Although women represented only 28 percent of Kansas farmers in 2012 and the number of farmers is declining overall, women are ramping-up their involvement in several of the state’s less common forms of agriculture. The Kansas Rural Center is one organization in Kansas that continues to advance programs to better serve the needs of this historically underserved population.
Between 2007 and 2012 Kansas saw an increase in the number of women farmers participating in each of the following forms of production:
• sheep and goat (87 percent increase)
• vegetable and melon (35 percent increase)
• fruit and nut tree (9 percent increase).
This shifting trend is likely driven both by the increasing demand for diverse locally raised farm products and the tendency for women to operate smaller scale farms. U.S. Agricultural Census data reveals that 30 percent of Kansas farms with women as the primary operator are less than 50 acres in size. Only 14 percent of Kansas farms with women as the principal operator are greater than 500 acres, while the average farm size in Kansas is 747 acres and 20 percent of Kansas farms are larger than 1,000 acres.
Producing and direct marketing the items listed above can provide a strategic advantage to small acreage farmers because they may be produced more intensively and offer higher net income per acre than the grains and large animal products that currently dominate 97 percent of Kansas’s agricultural sector. For example, a study conducted by K-State University Professor, Dr. Rhonda Janke, found the average Kansas farm’s net income per acre from vegetables was more than 24 times greater than that of the state’s most common crop: wheat. Decreased infrastructure and other costs and increased price per unit through direct market channels both impact this.
However, production and marketing of these types of agricultural products does not come without its own set of challenges. It typically requires increased labor and knowledge, and strategic planning to cope with Kansas’s extreme weather and increasingly unpredictable climate patterns.
Women farmers, including those looking into these “alternative” enterprises, often find that typically available educational opportunities and services do not meet their unique needs – including the need for women-only workshops, where women may be more likely to feel engaged. In response, the Kansas Rural Center (KRC), a statewide non-profit, has in the past and continues to offer programs that meet the specific needs of women farmers in the state.
Though women represent only 28 percent of Kansas farmers overall, nearly 50 percent of the 300 plus participants in KRC’s 2014 Tunnel to Table workshop series were women. This program, aimed at increasing the competitiveness of specialty crop production in Kansas while helping farmers thrive, led to the distribution of free low tunnel infrastructure to eight women-operated farms.
These women are now using low tunnels (made available with support from Farm Aid and the Kansas Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program) to extend their growing season further into the winter months.
The Tunnel to Table project culminated in the publication of Growing Under Cover: A Guide to Polytunnel Options for Kansas Farms, which features a cover photo from a Kansas women-run produce and small livestock operation and is available for viewing or free download at www.kansasruralcenter.org/growing-under-cover.
In 2015, KRC will continue to serve this critical and growing demographic of farmers through its “Women in Farming” initiative. With support from USDA’s Risk Management Agency, this initiative will lead to the production of a risk management guide for women in agriculture, as well as the hosting of four different women-only workshops across the state. Workshop topics will range from specialty crop and high tunnel production, to integrated crop and livestock farming, to crop insurance and business, legal and financial risk management. For more information on the this initiative contact Mary Fund at (866) 579-5469 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since 1979, the Kansas Rural Center has promoted the long-term health of the land and its people through community-based research, education, and advocacy that advances economically viable, ecologically sound, and socially just food and farming systems. More information about the Kansas Rural Center and its work is available at www.kansasruralcenter.org.