According to the most recent United States Agricultural Census, women are now the principal operators of 14% of the farms throughout the United States. This is an increase from 11% in 2002.
Female principal operators tend to have smaller holdings and net smaller income, but women are more likely to own all of the farmland that they operate. Moreover, women- operated farms tend to be more diverse, more likely to produce vegetable crops, fruits and nuts, horticultural items, poultry and eggs, sheep and goats, and two and a half times as likely to produce “other animals” (which would include horse farms). The percentage of women farmers is highest in the West and lowest in the Midwest. Arizona has more women farmers than any other state at 38.5%. California does not rank in the top five states for numbers of women farmers; however, San Bernardino County, where Rainshadow Farm is located, has over 25% farms with women principal operators, which is higher than the fifth ranked state, Alaska with 24.5% women-operated farms (USDA, 2007).
The most recent USDA Agricultural Census notes that 364 of the 1,405 farmers in San Bernardino County are women who are principal operators. The data does not indicate how many of these are in partnership with men. For instance, at Rainshadow Farm, I have always been the principal operator, but the census from 2007 would have listed joint ownership of the property with my ex-husband. The next farm census would list me as sole owner as well as principal operator. The census is not interested in these sociological details.
What is clear from the farm census is that women as principal owners tend to have small- to mid-scale farms and that they are not getting rich by farming. That 26.1% of the women principal operators continue to farm, while earning less than $2,500/year from their farming and possibly being among the 169 of women operators who work off-farm, either speaks to the strong draw of working with the land or indicates that these women a running a farm, perhaps with some help, while earning a living wage somewhere else, or both.
Guthman (2004) speaks of 79% of California organic farms with part-time growers that bring in under $50,000 a year. It is not possible to tell from the census how many women operators might fall into this category, since the census does not indicate which women principal operators were organic growers in 2007. Guthman (2004) calls farms between 10 and 200 acres mid-sized in California. Thus 13.2% of the women principal operators in San Bernardino County would be mid-sized growers (2004, pp. 175-176). Guthman (2004) comments on “organic midsized farms”…accruing “in the range of $100,000 to $1 million per year” (making them quite large by census standards). These farms came close to Guthman’s agrarian ideal: “viable economically and, often, remarkably independent” (2004, pp. 175-176). She notes that these farmers self-identify as small farmers. This might seem surprising until one considers that in California small farms are larger than those categorized as small in other states, indicating high sales of high-value organic (“value-added”) crops grown in California. A 10-acre farm could possibly operate with agroecological principles in the southern Mojave Desert; it is highly questionable whether a 200-acre farm/ranch could.
My research in the southern Mojave Desert indicates that USDA/CDFA verified and certified growers, as of this writing, are few. Even a single woman certified organic grower in the southern Mojave Desert would comprise less than 0.3% in the San Bernardino County picture. The women farmers/gardeners I have spoken to, whether rural, urban, or exurban, prefer agricultural schemes that are small-scale, biointensive, and agroecological.
One high desert farmer/rancher I talked to works intensively and ecologically with 2.5 acres. Examining land use principles of local women gardeners/farmers indicates they present an agroecological ideal for the southern Mojave Desert. The local water situation and the work necessary to amend initially unproductive soil agroecologically would most likely prohibit a large number of operations that are scaled much beyond 5 to 25 acres and likely would not allow for ecological farming on all of the land, if one considers the larger end of that acreage scale.
Wes Jackson (1996) has called for a new farming economy, essentially a revitalization of place-based and sustainable agricultural practices which he calls the “most important work for the next century – a massive salvage operation to save the vulnerable but necessary pieces of nature and culture and to keep the good and artful examples before us” (Jackson, 1996, p. 103) He maintains that agriculture must be done in the context of community, that it must use an ecological paradigm and that it may best be accomplished on a small scale. The farmers and gardeners in the southern Mojave Desert in this research agree and have begun to investigate, implement, and support the practice of small- and micro-scale, sustainable, local food production, aiming to keep “the good and artful examples before us.”
Guthman, Julie. (2004). Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jackson, Wes. (1996). Becoming native to this place. New York: Counterpoint.
USDA (2007). Census of Agriculture. California. Retrieved from http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/