RUIDOSO, N.M. – Although Laura Jean Schneider comes from four generations of Midwest farmers, she is uncertain sometimes about her agricultural acumen.
For the past two years, she has ranched cattle across 100,000 acres on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico with her husband. It is, she said, dangerous work, compared with the farming she once did in Minnesota with her family. For one thing, should either she or her husband need immediate medical care, it would be a hard ride over 27 miles of uneven dirt roads that flood during monsoon season.
And at age 31, she suffers from debilitating migraines, back pain and ongoing dental work following a near-fatal car accident a decade ago. There are bank loans, and the West’s ongoing drought, that weigh on her. Yet she has learned the ropes, as it were, keenly observing how cattle learn the landscape they live in, and how not all of them are naturally good at rearing their young.
“I rope, ride and build fence,” she says matter-of-factly. “This is what I do. It’s my job.”
As unique as Schneider seems, she is far from alone. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the number of women-operated farms increased from 5 percent to 14 percent between 1978 and 2007. Today, counting principal operators and secondary operators, women account for 30 percent of all farmers in the United States, or just under 1 million.
As striking as those numbers are, particularly when considering the financial risks and physical demands that accompany the work , researchers say they would like to learn more about the full contribution these women make, and what it means for the future of farming and ranching in the United States.
Researchers have observed possible reasons why more women are farming and ranching. Some women regard themselves less as entrepreneurs and more as gentle stewards of the land, or bulwarks against corporations overtaking family farms and developers sweeping in with seductive offers. Others are drawn to the farm-to-fork movement, where locally grown produce and meat hold much greater appeal. Also, more women are inheriting farms and ranches.
Downsizing and mechanization have also made the work more affordable and less physically demanding – although “smaller parcels tend to require more physical labor because they are typically managed using hand tools and practices,” said Breanne Wroughton, program assistant for the California Farm Academy at the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, California.
To that end, Green Heron Tools in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, is part of a burgeoning niche industry that customizes farm equipment for women, including a tractor rapid hitch, because the traditional tool for attaching and detaching parts “is at best difficult and at worst impossible for women (and many men) to safely manage on their own,” according to the company’s website.
None of this much matters, however, to Megan Brown, as she leans over her squealing Red Wattle pigs with a fork in her hand so that she can poke and stroke their backs, which, she claims, soothes them and stimulates their appetites. Born and raised on her parents’ sprawling ranch at the base of Table Mountain near Oroville in northern California, Brown, 34, has made a name for herself raising her heritage pigs and selling their savory meat to local residents and gourmet San Francisco restaurants.
With a swashbuckling demeanor that has attracted a loyal following to her Twitter account (@MegRaeB) and made her a regular fixture at agriculture conferences, she emphatically calls for more women to, so to speak, enter the field.
“My mother taught me to develop as many marketable skills as possible, so it’s not just the ranching with me,” said Brown, as she swerved her Polaris ATV across the rocky plateau skirting her parents’ ranch. “I cure olives, make beef jerky. I’ve planted tobacco, I can skin my own deer. I got a tractor, and I can lift heavy things with it myself. . . . I really believe any woman can do what I’m doing.”
According to the USDA, the women who identified themselves as earning their primary income from farming or ranching run the gamut in terms of what they produce. They raise cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and goats in the West and Midwest. They are viticulturists – or, as they refer to themselves at times, “vit-chicks” – who nurture malbec and pinot noir grapes in California, Washington and Oregon. They grow lavender, melons and seemingly every other delicacy under the sun. Some have taken on teaching roles and find that more and more women are joining their ranks.
“(Women’s) enrollment in the classes has been fairly consistent throughout the last four years of the program,” said Wroughton, “and 51 percent of our graduates have been women.”‘
And then there are women like Donna Schroeder, who at 77 was never schooled in ranching but was clearly born to the land and still ranches it in Shonkin, Montana.
She says she has no plans to retire, despite admitting to a small profit margin along with plenty of bank debt and machinery upkeep. “If someone wants to do ranching these days,” she said, “basically someone has to get out so you can get in. There’s only so much to go around.”
One of the few women to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Schroeder is wizened and walks with a slight limp. Her husband died more than 30 years ago; neither of her two children live nearby nor plan to take over the ranch when she no longer can run it.
Cheryl Cosner, 52, who runs a sheep and cattle ranch with her husband in northeastern Oregon, speculates that one of her two daughters could eventually take over. She studied agriculture economics and animal science at a time when, she estimates, about 30 percent of her fellow students were female. She later taught business administration in China and took art classes that proved helpful when she started marketing her farm products.
Last year, Brenda Kirsch Frketich prepared to take over her family’s Oregon farm. When her father retired, he appointed her to work this 1,000-acre Willamette Valley farm that has been in the family for four generations.
She had proved her mettle: When she was pregnant with her first child, she was out in the fields – long days, long nights, she recalled, when she had to swath and cut the grass into rows so that the dew would hold the seed on the straw stems for when the combine came through. She is now 32 and has a business degree. In taking over the farm, she oversees three employees, seasonal workers and the planting and harvesting of perennial rye and tall fescue grass, wheat, crimson clover, hazelnuts, green beans, Swiss chard, peas, cabbage and radishes.
“When I started with all this, I was 11 years old,” she said. “My feet couldn’t reach the tractor pedals.”
While moving some records and files into her new makeshift office, she came across a weathered leather-bound ledger book, with orderly figures and notes marching across the pages. She marveled at the detailed, pristine penmanship, now fully aware of her grandmother’s essential role in the family’s business and legacy.
“You can learn the dirt, learn the soil, you can learn the tools,” Frketich said, “but you also need to understand the business. She did.”
Zach is a fellow at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.