Two weeks ago I attended the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference, and as I sat in the crowd over the course of three days time I was repeatedly struck by how many women were in attendance. Of course, I’m not privy to the conference’s attendance records, but as I surveyed the people around me in sessions, at meals, in the halls it became glaringly clear that female attendees made up a large percentage of the overall. I’d confidently wager at least half.
This reality came in stark contrast to what I knew of agriculture and even starker contrast to the one and only session at the conference aimed at women. Out in the field — and I’m speaking both literally and figuratively here — women are a small minority. Though the census says women operators are a growing demographic in agriculture, they make up just 30% of operators overall and a mere 14% of principle operators. To complicate matters, many of those are concentrated on the coasts leaving those of us in the heart of Midwestern farm country, those of us who make up a tiny 10% or less in many states, to our own devices. And that session I mentioned? Was one I unwittingly walked into, expecting to be inspired. Its title boasted about leadership and women in agriculture, but ultimately left me deflated and further frustrated, they spent much of the hour and a half talking about how the women in the room had “found their farmers,” as in, the ones they’d married. It definitely wasn’t what I’d expected when I thought leadership.
In fact, I’d spent the better part of the month prior to that conference wondering where all the strong women had gone and lamenting the fact that finding a good woman mentor seems tougher than it used to be. And then, as if this hadn’t been enough to reconcile, the news of U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe having no intention of running for re-election hit the airwaves. Like agriculture, politics is no stranger to meager female representation among the ranks. Though, like that conference I attended, women make up more than half the general population, a meager 17% of our congressional seats are held by women. The loss of any woman is one to mourn, but Snowe’s departure seems especially stinging in a time when partisan politics continue to tear the country in two. She, a moderate Republican, has been hailed by members of both parties as a voice of reason and is infamous for working across the aisle.
As I try to make sense of this all, it occurs to me how lonely even that very activity is. As a woman straddling two worlds where other women are so scarcely found I can’t help but wonder if that loneliness is what drives so many away.