If you were to survey the general public and ask them to describe what they think a rancher looks like, the first word they would likely utter is the pronoun “he.” Although most associate agriculture with men, women have long since held an integral role on ranches and farms. Though, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when women’s contributions on the ranch and farm were gathered and documented by the Department of Agriculture, at which point they discovered nearly fifty percent of women who lived on a farm or ranch also helped work it in some capacity. It took another three decades for the Census of Agriculture to revise the demographic questionnaire to more accurately represent multiple on-farm/on-ranch decision makers. This resulted in nearly a seven percent increase—with the majority of these newly identified food producers being female.
The increase of women food producers is not only a byproduct of more accurate data. Women ranchers are on the rise. Over the decades, female ranchers as a whole have transitioned from some of the more traditional roles of bookkeeping and marketing to a wide range of physically demanding jobs including working cattle, which is currently the second largest category female food producers specialize in. “Cattle driving is my happy place,” Caroline Nelson rancher and owner of Little Creek Lamb & Beef in Montana told us. “I am like an animal that finally found my right ecosystem. Sleeping outdoors, riding horses all day, moving cattle, not showering, feeling the sun and the wind on my face—I am in my natural habitat.”
Upon observation, researchers discovered that women are not only attracted to being stewards of the land but they are drawn to the idealistic lifestyle of the American West. “The Western lifestyle is a humble culture,” said Darcy Douglas, cowgirl out of Montana. “This lifestyle is about making things better. You close the gates when you come in. You leave it better than you found it. You pick up after yourself. You're always helping. These strong family values in the Western culture are especially important raising my kids here.”
This way of life is not a fad for women that will soon end. In just five years alone, from 2012 to 2017, female ranchers and farmers increased by twenty-seven percent. Women are actively seeking careers in this field. Of the rising number of students achieving degrees in agriculture, women comprise more than half of the graduates in all agricultural programs, curving the trend on what has historically been a male dominated industry. “I've worked for a few different ranches and in my personal experience, it has not been easy being the only female for months at a time,” said Kristen Schurr, cattle rancher. “But I've definitely become a tougher person. I just go out there and do the job like one of the guys; hold my head high. I watch some of these old cowboys and learn with respect. It’s the best way and it has really helped me in my ranching career.”
Not only are female ranchers quickly absorbing the more physically demanding aspects of ranching, but they are learning the business side of it too. “We are trying to build our beef operation so that we can do direct to consumer retail beef,” Caroline told us. “The challenge is learning how to manage our pastures so that both animals, sheep and cattle, can live here. And learning how we can utilize the grass so it's good for the soil. We need it to work as a really healthy system. Then I need to figure out how I can make this protein the most ethical, the most healthy, the most humane, and get it to the people who want it, from our small little town in Montana to the whole country.”
As women continue taking on more prominent roles within agriculture, support systems and women in agriculture mentoring networks are developing. “There are a lot of female ranchers in the community who have mentored me,” Caroline said. “That's been tremendously helpful. Because you can sometimes feel like the odd person out, or consider not jumping in the corral with those cows because the guys got it, thinking ‘Maybe they don't need me.’ Or you worry that you will look silly. I've been inspired by a lot of other women who have just toughed it out and gotten in there. Then slowly, as your skill set grows too, you're able to put yourself in situations that you couldn't before.”
Today, roughly forty percent of all food producers are female and over fifty percent of all farms or ranches have at least one female decision maker. Not only are the number of female ranchers and farmers rapidly increasing, but they are at the forefront of their operations. Women have tripled over the last twenty-five years as principal operators—controlling primary responsibility on the ranch or farm. In the next twenty years, women are projected to own fifty percent of U.S farms and ranches, despite the vast challenges. “It's hard,” Caroline said. “Now that I'm ranching and farming on my own, not as a ranch hand but as a business owner, the challenges keep coming. Sometimes we joke that you fix one problem and a new one pops up. Just to be profitable in ranching is always a really big challenge.”
Despite the financial risks and physical hardships, the future of ranching has a prominent place for women—women who are redefining what we think about our nation’s food producers and who are proving The West is limitless.
“When I first started ranching I felt like I needed to be as good as the guys. I needed to be able to do everything the male ranch hands could do. And I was hitting a physical wall: I can't. I am small-framed. There are jobs that I'm possibly not ever going to be able to do. I had to find peace with that, accept my own abilities, and then realize that there are things I can do better. Maybe I can't go pick up two feed bags and throw them in the truck but I can do things my own way. And maybe it's a better way. A lot of women ranchers have had to innovate a little. And sometimes the guys make fun of us for our ways. But we get it done.” - Caroline Nelson, rancher and owner of Little Creek Lamb & Beef
“If you hold your own and you do your work, and you're honest about it, you will have a place on the crew too. But in the back of your head, there is always that underlying thought of having to prove yourself.” - Darcy Douglas, cowgirl
“There are a lot of challenges in ranching. You never know what's going to happen with the weather. Cattle and horses are unpredictable. And the cattle market plays a big role too, especially if you're selling your calves in the fall and the market is down." - Kristen Schurr, cattle rancher
“It is a matter of education, honesty, and mutual respect. It is about a strong bond between people. The Western world is welcoming. It is about community.” - Chloé Burk, cowgirl