WASHINGTON – The number of women who are the primary operators of farms in Maryland rose more than 17 percent in five years, according to numbers released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Women farmers in Maryland outpaced the national increase in female farm operators, which went up about 12 percent in the same amount of time.
Analysts cannot account for the increase — the number of female farm operators in the state rose from 1,614 in 1997 to 1,893 in 2002 — but the director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau was not at all surprised by the marked growth.
“Every year we have women who are becoming involved with the farm bureau,” said Valerie Connelly. In fact, a woman was recently named as a vice president of the bureau, she said.
In the early 1900s, women were “farmers’ wives” and more involved in the social aspects of farm life, forming their own state-farm committee that operated independently of the more “serious” men’s group. Now, said Connelly, many women hold positions in the former men’s bureau, and the woman’s group no longer restricts its interests to socializing.
The University of Maryland extension agent in Charles County said no one is shocked anymore when a woman holds the highest position in her county farm bureau or committee.
Pamela B. King also said she thinks Maryland’s farm women are “progressive” because the state is so close to the nation’s capital.
“Because Maryland is urbanizing and all these changes are right here on top of us, we’re where these changes are going to occur first,” King said.
Connelly said she thinks women might be drawn to farming because of a reluctance to abandon family for a career. With farming, she said, “women see the opportunity to work out of their homes and raise their children in the traditional way.”
But Candace Lohr, general manager of her family’s vegetable-and-fruit farm in Harford County, said she has noticed more single women trying their hands at farming over the last decade. Women who have divorced or never married now have more confidence to go into business by themselves, she said.
Lohr, who is not married, said she plans to eventually purchase her parents’ 90-acre farm and stay in the business as long as it remains profitable.
While Maryland farmers are getting older — the USDA said the average age was 56, about a year older than the 1997 average — the largest age group for women farmers fell in the 45-54 range.
The difference might mean that more women are buying in and more men are selling out, said USDA statistician Norman Bennett. But that cannot be proven until analysts have more details, he said.
Bennett believes the numbers are sound, but cautioned that comparisons to 1997 may not be precise. The 2002 farm census was the first to take particular care to include women and minorities, who might have previously been miscounted, he said.
The USDA will release a more comprehensive report in early June, Bennett said. The data will include facts broken down by county, gender and ethnicity and will reveal information about the commodities of individual farms, average incomes and most profitable products in Maryland and its counties.
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