Women Farmers Grow Strong

Women are the largest minority group in agriculture. More than 300,000 women operate farms across the U.S., and the USDA is hoping to settle their discrimination suit this year. Liane Hansen speaks with farmers Carol Keiser-Long and Barbara Armstrong about the role women play in America's agriculture industry.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Earlier this month, we talked to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the importance of agriculture to the American economy. And one of the subjects that came up was that of women farmers. More than 300,000 of them operate farms across the U.S. and they're the largest minority group in the agriculture industry. So, we'd invited two of them to talk with us.

Barbara Armstrong runs Armstrong Beefalo Farm in El Paso, Arkansas. It's a small farm where she raises a cross between a cow and a buffalo. She sells the meat at local farmer's markets. Barbara Armstrong is at member station KUAR in Little Rock. Welcome to the program.

Ms. BARBARA ARMSTRONG (Armstrong Beefalo Farm): Good morning. Thank you.

HANSEN: Carol Keiser-Long comes from the world of corporate agriculture. She is the president of C-Bar Cattle Company, a cattle raising and feeding operation in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois. And she joins us from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Welcome to you, as well.

Ms. CAROL KEISER-LONG (President, C-Bar Cattle Company): Thank you. Good morning.

HANSEN: A lot of people would actually be surprised that so many women are farmers. Barbara Armstrong, when you meet people for the time, what kind of reaction do you get when you tell them you're a farmer?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, the men are just kind of - take a step back and think, you really do do these things? You really do drive a tractor? You really do take care of those animals? You do all the working? And I'm, yes I do. Typically, the women will think that when you say that you're a woman in agriculture that you do the other stuff. You're not actually out there in the fields doing the actual work. So, I kind of run across both groups that really appreciate what I do or admire what I do and then I have those that think I'm just absolutely crazy.

HANSEN: Yeah. Carol Keiser-Long, you work in the world of corporate agriculture. Do you get the same reaction?

Ms. KEISER-LONG: Well, I do get those kinds of reactions. But I can go back in my history and I can tell you that the opportunities for a female to aspire in agriculture were extremely limited. And you had to be a real brawny type of gal, of which I was limited in that area. And so I was discouraged from going into a male-dominated field and so I said, well, watch me do it.

In fact, one of my first jobs at the seed yard, they said, well, you're going to have to prove yourself. So, one of my first jobs was to clean waters. And, you know, in a feed lot, it's very necessary, it's very important, it's not a very pretty job. So, as I did that and as I did some of those other simple tasks and I ended up treating and processing cattle every day. And some days there was 5,000 head of cattle that I would run through the shoot and take care of, process. And basically I started my own business then and started feeding cattle, finishing cattle and developing an inventory and scaling up.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: You know, and I think it's all really, really important because, you know, women work just as hard as a man on a farm, if not harder. And we bring something special to what we're doing. Like she was saying, you know, for the care of the animals. So, I kind of understand, you know, where she was coming from in starting her own cattle herd. And that's pretty much what I'm doing.

For 18 years, I ran the farm by myself. I mean, I did everything that needed to be done, working the cattle. And I didn't have 5,000 to deal with, but, you know, I also had to raise two boys and provide for my family.

HANSEN: Carol, according to the most recent USDA figures, women are actually one of the fastest growing groups of farmers. And you, yourself, are on national boards in agriculture organizations. Why do you think so many women are turning to farming?

Ms. KEISER-LONG: I think women have the multitasking, the flexibility. They are very good entrepreneurs, innovators. And so, I think the world has found out that, hey, women have a place in production agriculture.

HANSEN: How has the economy affected the women farmers that you know, Barbara?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I don't think that it has really impacted. It's one of those things, you don't talk bad about a farmer with your mouth full. And that we have to eat. And so people were going to purchase this and they would rather know their farmer and support their farmer locally to help the economy. People love to buy from a woman.

HANSEN: Really?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

HANSEN: Why do you think that is?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: 'Cause we like to talk, we like to share things, you know. We, you know, we talk about our kids but we talk about our animals, too. We got pictures of our kids and our animals. And it's just that connection there.

HANSEN: Carol, how do you think women are changing the agriculture industry?

Ms. KEISER-LONG: You know, just as Barbara mentioned, we just have a stronger presence in the industry. I think half of the feed lots I do business in, the females are driving the feed trucks. And they can detect a sick animal a little bit better because we're so used to detecting sickness in our kids.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And I think we as women, that healthy food for our families is important, and I think that's why there's more women out there starting to look at - even if it is just backyard gardening - because it's important to give their family healthy food. And those women are just as much part of agriculture as I am, you know. Our grandparents, that's how they made it, you know. They had to grow everything. And their spouses, their partners, were right there alongside with them doing the same thing, although the man got most of the credit and the women did not.

Ms. KEISER-LONG: In fact, you mentioned your grandparents - my grandparents made it through the Depression because they could produce their own food. And then the excess they produced above and beyond what their own needs, they could barter for gasoline and, you know, rations and that type of thing.

HANSEN: Two women continuing a family tradition. Carol Keiser-Long is the president of C-Bar Cattle Company and spoke to use from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thank you so much.

Ms. KEISER-LONG: You're most welcome.

HANSEN: And Barbara Armstrong runs Armstrong Beefalo Farm in El Paso, Arkansas. She spoke to us from member station KUAR in Little Rock. Thank you, Barbara.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

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