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Breaking the Grass Ceiling: On U.S. Farms, Women are Taking the Reins

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For 56-year-old Tammy Burnell, who lost everything she owned in the 2008 Iowa floods, it's the freedom to stand in the verdant fields of Burnell Farms in Royston, Ga., and call out to the heavens - and know no one can hear her.

Hannah Breckbill, 25, walked from a career as a mathematician and settled in Elgin, Minn., planting Humble Hands Harvest "to work in something real and be the change I want to see happen in this world."

Forty-one-year-old Pilar Rebar quit her job as a pesticide applicator when she realized she had been told lies about the chemicals she was spraying on crops. Vowing to only grow "clean and healthy food," she started up Sunnyside Organic Seedlings in Richmond, Calif.

Meet three of America's female farmers, the most rapidly growing segment of the nation's changing agricultural landscape. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reported last month that the number of woman-operated farms more than doubled between 1982 and 2007. Add primary and secondary operators, and there are nearly 1 million women in farming, accounting for 30 percent of U.S. farmers.    

So hot is ag life that novels about farming are replacing chick lit, offering an unexpected twist to the notion of dirty romance.

Unlike the Farmettes and Women's Land Army that took over while men fought in World War II, women today see farming as both a mission and a passion. Some want to provide healthy food for the masses. Others are looking to build community or live a life of deeper meaning.

"Women want to be outside, they want to be near family. There's lots of interest in where our food comes from, how it was grown," says Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We are seeing more beginning farmers coming in and I think the trend is going to continue. Women are [already] outnumbering men in owning smaller farms."   


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