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Women Move Up The Ranks Of Arizona's Agriculture Industry

(Photo by Carrie Jung, KJZZ)
Janna Anderson started her farming career with a 20' x 20' plot of land.

Women are moving up the ranks in Arizona’s farming operations.

These days more women nationwide are identifying as a primary operator. That change is making an impact on how the industry does business.

Sunny skies and cool fall temperatures. The perfect combination for farmer Janna Anderson to begin planting a few acres of wheat for a summer harvest.

"This is the White Sonoran," said Anderson as she inspects a box of soon to be planted seeds.

Anderson is the owner and primary operator of Pinnacle Farms.

She grows several types of crops on this 40 acre plot of land just outside of the Phoenix metro area, including heritage varieties of produce.

A niche market, but it’s a business model that she said gives her an edge.

Anderson felt the pull to this line of work when she was in nursing school. She said she was captivated by how popular a farmers market near her school was among community members.  

"And I watched these people knocking down the tents practically trying to buy produce," Anderson explained. "And I thought, wow, there is a serious market for locally grown produce."

So, she jumped in. Starting almost microscopically small, with a 20' x 20' plot of land.

Now, she said, she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else. And Anderson is one of a growing number of women making the same move.

"So far the USDA says it’s the fastest growing demographic," said Julie Murphree, spokeswoman with the Arizona Farm Bureau. She added the number of farms operated by women in the U.S. has almost tripled over the last 30 years, growing to over 15 percent since the 1970s.

And women in Arizona are leading the way.

Apache and Navajo Counties rank 1st and 2nd nationally for the number of female-run farms. In fact, there are more women than men operating farms in Navajo County.

But entering the industry as a woman carries some unique challenges.

"A lot of times, they say land and financing can be two of the strongest impediments to entering into the agriculture business," Murphree said.  

That’s partly because farm operations and the large tracts of land that often come with them have primarily been passed down to the men in farm families.

But rather than turning away from the industry with this challenge, many women are simply starting small, leasing small plots from cities, community gardens, and the like.

Rachel Terman, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University and co-author of the book "The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture," explained that because running a large scale commercial farm is often out of reach for most women, many are turning to alternative farming methods when jumping into the industry.

This means organic and so called sustainable agriculture are, in turn, seeing an increase.

Terman added, women are also creating informal education networks to help each other navigate the industry.

"So women who have entered farming but may be new and beginning farmers, or maybe grew up on a farm but didn’t have access to training that their male counterparts did, needed to find different ways of learning about agriculture, learning about how to farm, run a business," Terman said.

Back at Pinnacle Farms, Anderson said in her experience there really is no drawback in terms of being a woman in agriculture, except one thing.

"When it comes down to buying things, I’m pretty sure (my husband) wishes I wasn’t in farming because a Gucci purse is so much less than some of this equipment," she joked.

Luckily though, no more tractors are on her wish list.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.