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Women grow into farm role

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Posted: Sunday, August 30, 1998 1:00 am

The role of women in world commerce has grown a lot since the 18th century, when Samuel Johnson, England's crusty literary gadabout, explained it by observing that ``a man is generally better pleased when he has a good dinner on his table than when his wife speaks Greek.''

Up until recently, farm women in this country spent most of their lives cooking meals, maintaining the home and raising children while their husbands tended to the family's business affairs.

But no where I know of has the role of women in business changed more in my lifetime than in agriculture.

It was partly to celebrate the growing importance of their gender in food production worldwide that more than 1,000 rural women from several nations attended an International Conference on Women in Agriculture last month in Washington, D.C. Four years ago a similar conference was held in Australia.

Such gatherings are politically and socially important, said a conference spokesperson, because farm women represent 25 percent of the world adult population.

``We all have the same problems, and we all are trying to solve them in the same way, through education and by sharing and talking to each other,'' she said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and many of its state affiliates helped sponsor the convention, demonstrating a commitment to expanding the role of women in agriculture.

However, it was not so long ago that the sentiment was quite different.

As recently as the mid-1970s, I covered an Illinois Farm Bureau convention where a proposal to allow women to serve on the state board of directors was debated by the 480 delegates. A two-thirds majority was required for approval, but all its sponsors could muster was 185 votes.

I remember the women I spoke to after the vote were passive about their rejection. Taking it in stride, the only marching they did was down the street to Marshal Fields, apparently with shopping more in mind than protest.

No longer can women in agriculture and their contributions be overlooked, not because they suddenly have turned militant, but because their importance to agriculture's economic survival has grown much too fast to be ignored.

In a change that has grown ever more apparent in recent years, many -- if not most -- farm wives these days share in management of family farms, often as unpaid accountants. That was a role my own mother played at a time when it was less common than now. She spread her ledger on the dining table but not until the supper dishes were done.

It is common these days for country couples both to hold down responsible, off-farm jobs to make farm family incomes equivalent to those of urban families.

In the waning days of this century, through inheritance or other causes, many women are sole owners of the land they manage.

I have no more recent figures to share, but a 1995 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed 40 percent of all privately owned land in the U.S. at that time was controlled by women. In the East North Central Region, which includes Illinois, the survey found women owned 38 percent of the farm land, with ownership of the other 62 percent equally divided between men and partnerships, usually including husband and wife.

A report on the survey finding showed female landlords were older and less actively involved in farming than male and joint ownership landlords, but depended more on the sale of crops or cash rent for their incomes.

Ann Vandeman, an economist with the U.S. Economic Research Service and co- author of the report, said most farm landlords in the survey lease their land on a cash basis.

Surprisingly, women owners are more likely than men to operate their farms on a crop-share basis.

Charles Hallam is a veteran farm writer living in Monmouth.

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