How Dairy Farming Supports Women's Empowerment

Empowering women is important to the future of agriculture. I learned about this firsthand from Marilyn Hershey, a dairy farmer from rural Pennsylvania.

I asked Marilyn for her view on women in agriculture. She said that “as a female dairy farmer, I understand the important role and positive impact women can have on agriculture, raising a family, supporting local and global economies, as well as nurturing our land and communities. I also saw this first hand when I visited Rwanda.”

She continued: “I met a woman who was bringing her milk to the processing facility, small amount that it was. She was providing for her family. I also met a woman who proudly showed me her methane digester. She captured the methane from the cow manure and used that gas to run their stove, cooking for her family. I thought of her often as my husband and I installed a methane digester in 2017, reducing the carbon footprint of our 800-cow dairy while providing electricity for our farm and a bit more put back on the grid for the community.”

Marilyn (pictured above, on her farm) has a particular perspective when it come to the role dairy can play in improving our lives. She is chair for the board of directors of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), the parent company of National Dairy Council. DMI represents the approximately 40,000 large, medium and small dairy farmers and dairy importers across the U.S. who provide us with nutrient-rich milk and the dairy foods made from it.

The United Nations launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the dairy community is dedicated to doing its part to contribute to many of these goals, including airy goals No. 2, Zero Hunger, and No. 3: Good Health and Well-Being. As an industry, dairy also contributes to goal No. 4, Gender Equality Through Empowering Women. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (2018), agriculture gives women the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, generate income, own land and improve nutrition.

Currently, about 30 percent of U.S. farmers are women who care for more than 300 million acres. This has an economic impact for them and their communities and, of course, a nutrition and health impact for the people who are nourished by the foods these farmers produce.

Dairy is a powerful part of the livelihoods of individuals, families and communities all over the world, working to bring us dairy foods that are safe, affordable and nutrient rich, while contributing to health and sustainable food systems. Let’s look at the global picture:

  • One billion people rely on the dairy sector to support their livelihoods and to sustain communities in all corners of the world.
  • About 600 million of these people, who live on 133 million dairy farms across the globe, represent a long tradition of milk production.
  • About 400 million additional people rely on the full-time jobs created by dairy farming, such as agri-business companies, milk transportation, processing and retail.
  • In developed and developing countries alike, dairy rejuvenates rural economies and helps preserve the land.

Empowerment is an important characteristic, Marilyn points out. “As women farmers, we need to continue to not only lift one another up, but our families and communities too.” Women have always been described as nurturers, and they nurture the land and animals that in turn nourish us. If we empower more women around the world to farm with best agricultural practices, then it helps them, their families, their communities and the planet.