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Women Deeply Involved In The Work And Decisions On Dairy Farms

Despite the hard work, long hours and stresses associated with farming, most women on Wisconsin dairy farms were positive about their quality of life, according to a new University of Wisconsin-Madison study published in late November.

Results of the study illustrated how women contribute to Wisconsin”s dairy farms and identified programs they wanted so they could work more effectively on the farm.

“We found that women are vital to dairy operations today and contribute in many ways.” says Jennifer E. Vogt. “Women tend to be especially knowledgeable about the bookkeeping and financial aspects of the family dairy farm. Many are also extensively involved in livestock work and, to a lesser extent, field work. And they have the greatest responsibility for household work and taking care of the children.

“An important part of their value on farms is their flexibility in moving among these areas as the farm”s needs dictate,” says Vogt. Before she graduated, Vogt was a research assistant with the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies (PATS), part of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Vogt interviewed 35 women about their involvement in dairy farm tasks and decision making. She also conducted focus groups with 25 women. Vogt did the interviews in 2000. Milk prices were historically low during the study, which added to the stress levels on Wisconsin”s dairy farms.

Despite the timing, more than 80 percent of the women we interviewed were satisfied or very satisfied with the farm as a place to raise children and 69 percent were somewhat or very satisfied with their family”s financial situation. Many farm families are helped by income from jobs off the farm,” Vogt says. Despite the generally positive feelings these women had for farm life, slightly more than 40 percent of them were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with the income they received just from farming.

The study found that almost two-thirds of the women worked 40 or more hours a week doing farm work. Based on earlier studies, Vogt believes that figure is probably higher than the average for women on Wisconsin farms. On average, the women spent an additional 30 hours a week taking care of the household and children.

“Most farm women are responsible for paying the bills and keeping their farm”s records and books. About half of them reported that they were regularly involved with milking and about a quarter participate in field work,” Vogt says. “Women have many more responsibilities than most people realize.”

Women participate in many decisions on Wisconsin dairy farms, especially those related to the farm tasks for which they are most responsible, such as bookkeeping or paying bills. The study found that they make most of the decisions related to children and the household, as you might expect. Many women are also involved in decisions about borrowing, changing the herd size, purchasing machinery and milking cows.

Women are important to the success of dairy farms and most men on farms recognize their contributions. But some friends and many people who work with dairy farmers do not. “Outsiders often fail to recognize the extent to which these women are involved in and knowledgeable about dairy farming,” Vogt says. Nearly every woman interviewed shared an anecdote about a time when a sales person, implement dealer or veterinarian had slighted her.

“It”s my pet peeve when salesmen come to our farm and ask, ”Where”s the boss?” or ”Where is the man of the farm?”” one woman told the researchers. “If salesmen visit when I”m away, my husband tells them, ”You”ll have to talk with the boss, and she isn”t here.””

Farm women in this study expressed other concerns, such as having non-farm women friends who do not understand the demands of farm life and a Social Security system that often fails to credit the work that they do on their farms. In addition, farm women struggle with finding child care, providing adequate health insurance for their family, and managing farm finances when milk prices are low.

Women in the study mentioned repeatedly that they needed programs or courses about topics such as business management, tax law, and computer programs for bookkeeping, as well as dairy nutrition, herd health, and calf management.

For a complete copy of the report: “The Roles of Women on Wisconsin Dairy Farms at the Turn of the 21st Century,” contact Nancy Carlisle at (608) 265-2908, or Carol J. Roth at (608) 265-3463. The report is also available at the PATS web site.

The research was supported by funds from the state of Wisconsin and grants from the North Central Rural Development Center and a USDA Multi-State Hatch Grant.