Old MacDonald? That’s Mrs. MacDonald These Days

Last Update: April 27, 2023

If your idea of American agriculture is American Gothicthe classic painting of a farmer, his wife, and a pitchfork—it’s time to think again. These days, it might be more accurate to paint an image of a farmer and her husband.

After all, on about half the farms in America, women are running the show.

In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, almost a million women currently farm 300 million acres of land, resulting in an economic output of $13 billion, which the agency put together into some new infographics this week.

It’s not just agriculture. If you study the food movement as a whole, you’ll find that women have been central in shifting our thinking away from cheap, industrial food to healthier, more sustainable systems. Women like Frances Moore Lappé, who in 1971 connected the dots between what we eat and the environment in the landmark book Diet for a Small Planet; Marion Nestle, the New York University professor who is distilling the simple truth that eating is political; and even Rachel Carson, whose 1964 book Silent Spring decried the widespread use of pesticides and launched the modern environmental movement.

Today, up and down the good food movement, women are everywhere, starting businesses, leading nonprofits, teaching courses, and taking high-level positions in state and federal governments. Women’s impact on the food system is undeniable.

Despite the enormous impact women are making in agriculture, activist Raj Patel says huge inequities still exist throughout the world. For starters, 60 percent of the hungry and food insecure and malnourished people throughout the world are women.

And despite making up 43 percent of the agricultural workforce, Patel says women are routinely discriminated against in land acquisition, wages, and technology. He adds that many of the food service workers depending largely on tips are women, so issues around raising the minimum wage are crucial to study.

“I’m working on new book, documentary and multimedia project called Generation Food,” Patel said recently. “We want to show how ordinary women and men around the world are overcoming obstacles and ‘setting the table’ for themselves, their communities, and generations to come. Generation Food is our way of sharing the resilience and wisdom of these communities online, on screen, on paper and in person.”

For its part, the USDA also wants to see more women taking charge in America’s agriculture system, launching its #womeninag campaign on Twitter and on its blog, a #womeninag Storify, and even a video message from Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden.

Bottom line: Keep up the amazing work, lady farmers.

Photo credit: Luke + Mallory Leasure

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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