Deep connections to the land

Nanette "Gigi" Neal
Extension Educator

Heather Neikirk
Extension Educator

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During Women's History Month, OSU Extension educators Nanette Neal and Heather Neikirk discuss how Ohio State supports the ever-growing population of women in agriculture.

“If you ate today, thank a farm-HER!”

March is Women’s History Month; what better time to reap the harvest of the women who defined our agricultural history? This post is a testament and tribute to farm wives and female farm operators for their grit, confidence, determination, contributions, advocacy and labor in ensuring a safe, prosperous and generous food supply and preserving value for rural living for generations past, present and future.

An evolving legacy

Women’s roles in agricultural history have deep roots. They are anchored in North American history with the Native American women who grew corn, beans and other crops, gardened and often controlled how those staples were distributed. 

Early frontier and pioneer women likewise farmed with their husbands and children, providing labor and management, operating the farming equipment of the day and herding livestock, all in a delicate balance with keeping the farm household and establishing a small side business to support trade for other staples.

“We hear today much talk about woman’s duty and woman’s sphere; the various industries opening their doors to woman; her capabilities, and the victory that awaits her when she shall have done her work wisely and well. ... A farmer’s wife is the busiest of her sex, and finds but little time, and often less inclination, to cultivate and care for herself,” stated Harriet Alexander of Point Marblehead, Ohio, in her article “A Farmer’s Wife; Her Duty to Herself,” submitted in the 1884 Ohio State Board of Agriculture report to the Ohio General Assembly.

Throughout history, women in agriculture have seen strong directional shifts in their farm roles. Post-World War I saw women focusing on the home and children, while after World War II, women went to work off the farm. Today’s trend shows women re-engaging as farm operators to use their skills and become actively, if not solely, involved in the leadership of the operation.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 30 percent of farm operators are women on the national level. In Ohio, 28 percent of operators are female: 31,413 women out of 113,624 total operators. Ohio’s largest concentration of female farm operators is located in 10 of its eastern counties, which boast more than 500 women farm operators per county.

Support for female farmers

As a land-grant institution, Ohio State has a responsibility to support and provide resources for these thousands of women who are making their living off the land. The goal of Ohio State University Extension’s Ohio Women in Agriculture Learning Network (OWIALN) is to help women in agriculture improve their quality of life by providing them with resources to make better business decisions, while maintaining a balance with family and personal obligations.

This national initiative is developing a new portal for education, technical assistance and support of women farmers, ranchers and producers. The OWIALN shares the same goals and collaborates on programs with the eXtension Women in Agriculture Learning Network, which offers educational workshops, e-newsletters, webinars and more.

Opportunities to engage today’s women in agriculture are sprouting up across the nation. 

Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just announced the “Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network.” She states, “I am truly excited by the passion and confidence I continue to see in women in agriculture across the country. In the office, on the road, I am constantly stopped by young women looking to find mentorship, or current leaders looking to lift up our next generation.” Join the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network by emailing

The East Ohio Women in Agriculture Conference, open to women and students who are interested, involved in or want to become involved in food, agricultural and natural resources production or small business, will be held on Friday, March 27, 2015, in New Philadelphia, Ohio. Interested women also can follow updates about the conference and stay connected by subscribing to a new blog, East Ohio Women in Agriculture: Growing Confidence and Connections.

And let us not forget the need for education on risk management. Women in agriculture will feel empowered to be better business partners and industry leaders after participating in an Annie’s Project workshop on “Risk Management,” “Managing for Today and Tomorrow” or “Moving Beyond the Basics.” Information can be found online at

To join the Ohio Women in Agriculture Learning Network, contact coordinators Gigi Neal at 513-732-7070 or or Heather Neikirk at 330-830-7700 or

About the authors

Nanette "Gigi" Neal -
Extension Educator

Nanette "Gigi" Neal is an OSU Extension educator for Agriculture and Natural Resources based in Clermont County. She specializes in farm business management with a focus on women in agriculture programming. She also serves on the leadership team for the eXtension Women in Agriculture Learning Network, and is a fundamental leader for one of the nine Extension Education Research Areas.

Heather Neikirk
Heather Neikirk -
Extension Educator

Heather Neikirk is a 17-year OSU Extension professional working in the program area of Agriculture and Natural Resources. An Ohio State alumna and lifetime Ohio resident, Neikirk specializes in local food systems, women in agriculture, small scale livestock production and marketing for farm operators. She co-owns/operates Neikirk Family Farms, a small-scale beef cattle and swine operation located in Stark County in northeast Ohio.


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