MASSILLON, Ohio — It wasn’t too long ago that the contribution of women farm operators was largely overlooked.
Up until 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years, gathered demographic information on only a farm’s “principal operator.” That operator was usually a man.
But in 2002, census takers began asking for information about up to three operators on each farm. That’s when they found that women make up more than one-quarter of all farmers across the country.
The most recent agriculture census in 2012 revealed that in Ohio, 28 percent of farm operators are women, totaling 31,413, said Heather Neikirk, agriculture and natural resources educator for Ohio State University Extension.
“They farm about 3.8 million acres, and they contribute $230 million in economic impact to our state,” she said.
Out of 19 Ohio counties that have more than 500 women operators, 10 are in the state’s eastern half. That’s one reason why OSU Extension has organized the East Ohio Women in Agriculture Conference since 2014.
This year, the conference will be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 1 at the R.G. Drage Career Technical Center, 2800 Richville Drive SE, in Massillon. Registration is $55, or $30 for students, which includes lunch and a continental breakfast. Information is available at regonline.com/womeninageast or by calling 740-622-2265. The registration deadline is March 18.
Neikirk said the conference has grown from 90 participants in its first year to 140 last year.
“We were running out of space, so we moved our venue this year to a new location with room for 180,” she said.
‘More of a partner’
Mary Wright attended both the 2014 and 2015 conferences and plans to participate this year, too. A retired teacher, she and her husband, Carl, own 600 acres in Coshocton County and help her father-in-law farm an additional 400 acres. They have 110 head of beef cows, fatten all their calves, and raise corn, soybeans and hay. Each spring, their younger son Jesse, 26, oversees an ever-growing maple syrup operation.
Wright, who handles the farm’s bookkeeping and is primarily responsible for its livestock, said she takes information she learns at the conferences and puts it to work.
“I’ve learned about better record keeping, different programs we can apply for, and better ways to use information we already gather,” Wright said. “I get to know what other people are doing and how that might help us. And there are some fun ideas — a wide variety of topics that keeps me coming back.”
Wright said she has always been involved on the farm but has taken a more active role since retirement. She credits what she has learned at the Women in Agriculture conferences with boosting both her confidence and knowledge base.
“I actually have become more of a partner in the decision-making now,” she said. “Before, sometimes my husband would just go ahead and do something, and I would question him about it but wouldn’t get a good answer.
“Now that I’m able to go to these programs and learn a little more, he’ll ask me, ‘What do you think about this?’ When I come home from a conference and tell him about a new program we might be able to benefit from, I think he sees that I really know what I’m talking about.”
Growing confidence, connections
This year’s conference features a keynote address, “Growing Confidence, Connections and the Next Generation,” by Sereana Howard Dresbach of Dresbach Consulting and her daughter, Megan Dresbach of W.D. Farms Inc.
Conference breakout sessions will focus on:
- Finance, including sessions on creating a business plan, separating business and personal finances, and diversifying farm operations.
- Livestock, including sessions on sheep and goats, biosecurity practices, and regulations and marketing of eggs, meat, poultry and cottage foods.
- Special Interest, including reducing use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, growing fruit, and organic agriculture.
- Food and Family, including sessions on downsizing households; first aid on the farm; and fast and healthy meals and snacks.
- Partner Agencies, including presentations from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, and USDA Rural Development.
In addition, Neikirk said, a networking fair will begin the day, and an additional session geared to young women in agriculture will be offered in the morning.
“Each year, we have had a youth track open to young women in high school who are involved or interested in agriculture,” Neikirk said. “But we’ve heard from them that they are interested in attending many of the adult sessions as well, so this year we have one session led by state officers of the National FFA Organization, and the rest of the day they can integrate themselves into the other sessions.”
Sydney Snider, a sophomore majoring in agricultural communication at The Ohio State University, attended the conference last year as an Ohio FFA officer.
“As a younger person interested in agriculture, I got a lot out of it,” Snider said. “It was good to see such strong leadership in our industry, learn about different routes to getting involved in agriculture and get encouragement to continue in it.”
Both Snider and Wright said one of the conference’s highlights is that it offers the ability to interact with other women in agriculture.
“I appreciate the networking and camaraderie of women who work in a typically male-dominated field,” Wright said. “You can talk with other women who are dealing with the same issues you are.
“Women are breaking barriers and getting into this field, but we still have to work a little harder to get accepted in the ag world. That’s coming, but in the meantime, conferences like this give women more power and help us become more confident.”
OSU Extension is the outreach arm of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.