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U.S. Sees More Female Farmers Cropping Up

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U.S. Sees More Female Farmers Cropping Up

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U.S. Sees More Female Farmers Cropping Up

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The stereotypical image of a farmer may be a man in overalls but a growing number of women are, dare we say, wearing the pants on farms these days. Women now run about 14 percent of the nation's farms. That's up from only five percent in the 1980s.

And as we hear from Kathleen Masterson of Harvest Public Media, many of those women are part of the organic and local foods movement. She sent us this story from Iowa.

KATHLEEN MASTERSON: Helen Gunderson lives in a one-story white ranch house in a quiet neighborhood in Ames. Her dark brown hair is flecked with gray and cropped short around her face. And she talks slowly, measuring her words.

Gunderson walks me around her half-acre backyard, nearly all of which she's planted with fruits and vegetables. She points out what will be rows of kale, garlic, and berries.

Gunderson doesn't own a car. Instead, she's turned her garage into a chicken coop.

Ms. HELEN GUNDERSON (Farmer): This is a garage. It's the winter quarters for the chickens.

MASTERSON: Gunderson always wanted to be a farmer. She grew up in northern Iowa, where her family farmed large tracts of corn and soybeans. As a kid, she resented that her brother, Charles, the only boy in the family was trained to take over the family business.

Ms. GUNDERSON: Girls could, of course, grow up to be farmers' wives, but for a woman to actually consider herself to be farmer or grow up to be farmer, that wasn't in the script.

MASTERSON: Then in the mid-'70s, when she was 31, she inherited 500 acres from her grandparents. Her brother managed the land for her and the land her sisters had inherited. But when Helen Gunderson moved back to Iowa nearly 20 years later, she grew increasingly frustrated. So in 1995, she wrote a letter to her brother.

Ms. GUNDERSON: And I said something to the effect that some day in the future, I would like to manage my own land. And he just right away said, well, we can start now.

MASTERSON: With her brother's help, Gunderson took over managing her acreage. She made spreadsheets, followed soybean and corn prices and managed the farmers who rent out her land. The more Gunderson got involved, the more she wanted to make some changes she felt would make her farm more sustainable.

Then, three years ago, one of her farmers wasn't working out. That's when she thought of the girl next door.

Ms. GUNDERSON: And over the years, I realized that, like, Betsy was actually planting corn and combining beans and doing things that my father always thought of as men's work.

MASTERSON: Gunderson asked 30-year-old Betsy Dahl to farm 180 acres of her land. The Dahl family lives in Gunderson's childhood town, and the two families have known each other for generations.

Ms. BETSY DAHL (Farmer): Oh, slippery. I'm going to have to put it in 4-wheel drive.

MASTERSON: On this bitter winter day, Betsy Dahl drives me across the churned up, snow-covered field, pointing out the acres she farms for Gunderson.

Ms. DAHL: This is the organic land or the transitioning to organic. So it's alfalfa here.

MASTERSON: This is the first time Dahl has farmed on her own. She's responsible for everything from ordering seed to planting to harvesting to marketing. But it's not her first time driving farm equipment. She began by helping out her father as a kid.

Ms. DAHL: I would haul in the grain to the farm, and he would do the bins, unload, get the augers fixed, which I got pretty good at, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERSON: Dahl is one of a growing number of young women getting into farming. Leigh Adcock says just since 2002, there's been a 30 percent increase in the number of women-run farms. Adcock heads the Women Food and Agriculture Network, a national group supporting women farmers.

Ms. LEIGH ADCOCK (Women Food and Agriculture Network): I mean, they're not getting into farming to run the quarter-million-dollar combines. They're out there raising food.

MASTERSON: Across the country, women run more than 300,000 farms. Betsy Dahl gives a lot of credit to her father, who she says trusted and encouraged her and included her all aspects of farming.

Ms. DAHL: And I've talked to others and, you know, it's, like, oh, what, your dad let's you go out and plant and cultivate? You know, like my dad wouldn't let me go in field after, you know, it was - you know, the crops were up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERSON: Farmers like Betsy Dahl aren't just different because of their gender. Women generally run smaller, more diversified farms, and they're more likely to raise livestock and grow vegetables than to farm row after row of corn and soybeans.

For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Masterson in Ames, Iowa.

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