They’re not all farm wives anymore. Women are driving combines, ordering feed and seed and owning and managing farms and ranches. Linda Bannwarth, of rural Mitchell, has seen the evolving role of women in agriculture.
“I just think there’s more respect for women now. I have nieces who have ag degrees,” Bannwarth said.
“The glass ceiling for women is getting broken,” she said. “Women can do as much as men now. Today’s woman is more knowledgeable, more confident.”
Bannwarth, 63, said she is an “ag partner” with her husband Chuck Bannwarth. She said she can run the combine, operate a tractor or do whatever needs to be done
“Agriculture has really changed. There is so much technology,” she said. “You have to do so much figuring for ag today.”
From feed to planting, studying and planning is as important as anything a farmer does now, Bannwarth said.
She and her husband have taken marketing and agronomy classes together.
“Two heads are better than one,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we always agree.”
The oldest of eight kids, Bannwarth has spent almost all her life on farms.
“I was a farmer’s daughter and I married a farmer,” she said. “I was probably only off a farm for four years, five years.”
Bannwarth also worked off the farm for 40 years. She has also joined a group that advocates on behalf of women in agriculture.
The South Dakota Farm Bureau’s Women’s Leadership Team (WLT) promotes and assists the South Dakota Farm Bureau by involving women and helping them develop leadership skills. Bannwarth is the District 2 representative.
Increasingly, women involved in agriculture own and operate farms and ranches. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms were owned by women.
However, South Dakota was at the bottom of list for farms and ranches owned by women.
The percentage of women principal operators is highest in the West and in New England. The states with the highest percentage of women principal operators are Arizona (38.5 percent), New Hampshire (29.7 percent), Massachusetts (28.9 percent), Maine (25.1 percent) and Alaska (24.5 percent).
The states with the lowest percentages of women principal operators are in the Midwest. Women make up less than 10 percent of all farm operators in four Midwestern states: South Dakota (7.7 percent), Nebraska (8.4 percent), Minnesota (9.1 percent) and Iowa (9.1 percent).
While the change is not as noticeable in the Midwest, according to the report, women are increasingly playing a larger role.
The census report counted 3.3 million farms in the nation in 2007, and 30.2 percent, or more than 1 million, were primarily owned by women.
The number of female operators jumped 19 percent from 2002 to 2007, far outpacing the 7 percent growth in the number of total farmers.
More are interested
Adele Harty is a cow/calf field specialist for SDSU Extension at the Rapid City Regional Extension Center. Harty helps women learn more about agriculture, and said there is no doubt more want to play leading roles on farms and ranches.
The South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service takes part in a national program called Annie’s Project, which provides detailed ranch and farm management information and helps women develop networks with their peers. Harty helps organize Annie’s Project meetings around the state.
“I think a lot of the reason for that program specifically is women want to know more and be involved so they can be an equal partner in an operation,” she said. “People used to think they were only the bookkeepers.
“We’re seeing more women making the management decisions. They’re doing the labor,” she said.
For some women, modern equipment allows them to perform chores that used to require a lot of strength, Harty said. But others can do anything a man can on the farm or ranch, she said.
“For a lot of women, they grew up on farms and ranches,” she said. “It’s the business they want to be in.”
That’s the case for Harty, who grew up on a ranch in eastern Colorado and now lives on a small West River ranch with her husband and their children.
Noem: Ag is true love
Probably the best known woman in South Dakota with a background as a farmer and rancher is U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem.
Noem, 41, grew up on her family farm two miles southeast of Hazel, a small town in Hamlin County in northeast South Dakota. Her mother helped her father, and the kids were put to work as well, she said. “We always had a family that all worked together.” Noem said.
Noem is no longer actively involved in farming, although she and her family live on a ranch, and they own horses.
She said she has noticed the statistics on the number of women who own and operate ag operations in South Dakota, and has developed some theories on why it is relatively low.
“It’s very capital-intensive to get started in South Dakota,” Noem said.
As farms and ranches grow and become more expensive, it’s difficult for new operators to get started, she said. Smaller operations in other states may be easier to get involved with, Noem said.
She also wonders if some women, as she was, are involved in small family corporations and partnerships that don’t list them as the primary owner.
“I think men and women have always worked side-by-side on farms and ranches here in South Dakota,” she said. “There’s lot of opportunities out there.”
Harty agrees. She said the large size of many South Dakota agriculture operations, and the amount of money needed to own and operate them, has likely kept some women out of ownership positions. But Harty predicts that will change.
“I think we will see that,” she said. “We will see it continue definitely.”
Women in Blue Jeans
There are also agencies and organizations that seek to support female farmers and ranchers.
Women in Blue Jeans is a support group that held its 10th annual conference in Mitchell in January. Bannwarth attended, and said she enjoyed the discussions and learned from the presentations.
Women in Blue Jeans aims “to provide education, inspiration, and networking opportunities to women of rural America,” according to its website.
Sarah Caslin is an ag development livestock specialist with the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.
Caslin is involved in the Next Generation Livestock Production program, which can assist women and others who are getting involved in ag production. It focuses on “thinking outside of the box” to create a dialogue on the impact of livestock production, and what opportunities are available for producers, she said.
Noem spent many years of her life working on a farm and ranch.
Her father died in a farming accident when she was in college, causing her to come home and help out. Soon, she and her siblings joined together to operate a large-scale farming operation.
Her mother played “more of a support role” when her husband was alive, but then pitched in and did more farm work before she bought a restaurant in Watertown.
Noem worked on the farm and ranch for two decades before she and her husband bought an insurance firm, and she was elected to Congress.
They are no longer partners in the family farming operation, and have sold their cattle. They still own horses.
“I will always say I spent my life in farming,” Noem said. “It’s what I love, where my passion is.”
She said the state’s agricultural heritage has contributed to rural economy and helped form closeknit communities.
“We struggle through drought years and celebrate in good years,” Noem said.
While agriculture is no longer a major part of her business life, Noem said she likes to help with her family’s operation.
She still does some field work, planting crops, operating a combine or driving a truck.
Noem said on weekends when she is home from Washington, she finds time to do chores, build fence and care for horses.
“What I miss the most was working alongside my family,” she said.
But Noem said she doesn’t think women are that much different from men when it comes down to operating a farm or ranch.
“I don’t think there are universal traits for men or women,” she said.
Noem admits women may have a “unique perspective” on life and work, since they often have to “balance things, juggle a lot of things” during their lives and careers. The female perspective is especially useful on farms and ranches, she said.
“Farmers are nurturers,” Noem said. “They care for their crops and want them to thrive. That’s awfully important.”
Bannwarth said in today’s world, there’s no limit to what women can do on farms and ranches.
“Women can go the distance,” she said.