Depictions of farms and farmer figures are in many children’s songs and stories. And while that friendly farmer is typically depicted as male, the reality is, today women make up nearly half of the world’s farmers. These women in agriculture are doing essential work, yet often face gender-based obstacles in addition to the perennial challenges every farmer must contend with.
Despite the widely cited statistic that 60–80 percent of the world’s food is grown by women, the numbers are hard to quantify, and the true role women play remains less well known. Nevertheless, on a global scale, the percentage is growing. The contributions of women farmers are significant. In the United States alone, women who manage and own farms yield about $12.9 billion in agricultural products each year. According to the 2019 Farm Bureau census, 36 percent of American farmers are now female.
Women in agriculture still face barriers like a lack of access to support—whether that’s financial, professional, or personal—and persistent obstacles to achieving leadership roles. For example, in a 2018 survey by Corteva of more than 4,000 female farmers around the world, only 42 percent of respondents felt they had the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
These problems are most prevalent in less advanced economies, where only 10–20 percent of landowners are female. In some places, women are barred from owning land altogether. In others, they may not be legally able to obtain financing to purchase property for themselves. And even when women are empowered to own and tend the land, they may lack the business training and digital access they need to grow their farming operations.
These issues are a driving force for Ghanian agricultural advocate Oheneba Akosua Kyerewaa Yeboah-Ghansah. She has been working to support women farmers in her native country since her days as a young beauty pageant contestant, when she used her platform to encourage young women to enter the field of agriculture.
“Women in agriculture have incredible potential, in Ghana and around the world,” says Yeboah-Ghansah. “We believe it’s important for these women not just to have a passion for farming, but to have strong business sense.” Her organization, Women in Agribusiness, offers training programs that cultivate that potential and focuses largely on how women producers can market and sell their products.
Through Women in Agribusiness, Yeboah-Ghansah helps women clear two primary hurdles: lack of digital tools and financial support. These are perennial challenges for many; 80 percent of Corteva survey respondents cited access to technology as a barrier, and 40 percent reported lower income and less access to financing than their male counterparts. In order to help women farmers market their products online, Yeboah-Ghansah connects them to larger companies with digital platforms and reliable Internet access—which is not consistent in rural Ghana. She also helps women navigate bank loan applications by training them to maintain and submit the required records and documentation, which might otherwise be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with bureaucratic processes.
Corteva has undertaken similar strategies to support women in agribusiness. Through Corteva’s TalentA program, female innovators in southern Europe submit cutting-edge agricultural ideas and strategies to a competition. Winners get mentoring and training, and the overall winner gets a financial grant, too. Through TalentA, game-changing ideas have been cultivated. In Portugal, participants have developed new methods for improving the yields of persimmon trees, performing in vitro plant propagation, and putting inactive vineyards back into production.
The slow climb to gender equity
On the other side of the globe, in Indiana, Isabella Chism is motivated by the same sense of hope and enthusiasm. Chism is second vice president of the Indiana Farm Bureau and a working farmer herself. She’s a sixth generation farmer raising corn on a farm founded by her husband’s family. For the past twelve years, Chism has also served in various elected roles in agricultural leadership—which she says she naturally gravitates towards, though it hasn’t always been easy. “The farm world is both pleasantly and challengingly traditional,” she notes, “so it’s hard for the men in our world to know that they’re holding women back. When it comes to lifting women up into leadership positions, you’ll hear, ‘Shouldn’t she wait until she raises the children?’ or ‘She’s already doing great in this position; if we move her up, how will we fill that role?’”
Chism also notes that women in agriculture can sometimes hold themselves back by second-guessing their own abilities or feeling afraid to jump into a role and learn as they go. As a new farmer, Chism says, “I had to learn a lot because I was a woman, and I was new to the field. I was taking an active role on the farm, but seed dealers and salespeople would still call and ask to speak to my husband. I’d have to say, ‘I manage that part of our operation, so you’ll have to talk to me!’”