May 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Programming for Modern Farm Women

An Oklahoma study, plus a review of the literature, suggest programming opportunities for the modern, young farm woman.

Jeannette Jones-Webb
Custer County Extension Home Economist
Cooperative Extension Service
Oklahoma State University-Arapaho

Sharon Y. Nickols
Associate Professor
Department of Housing, Interior Design and Consumer Studies and
Director, Family Study Center
Oklahoma State University-Stillwater

In 1980, 2.9 million females resided on U.S. farms.1 These women appear to be more family oriented than their urban counterparts.2 They marry earlier, are more apt to stay married, have more children, and are more likely to stay home during childbrearing years than urban women. However, modern farm women are changing rapidly and their lives as part of the farm family system are becoming more complex.

It has been suggested that like their urban counterparts, farm women have a family role of household work and child care, but incontrast to urban women, farm women often have a dual work role.3 One work role is on-farm unpaid work; the other is off-farm paid work. Consequently, farm women often juggle three roles: homemaker, farmer, and employee. One writer has called this the "rural version of the superwoman syndrome."4

The purpose of this article is to examine the situation of contemporary farm women and recommend more effective programming that addresses theneeds of young women living on farms. Extension has been very effective in meeting the needs of farm families in the past, but the lifestyle of today's farm family, especially the young women, is different. To better respond to the implications of these changes for Extension, it's importantto understand the situation of many young farm families and to consider adaptations in Extension programs.

The Farm Woman

The farm woman's family role encompasses many tasks:

Family Role

Household production of goods and services for the family, child care, emotional support, and community involvement.This "homemaking" role of farm women continues relatively intact from the expectations of the past.

On-Farm Work Role

Farm women also have been an important source of labor and management for the farming enterprise. It becomes increasingly important to identify the type of help women now give to the farm operation since there has been a downward trend in farm employment of hired workers since the 1940s.5 There has also been an increase in of f-farm employment for farm men often leaving women to manage the farm in their absence.6 Some have maintained that if small family farms are to persist by using part-time farming as a survival strategy, women's relative contribution to agriculture compared to men's will have to increase.7 This would also require increased knowledge of safe operation and repair of farm equipment and knowledge of veterinary procedures for farm women.

Off-Farm Work Role

Off-farm employment increasingly is a survival mechanism for the family farm. In 1974, 55% of all farmers were part-time farmers8 and since 1967, with the exception of 1973, off-farm income has been greater for farm operator families than their net farm income.9 Off-farm incomeis often used to minimize risk in farming.

Men may be employed off-farm more frequently than women because of the lower labor market returns to women.10 However, despite the earnings gap, many women are themselves seeking off-farm employment. In 1980, the labor force participation rate was 46% for farm women, comparedto 50% for non-farm women.11 One third (31 %) of those farm women interviewed in a national U.S.D.A. survey report working off-farm, while an additional 15% work at a family business other than the farm.12

Realities Facing Farm Women

To better understand the roles of young farm women, we conducted a nonrepresentative qualitative study with 10 farm women selected in a 5-county area of west central and southwest Oklahoma during January, 1983. Names of possible participants were obtained through the Cooperative ExtensionOffice in each of the counties, with two women participating in each county. The women had been identified as being an agricultural partner or helper, between the ages of 20 and 36, having at least 1 child in the home, and being involved in wheat production for at least 1 year.

How Young Farm Women Manage

We found that young Oklahoma farm women were indeed faced with a "triad" of roles: family responsibilities, on-farm work, and off-farm work. At times these roles meshed together well, while at other times conflict was created when the women had too many responsibilities. The majority of the women had employment off-farm and the majority had small children. This participation in off-farm employment for farm women, especially women with small children, is a new trend that some feel will bring dramatic changes to the farm family system. Some have asked: Who will fill the farm woman's position on the farm?

Our study indicated that women have chosen flexible jobs (for example, part-time, 9-month teaching appointments) to continue helping on the farm during the summer months or during days when they aren't at a job. Thus, the wife is an off-farm worker to bring in income to keep the farm going,the primary caretaker of small children, and a helper when needed for farm tasks that can't be efficiently handled alone.

The second important finding in our study was that these farm families relied heavily on extended family networks in every area of their lives. Mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles helped with farm and household tasks. Quite often the husband consulted with a relative before making an important farm decision and the young wife employed off-farm relied on a female relative to prepare the noon meal in her absence and to help withchild care. Most of these families were farming land that belonged "to the family"or had incorporated to work with other family members. If eitherhusband or wife became incapacitated, the other was presumed to be able to continue the farming operation or household work with help from extendedfamily.

Farm families, then, are a complex blend of talents, personalities, and loyalties. Everyone has a position to fill. Given the alternatives of leaving the farm to pursue a very different lifestyle or staying on the farm, these families have chosen to stay within the interdependent family network.

Young Farm Women Characteristics

Given the qualitative information revealed in our study and other recent studies of farm women referenced in this article, here are 10 summary statements about the characteristics of contemporary young farm women:

  1. They're responsible for and perform most of the tasks in home production, emotional support, and community involvement for their families.

  2. They and their husbands share child care responsibilities.

  3. They're consistent, dependable helpers with farm tasks that can't be efficiently handled by one person and are content with their level of responsibility in these tasks.

  4. They're often responsible for an off-farm income that provides a cash flow for the household and family farm operation to continue.

  5. They're knowledgeable in most areas of family financial planning: farm debt management, estate planning, retirement accounts, insurance policies, and household properties.

  6. They're worried about the present economic situation of their family farms, but remain optimistic about farming in the future.

