democracy.

Otherwise, we will fail to make our vision for a healthy, just and sustainable food system a reality for everyone. In a nutshell, we cannot fix our broken food system unless we fix our democracy and that requires that we all step up and engage more, even if it means moving a little outside of our comfort zone.

I also talked about how we need more resources and better coordination in the food movement in order to effectively fight back against the extremely well orchestrated and well-funded communication campaigns that are being waged by big ag industry groups like the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the Grocery Manufactures Association or the Biotechnology Industry Organization… And how women farmers and women’s networks in particular can play an important role in that.

While things are blocked in DC, I talked about the need to build on the tremendous energy at the state level for GMO labeling and other issues, as well as market campaigns that can change corporate and farmer practices — all while building stronger demand for healthy, sustainable food.  (View Kari’s PPT slides.)

I received a lot of positive feedback on the talk. I think my message resonated for many people who are concerned about the failure of our food and farming policies to protect public health and the environment, and who recognize that we really do need to get more political in order to change the system and put in place better policies that will help scale up healthier, more sustainable food and farming systems.

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2013 WFAN conference attendees

FR: What do you think about the “movement” in general to promote and support women in agriculture?

KH: I think it’s a fabulous movement whose time has come. We need women’s voices and women’s leadership more than ever. Whether we are farmers, advocates, or business women, we all need to work together to expand markets and promote policies that will support and help grow ecological agriculture. I think women naturally are inclined to work more cooperatively, so I think this budding women’s movement in agriculture is poised to get a lot done in the next 10 years!

I hope this movement will launch many more women into senior leadership positions, since I have no doubt that our food system would look very different if more women were in charge.

I also know from personal experience that we will all be happier in our work and personal lives if we build stronger community among women in food and agriculture.

With this in mind, three years ago, my good friend and colleague Haven Bourque and I created an informal support and networking group for women leaders in the Bay Area who work in food and agriculture. We are policy wonks, communicators, lawyers, chefs, nutrition and local food advocates, prison gardeners, artisan producers, food justice activists, and farmers who gather every other month in an East Bay private home to celebrate our victories and support each other through crushing defeats over a vegetarian, local, seasonal, home-made potluck. Over the years, as we have strengthened our personal relationships and in turn our professional collaborations. The women in this group have nourished my life in so many ways.

FR: The number of women farm owners and managers is steadily increasing. How do you think this may change agriculture in the future, or will it?

KH: I knew that the number of women farmers has tripled since 1980, but I was surprised to learn at the WFAN conference that half of all US farmland is owned by women.

I think in the future, we will see more women landowners and farmers practicing and speaking out for conservation-based, ecological agriculture, since large numbers of women are going into sustainable and organic agriculture. This presents a great opportunity to develop a much more vocal farmer voice for sustainability that could have a big impact on policy and also influence how other farmers and farmer-tenants manage the land. For too long, too few farmers have spoken out against the dominant industrial model of chemical agriculture, and I hope that the growing number of conservation-minded women landowners and farmers will change that — especially in the Midwest.

FR: What kind of impact do you think the recent WFAN conference (and other women-focused agriculture events) will have on our food system?

KH: I think the conference strengthened our determination as a movement to keep building the networks, connections, and political power among women across the country so that we can support more women farmers and advocates, and have an even greater influence in shaping a healthier, more equitable, sustainable food and farming system.

The conference strengthened lots of connections between women who work in all areas of the food system, but primarily among women farmers who benefitted from access to new resources and connections that will help them grow their businesses and farm more successfully.

These kinds of conferences also have a spiritual dimension that make everyone feel more connected, less isolated, less alone, more supported. Ultimately, they provide great strength and comfort to everyone as they go back to their busy lives, knowing that there are many kindred spirits who are on a similar journey.

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WFAN poultry farmer
© FarmHer, Inc. by Marji Guyler-Alaniz

FR: What kinds of obstacles exist for women in farming and the food system?

KH: Women farmers face many of the same obstacles as all farmers—access to land, credit, capital, good technical assistance. But they also face added barriers in terms of discrimination and generally have access to fewer networks that can support the growth of their businesses.

As in other professions, women often face additional challenges and stress from having a dual responsibility of managing a family on top of the heavy demands of farming. And, as many women are going into diversified small-scale farms, the work is incredibly demanding as they have to not only grow the food, but also manage all the other aspects of the farming business.  There are many economic challenges. As in other professions, women tend to earn much less money in farming, with 75 percent of women farmers earning less than 25,000 year.

FR: Your experience in agriculture and food systems has spanned many years, initiatives and regions (and countries!). Can you share details of your background in food systems? How has the role and influence of women evolved over the 20 years you have been working in the field, or have they?

KH: Women have always been the backbone of the good food movement, since I became involved in US food and farm policy nearly a decade ago. Prior to that, I worked for almost two decades on international policy — including gender and development issues. My first big job out of graduate school was focused on organizing women around the UN Beijing Women’s conference, when we were advocating for greater investment in women, especially small-scale women farmers who grow much of the world’s food.

Since then, it’s sad to say that we are still not investing nearly enough in small scale agriculture, or women across the world, including in this country. But, what’s incredible to me is how much we have accomplished in the last 10 years with very little public investment or government support. And, that is because of the passion and commitment mostly of women who are determined to bring healthier and more sustainable food into their communities and homes.

FR: What are you most optimistic about for the future of agriculture, specifically for women farm owners and managers?

KH: To be honest, I think this is a difficult time, with so many challenges and relatively little public investment in the kind of infrastructure, research, financial and technical support that is needed to help sustainable, diversified farms thrive and grow.

On the other hand, there is tremendous support and growing demand from the general public for locally produced, healthy sustainable food, and I am optimistic that this demand will keep growing as people become more and more disillusioned with the industrial food system.

I think the key to future success is to keep educating consumers and food businesses about the value of good, clean, fair food and harnessing this demand and interest in a way that provides greater long term stability, economic opportunity and profitability for farmers and ranchers. I think women farmers and managers have a natural, strong community focus, and this will take them far since cultivating deeper connections with the broader community is a key element in a successful farm.

Finally, I’m extremely heartened by and optimistic about the tremendous interest in farming among young people, especially young women. We need to do everything we can to help young farmers succeed since they are the future of good food in this country!


Thank you Kari for sharing with our community! Presentations and handouts from the 4th National WFAN Conference,”Cultivating Our Food, Farms and Future,” are now available online

To learn more about the growing number of US women famers, women farmer networks and women in ag funding opportunities, check out our brand-new Women in Agriculture Toolkit!

If you have questions or words of wisdom about women in agriculture, visit our Conversations Page and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with Eva: evaa@farmsreach.com.

2 Thoughts on “The Growth & Impact of Women in Agriculture ~ Q&A with EWG’s Kari Hamerschlag

  1. Mar Kelly on December 13, 2013 at 8:21 am said:

    I saw Kari’s talk at the conference but it is alot to absorb. These were great questions and Kari’s responses shows the changing demography, challenges faced by women in farming and hope the progress will occur.
    I think Sustainable ecologically-based agriculture is the solution to environmental, health and justice issues in our country and abroad. Women do need to bring their skills and energy to the farmer, statehouses and Washington. It is interesting that women are the leaders in this area so we need to stick together!

  2. Pingback: The Growth and Impact of Women in Agriculture: WFAN Conference 2013 | millslegacy

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