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Wendy Gordon Headshot

Women Farmers: Nourishing Body and Soil

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I started our garden this weekend. Sure, there are a few inches of snow on the ground from the storm that marked spring's beginning, but that's no matter as we start our garden indoors by planting seeds in flats in a small greenhouse. It's a March ritual we savor along with making syrup.

I'm not a farmer though sometimes I dream of being one. I am a big admirer of farmers -- they're smart and hardworking. The best are systems-thinkers who are managing a lot of variables and interactions.

Women think on a whole systems level which is why I'm impressed though not surprised to learn that women are running more farms and ranches, operating more land and producing a greater value of agricultural products than they were five years ago. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, of the 3.3 million farm operators, more than a million -- over 30 percent -- are women.

Women are now the principal operators on 14 percent of the nation's 2.2 million farms. The total number of women operators increased 19 percent from 2002 significantly outpacing the 7 percent increase in the number of farmers overall.

Women-operated farms tend to be diverse while men are much more likely to run grain and oilseed farms and beef cattle operations. Diversification is key to a healthy sustainable food system taking hold in the U.S. We produce vastly more corn and grain than we should, primarily to feed livestock in order to serve up American's double-wide portions of meat; we eat roughly twice the recommended daily allowance for meat. Much of the corn that remains after the animals are fed goes to create junk food and snacks. Corn syrup consumption has gone up 10-fold since the '80s, causing a tripling of the obesity rate in children.

Shifting what Americans are serving up at meal time is going to demand the involvement of farmers who are thinking about more than what subsidies they could get to grow more corn, as well as food services and supermarkets who are offering up more fresh fruits and vegetables and encouraging healthier choices, and parents at home who are cooking more from scratch and cutting down on processed food and take out.

I'm counting on women to play an increasing role in changing how we eat in America. My hat is off to Michelle Obama who earlier this year, as part of campaign against childhood obesity, announced that Wal-Mart would reduce sugar and salt in its packaged food and cut the prices on fruits and vegetables, which have gone up 39 percent over the same period of time that corn syrup prices have dropped 25 percent. Moms are on the front lines as the primary shoppers for the household. They get the connection between the foods their kids eat, their health and how they perform at school and in after school activities.

It's good that women are moving into leadership roles in all parts of the food system, from the farm to the big kitchens of food processors and school cafeterias, from the supermarkets and neighborhood groceries to the local restaurants and homes. Our food system needs help, it needs some nurturing, it needs people who connect the dots between what and how we grow and how we eat, between a healthy planet and healthy bodies. A number of women were nominated this year for the Growing Green Awards, which NRDC sponsors annually to recognize leaders who are helping to shape a more sustainable, more fair and equitable and a healthier food system. Winners will be announced on April 26th just a few days before I can put my little seedlings in the garden outside. I've got my bets on a few being women.

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