  7. They perceive themselves as a necessary part of the farming operation, as a helper and support person.

  8. If farm women could no longer perform their roles, they expect that extended and nuclear family members would assume their responsibilities.

  9. They prefer the farming lifestyle over all others.

  10. They have a complicated work-family role system composed of a family role and a dual work role. An effective management strategy for combining their triad of roles is for farm women to rely heavily on extended family networks.

Expressed Programming Needs

Although declining rapidly in numbers, young farm women live in every state and have specific needs. Educators in Extension are in a position to help meet these needs. Programs designed for young farm women should include skills for the farm and household operation, as well as the complicated family relationships that arise from the "togetherness" inherent in family farm operations.

In the area of farm-related skills, the women in our study expressed a need for information in the areas of:

  • Care and operation of large equipment.
  • Bookkeeping.
  • Marketing.
  • Home computer operation.

In the area of family life or home production, the women expressed a need for information about:

  • General home economics.
  • Family relations.

Home economists and agriculturists in Extension need to work more closely as a team to provide necessary agricultural and family relations information for farm women and their families. Although Extension does provide agricultural programming to farm women, we feel that thereare at least three circumstances preventing them from getting and using this information.

First is that information on subjects such as simple tractor maintenance or basic veterinary skills are assumed to be "common knowledge"and seldom offered for adults. Secondly, agricultural material is usually offered in an all-male setting. Rarely are women encouraged to attend county agricultural workshops with their husbands or made to feel welcome if they do attend. Finally, we must realize that farming, as with any occupation, has its own "lingo" or vocabulary. Anyone not familiar with the terminology could get lost in complex explanationsof farming or ranching procedures. The reverse can also be true for men wishing to obtain information traditionally taught at Extension homemaker meetings.

We must remember that farming is most often a family affair and that families don't necessarily have a single "farmer" or a single "homemaker."Thus, when county programming is planned, the needs of all family members, especially the adults responsible for the farm and home operation, should be taken into account. Families should be encouraged to attend both agricultural and home economics meetings together. The information presented needs to be offered at varying levels of complexity, using a wide array of teaching techniques such as diagrams, lectures, film strips, and hands-on experience. If Extension professionals feel this type of programming isn't feasible, then specialized programming for farm women at a lay level should be offered, possibly through Extension homemaker clubs.

They have a complicated work-family role system composed of a family role and a dual work role. An effective management strategy for combining theirtriad of roles is for farm women to rely heavily on extended family networks.

Young farm women can benefit from programs or home study materials that help them assess the costs and benefits of the alternative roles availableto them. Such an examination may clarify the economic and social pros and cons of the on-farm work role versus the off-farm work role or a combination of the two for the specific circumstances in a given family. Knowledge of basic veterinary skills such as delivering animals, giving shots, and checking for signs of illness can help farm women. Understanding basic equipment maintenance, record keeping, and computer operationare also important. Advisory committees and/or questionnaires directed to farm families could be invaluable sources of information pertaining to the specific needs of farm women in a particular county.


Farm women, balancing a triad of roles, are busy. They're interested in increased knowledge in many areas, but at thesame time have emphasized they don't have time to attend many classes or workshops. Educators need to evaluatepossible program methods and be creative when approaching this special audience, Newsletters containing bothagricultural and home economics information, targeted to young farm families, may be an effective way to reach them.An evening class that provides child care is another option.

For modern farm women to successfully balance their many roles, traditionally separate structures of agricultureprogramming for men and home economics programming for women will have to change. In its place, an integration ofcreative program materials for farm families needs to emerge. A team effort by home economists and agriculturalExtension agents could influence the survival of the family farm and the farm family.


  1. J. J. Banks, "Women Living on U.S. Farms" (Paper presented at the Wingspread Seminar on Women's Roles on North American Farms, Racine, Wisconsin, July, 1982).
  2. F. Dunne, "Traditional Values and Contemporary Pressures: The Conflicting Needs of America's Rural Women," in Proceedings of the Rural Education Seminar (College Park,Maryland: Bureau of Elementary and Secondary Education,1979).
  3. K. K. Scholl, "Working Farm Women: On and Off the Farm"(Paper presented at the Wingspread Seminar on Women's Roles on North American Farms, Racine, Wisconsin, July, 1982).
  4. Dunne, "Traditional Values and Contemporary Pressures."
  5. U.S., Department of Agriculture, 1981 Handbook of Agricultural Charts, Agriculture Handbook No. 592 (Washington,D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981).
  6. C. H. Gladwin, "Off-Farm Work and Its Effect on FLorida Farm Wives' Contri but ion to the Family Farm," in Proceedings of the Conference on Women's Roles in the Rural United States (Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1982).
  7. U.S., Department of Agriculture, 1981 Handbook of Agricultural Charts, Agriculture Handbook No. 592 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981).
  8. J. Bokemeier and C. Coughenour, "Men and Women in Four Types of Farm Families: Work and Attitudes," in Proceedings of the Rural Sociology Annual Meeting (Lexington:Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, 1980).
  9. K. K. Scholl, "Farm Family Members: Contributions, Assets, and Liabilities," in Proceedings of the United States Department of Agriculture Special Symposium on Research for Small Farms (Beltsville, Maryland: Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, 1981).
  10. R. A. Rosenfeld, "Off-Farm Employment of Farm Wives and Husbands" (Paper presented at the Wingspread Seminar on Women's Roles on North American Farms, Racine, Wisconsin, July, 1982).
  11. Banks, "Women Living on U.S. Farms."
  12. D. Jones and R. A. Rosenfeld, American Farm Women: Findings from a National Survey, NORC Report No. 130 (Chicago: National Opinion Research Center, 1981).