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Earth Mothers: new perspectives on women in agriculture

23 Feb 2017

“The Western Cape Department of Agriculture is committed to developing women in the sector. It is our goal to move more women from subsistence farming, to small holder farming to the point where they are able to export their produce.” ~ Alan Winde, Minister of Economic Opportunities, Western Cape.

If you thought that women farmers are something new, unusual or the result of a dramatic rise in feminism, think again. Women have been part of the backbone of agriculture for eons – in fact since hunter-gatherer times. When men went off to hunt, women were selecting leaves, berries, roots; testing their knowledge of soil and plants, which foods flourished best in which environment, and where to find the most succulent treats. In their minds they were already marking out improvement in food production. 

Earth Mothers: new perspectives on women in agriculture

Worldwide women have contributed to production on the land – from Chinese paddies to the western frontiers, from humble smallholdings in medieval Europe to the great harvests of the Russian steppes – women have planted, ploughed, plucked and picked – toiled in all weathers to complement and very often superseed men’s labour. Agriculture and its development is a fully human concept married to the struggle of both men and women throughout history.

The pioneering spirit

Today’s women farmers are a mix of rural labour and those trained in agricultural schools alongside their male counterparts. But the pioneering spirit is still evident in the way women are shaping rural economies in developing countries. In the past and still today, they form the backbone of both rural and national economies, comprising over 40% of the world’s agricultural labour force, rising to as high as 70% in some countries where subsistence farming is the only glue holding the economy together.

Contributing across various roles as farmers, labourers and entrepreneurs, the emerging pattern of production shows that the majority of the world’s farmers are in fact, women. What is notable is that women, despite centuries of progress, still face greater difficulties and constraints than men with regard to land ownership, credit facilities, transport, markets, technology and information.

As modern training, innovation and technical advancement lead the way for new thinking and processes in food production, so women are taking their rightful place among larger operations where, better trained and skilled, they are becoming more valued contributors. Not only has empowering and investing in rural women proven significant in increasing productivity and improving livelihoods, but increasingly women view farming as not just a way of feeding their family and surviving daily life, but also as a career choice offering wide-ranging opportunities. 

Earth Mothers: new perspectives on women in agriculture

The land girls 

Women running farms on their own is still the exception rather than the rule. However, this number is increasing with greater attendance of women in agricultural courses and colleges, and including younger women who no longer see the same ‘divide’ in the profession and who confidentially take their love of the land to new perspectives.

  • In Britain alone, their number has swelled by more than a third and there are now more women becoming farmers than men giving up farming.
  • Ten years ago, only one in seven agricultural students was female – but now women are surpassing a third in number in the classes.
  • Where farms were once only considered as male inheritance, farmers are becoming quite happy to pass on the family farm to their daughters.
  • Traditionally farmers’ wives played a crucial role handling finances and general administration – but today’s new breed of women often run the entire farm while their husbands hold non-farming jobs.
  • The growing impact of technology on farming has opened up enormous opportunity for women; where once physical strength was an issue, this in now no longer the case.
  • As ‘newbies’ in farm management, women are more keen to make changes, apply technological advancements and change traditional practices.

Just how far those changes have come is evident when looking at the achievements of a young female farmer, Alice Nutland. In October 2013, Alice became a champion plougher – traditionally a field mastered by men only. She walked away with three cups, winning the conventional ploughing class, the overall championship, and the best plough-person under 25 at the Avebury Ploughing Association's annual competition.

Earth Mothers: new perspectives on women in agriculture

Our own top entrepreneurs

The Western Cape’s top female entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector are rewarded through the Female Entrepreneur Awards competition – a competition resulting from partnership between the National Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the provincial departments of Agriculture. Now in its 16th year, the competition seeks to honour the sector’s leading women. Since its launch in 1999, more than 300 women have entered the competition – and of these, seven have gone on to achieve the national award.

Netafim – innovating new ways in a changing world

At Netafim we admire and respect the growing influence of women in food production. Farming has always been a hard chosen career; it requires stamina, determination, knowledge and a wily intellect. After all, creating food is about caring and the endurance of life. Water and its life-giving force is our business – and we know what is just the right amount for your crop either under the elements or in the hydroponic shed. Today farming is less about reliance on guesswork, physical labour and favourable weather, and more about technological innovation and forging valuable partnerships. And that’s food for thought.    

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