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When One In Three American Farmers Is A Woman

Researchers say they would like to learn more about the full contribution these women make, and what the rise of women farmers means for the future of farming and ranching in the United States.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S, Jul. 16, 2013
Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S, Jul. 16, 2013
Elizabeth Zach*

RUIDOSO â€" Although Laura Jean Schneider comes from four generations of Midwest farmers, she is uncertain sometimes about her agricultural acumen.

For the past two years, she has ranched cattle across 100,000 acres on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico with her husband. It is, she says, dangerous work, compared with the farming she once did in Minnesota with her family. For one thing, should either she or her husband need immediate medical care, it would be a hard ride over 27 miles of uneven dirt roads that flood during monsoon season.

And at age 31, she suffers from debilitating migraines, back pain and ongoing dental work following a near-fatal car accident a decade ago. There are bank loans, and the West's ongoing drought, that weigh on her. Yet she has learned the ropes, as it were, keenly observing how cattle learn the landscape they live in, and how not all of them are naturally good at rearing their young.

"I rope, ride and build fence," she says matter-of-factly. "This is what I do. It's my job."

As unique as Schneider seems, she is far from alone. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the number of women-operated farms increased from 5% to 14% between 1978 and 2007. Today, counting principal and secondary operators, women account for 30% of all farmers in the United States, or just under 1 million.

A new farming era

As striking as those numbers are, particularly when considering the financial risks and physical demands that accompany the work, researchers say they would like to learn more about the full contribution these women make, and what it means for the future of farming and ranching in the United States.

Researchers have observed possible reasons why more women are farming and ranching. Some women regard themselves less as entrepreneurs and more as gentle stewards of the land, or bulwarks against corporations overtaking family farms and developers sweeping in with seductive offers. Others are drawn to the farm-to-fork movement, where locally grown produce and meat hold much greater appeal. Also, more women are inheriting farms and ranches.

Downsizing and mechanization have also made the work more affordable and less physically demanding â€" although "smaller parcels tend to require more physical labor because they are typically managed using hand tools and practices," says Breanne Wroughton, program assistant for the California Farm Academy at the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, California.

To that end, Green Heron Tools in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania, is part of a burgeoning niche industry that customizes farm equipment for women, including a tractor rapid hitch, because the traditional tool for attaching and detaching parts "is at best difficult and at worst impossible for women (and many men) to safely manage on their own," according to the company's website.

None of this much matters, however, to Megan Brown, as she leans over her squealing Red Wattle pigs with a fork in her hand so that she can poke and stroke their backs, which, she claims, soothes them and stimulates their appetites. Born and raised on her parents' sprawling ranch at the base of Table Mountain near Oroville in northern California, Brown, 34, has made a name for herself raising her heritage pigs and selling their savory meat to local residents and gourmet San Francisco restaurants.

With a swashbuckling demeanor that has attracted a loyal Twitter following (@MegRaeB) and made her a regular fixture at agriculture conferences, she emphatically calls for more women to enter the field, so to speak.

"My mother taught me to develop as many marketable skills as possible, so it's not just the ranching with me," Brown says as she swerves her Polaris ATV across the rocky plateau skirting her parents' ranch. "I cure olives, make beef jerky. I've planted tobacco, I can skin my own deer. I got a tractor, and I can lift heavy things with it myself. I really believe any woman can do what I'm doing."

Nurturers all

According to the USDA, the women who identify themselves as earning their primary income from farming or ranching run the gamut in terms of what they produce. They raise cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and goats in the West and Midwest. They are viticulturists â€" or, as they sometimes call themselves, "vit-chicks" â€" who nurture malbec and pinot noir grapes in California, Washington and Oregon. They grow lavender, melons and seemingly every other delicacy under the sun. Some have taken on teaching roles and find that a growing number of women are joining their ranks.

"Enrollment in the classes has been fairly consistent throughout the last four years of the program," says Wroughton. "And 51% of our graduates have been women."

And then there are women like Donna Schroeder, who at 77 was never schooled in ranching but was clearly born to the land and still ranches it in Shonkin, Montana.

She says she has no plans to retire, despite admitting to a small profit margin along with plenty of bank debt and machinery upkeep. "If someone wants to do ranching these days," she says, "basically someone has to get out so you can get in. There's only so much to go around."

One of the few women to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Schroeder is wizened and walks with a slight limp. Her husband died more than 30 years ago. Neither of her two children live nearby nor plan to take over the ranch when she no longer can run it.

And well educated too

Cheryl Cosner, 52, who runs a sheep and cattle ranch with her husband in northeastern Oregon, speculates that one of her two daughters could eventually take over. She studied agriculture economics and animal science at a time when, she estimates, about 30% of her fellow students were female. She later taught business administration in China and took art classes that proved helpful when she started marketing her farm products.

Last year, Brenda Kirsch Frketich prepared to take over her family's Oregon farm. When her father retired, he appointed her to work this 1,000-acre Willamette Valley farm that has been in the family for four generations.

She had proved her mettle: When she was pregnant with her first child, she was out in the fields â€" long days, long nights, she recalls â€" when she had to swath and cut the grass into rows so that the dew would hold the seed on the straw stems for when the combine came through. She is now 32 and has a business degree. In taking over the farm, she oversees three employees, seasonal workers and the planting and harvesting of perennial rye and tall fescue grass, wheat, crimson clover, hazelnuts, green beans, Swiss chard, peas, cabbage and radishes.

"When I started with all this, I was 11 years old," she says. "My feet couldn't reach the tractor pedals."

While moving some records and files into her new makeshift office, she came across a weathered leather-bound ledger book, with orderly figures and notes marching across the pages. She marveled at the detailed, pristine penmanship, now fully aware of her grandmother's essential role in the family's business and legacy.

"You can learn the dirt, learn the soil, you can learn the tools," Frketich says, "but you also need to understand the business. She did."

*Zach is a fellow at Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the American West.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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