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Do women earn less as farmers?

Do women earn less as farmers?

A CBS News story claims women farmers make a fraction of what their male counterparts earn, but the data raises more questions than answers.

CBS News reported this week in their MoneyWatch section that farming is among the 11 jobs where women face the biggest pay gap.

Give it a read but among the story's highlights: Women who are farmers and ranchers face the biggest pay gap out of all the professions measured by the U.S. Census Bureau, at 60.7 cents for every $1 their male counterparts earn. The U.N. says women farmers are likely to have smaller farms; women represent 1 out of 10 farmers and ranchers; and women farmers earn $25,410 a year, while male farmers earn an average $41,691 a year.

I come at this with a couple thoughts. First, as a journalist, the author is quoting both the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations, and links to an FAO report. So are these U.S. statistics or global statistics? Or a mix? Either way, that changes the analysis because you can't lump U.S. agriculture in with third world agriculture and derive anything meaningful regarding salaries.

Second, I look at it as a farmer. Specifically, I wonder what they are they counting as a farmer? USDA defines it as anyone selling more than $1,000 a year in agricultural products, which is by no means full time. Very likely part-time, and potentially just a large gardener. Assuming the U.S. Census Bureau uses the same designation, then these figures include a lot of part-time farmers who are working off the farm and earning a majority of their income there.  

If we're assuming these are U.S. statistics, then I would venture to guess a large percentage of the women farmers in their survey are doing so as a part-time profession. Potentially a larger percentage of women could be farming part time than their male counterparts, because it's a great profession to fold in with an off-farm job: insurance, agronomy work, or raising a family, to name some possibilities. That's going to pull down the average salary.

If the numbers include global statistics and therefore, female farmers in third world countries, it's a different ball game. A comparison of female and male salaries in third world countries could be interesting, but it's meaningless if the U.S. is included.

What I think would be fascinating is a look at U.S. full-time female farmers compared to U.S. full-time male farmers. I think there are solid questions to be asked regarding farm size, equipment ownership, and ability to rent/buy/procure land. Or in other words, if a woman farmer and a man farmer both bid $400 cash rent on the same farm, who's more likely to get it? Does it matter if it's a female landowner doing the renting? Do women get a fair shake on input pricing, where it's often a matter of relationship and negotiation? I don't know what the answer is to any of those questions, nor would I surmise a guess.

Last week at the Women in Agriculture conference, held in the Quad Cities, Altona farmer Nancy Erickson spoke of women's abilities to both multitask and to be better grain marketers, making a decision and acting on it, rather than stewing over it for a few days while the market drops. That's a sentiment I've heard over and over again in my years of covering agriculture. David Kohl even backed her up moments later, as he addressed the crowd about global trends that will impact our farms..

And then moving back to the journalism question: throwing production agriculture in with salaried jobs is a difficult comparison. What do you do about pay gap when your earnings are determined by the market, not an employer? And where you're self-employed?

A lot of farmers I know would say you just work harder. And smarter. I wonder what my female farmer friends would say? They might just have some marketing advice for their male counterparts.

Note: In the end, I think stories like this are really meaningless. A jumble of statistics thrown together with the hope of somehow forming a story...not unlike the story of a few years ago about agricultural majors being the least employable in the nation. Right-o. So while we in ag look at this CBS story for what it is, it doesn't hurt to also use it as an occasion to ask ourselves a few questions, as I may have thrown out above! Thoughts? Please comment below.

(Correction: An earlier version of this blog stated that USDA defines a farmer as making more than $10,000 a year when in fact that designation is just $1,000 a year. I apologize for the error!)

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