Women who operate, co-operate, and/or live on dairy farms in Wisconsin are an important segment of the dairy industry and key to the survival of family farms. However, based on many anecdotal reports and conversations with farm women, their personal circumstances, concerns, and needs have sometimes been overlooked or ignored. Women on farms around the nation have indicated that some experience role conflict, extreme time pressures, sleep deprivation, lack of appreciation and respect, social isolation, absence of recreational time away from the farm, and/or intergenerational conflict. This project conducted a statewide mail survey of women on Wisconsin dairy farms in order to describe their circumstances, concerns, and needs, with the goal of promoting and facilitating the addressing of those concerns and needs.
In a 1956 speech in Peoria, Illinois, in the midst of his re-election campaign, President Dwight Eisenhower made the following profound and oft-quoted statement:
“You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.”
Even today, over 50 years later, the difficulties faced by farmers are not often truly understood by those who have not lived or worked on a farm. This is understandable, as the U.S. farm population as a percentage of the total population has declined to just above one percent (Cooper Center, 2006). The view of farming for many is idyllic, consisting of fresh air, beautiful fields, tranquil animals, big barns, and families working together to feed America and the world. Non-farmers read about government subsidies to farmers and assume farmers must be doing well.
In reality, farmers deal with the forces of nature, animal and plant diseases, food safety, weather-related time pressure, environmental challenges, labor problems, rapidly-changing technology, high rates of farm-related injury and illness for themselves and their families, issues surrounding geneticallymodified products, globalization, urbanization, unpredictable and uncontrollable economic situations, and a continuing cost-price squeeze. A host of universities, businesses, farmer organizations, government agencies, and media work diligently on various aspects of these problems. Their goal is to help farmers improve their operations and their bottom line, or in many cases, help farmers just to survive.
Similarly, the differences faced by women who live on farms are not often well understood or even acknowledged. Sometimes the principal farm operator, commonly a co-operator, and often the wife of a male operator, these women fulfill a variety of roles that might or might not be appreciated. Like other women, they may have household and child care responsibilities, plus employment outside the home, and in addition carry a large burden of farm work on top of everything else. Yet their challenges are often buried beneath the more visible needs of the farm itself.
The object of this research project was to describe the personal circumstances, concerns and needs, of women who operate, co-operate, and/or live on dairy farms, estimate the proportion of women who have these concerns, and depict their assessment of concerns in order to promote and facilitate a better understanding of those concerns and needs. The ultimate goal is that those who counsel farm women or develop programs for them will have a better understanding of their lives and the challenges they face, and be better able to meet their needs.
The study design was a random sample mail survey of women who operate, co-operate, and/or live on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. A mail survey was chosen over a phone survey because of the difficulty of contacting people on farms by phone. A mail survey offered increased anonymity for answering personal questions and expressing feelings.
The questionnaire was developed by drafting a set of questions based on a focus group of farm women, literature reviews, interviews with behavioral health specialists, anecdotal evidence, and experience in agricultural safety and health outreach programming.
The question set was reviewed and downsized by the investigators to a manageable length, then sent out for review to a list of reviewers from the fields of dairy farming, behavioral health, occupational health, agricultural safety and health, Cooperative Extension, and statistics.
Because this is a qualitative study, and the intent was not to measure stress or other widely-measured states of being, a standardized, validated, quantitative questionnaire was not used. The decision was made to develop very specific, customized questions tailored to this farm population and obtain face validity via expert review.
A five-point Likert scale (strongly agree, agree, neutral/undecided, disagree, strongly disagree) was used for most questions with the exception of demographics.
The final questionnaire consisted of 155 questions, with generous white space and user-friendly formatting on each page. It was printed as an 8.5 x 11 booklet, stapled at the spine, with a four-color cover.
It was recognized that identifying and capturing responses from women who have already left the farm due to divorce or death of a husband was not possible. Women who have divorced and left the farm because of problems with their spouse or farm life in general would have been of great interest. However, it was still important to learn from single women who may be divorced or widowed and still live on the farm. Thus a special feature of the survey was to ask these women to answer questions on the basis of their past experience.
A modified Dillman method (Dillman, 1978) was used to conduct the mail survey. A cover letter with an explanation of the project, informed consent, and procedures used to maintain anonymity and confidentiality, along with a questionnaire and full-size preaddressed, business-reply postage-paid envelope, were included in the mailing packet. The cover letter was designed to emphasize the importance of the survey as a way to provide a voice for women and their concerns, but also the importance of providing an accurate picture of lives of women on Wisconsin dairy farms.
The Wisconsin Dairy Producers Licenses List (from state government) was used to obtain addresses of dairy farmers. Typically, this list provides the man’s name and address for each farm, the name of the woman, or if there even was a woman on the farm was unknown. This limitation was overcome by addressing the outer envelope to “Female Head of Household. Farmers receive many commercial mailings, so the outer envelope was clearly marked as being from the National Farm Medicine Center, and included colorful graphics and text noting the mailing was for a "Women's Needs Study".
Approximately one week after the questionnaire was mailed; a postcard was mailed to the entire sample as a thank-you for returning the survey or as a reminder to do so. Approximately two weeks later, the entire procedure was repeated for nonresponders (complete package mailed, followed by the reminder/thank-you postcard). A final contact for non-responders was one last request to complete the survey, and included a questionnaire request card to be used in the event that previous mailings had been misplaced or discarded.
Staff from Marshfield Clinic Biomedical Informatics Research Center handled data entry, quality control and statistical analyses, following standard procedures.
Great care was taken to preserve anonymity and confidentiality and to emphasize its importance to the survey population, in order to promote candid and personal responses. The detailed procedures were posted on the inside cover of the questionnaire, so the women would have no doubt how the survey was conducted and their responses handled.
Each mailing address in the sample was assigned a code number, which appeared only on the external and business reply envelopes, but not on the survey itself. The respondents were requested to use the business reply envelope, which was preaddressed and postage paid.
When the questionnaire was returned, a staff member entered the code from the return envelope into a database, eliminated the address corresponding to that code from the address list, removed the survey from the envelope, and gave it to a second staff member. This second staff member, who did not have access to the list of mailing addresses or codes, stamped the survey with a unique internal unrelated number for quality assurance checks and entered the responses into a database. The survey was then filed with other returned surveys. Because the survey had been separated from its envelope, it had no connection with any address, and was completely anonymous. Completed questionnaires were kept in secure locked storage per Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation procedures.
Surveys were mailed in March 2007, before the planting season. Of the 1500 surveys that were mailed, 714 (47.6%) were returned, with 648 usable surveys for a true response rate of 43.2%. Some unusable returns noted that the woman did not want to participate, a forwarding address was unavailable, a woman did not live at the residence, or that the survey could be forwarded to a new updated address.
The overall profile of the women who completed the survey is described below.
The majority of respondents (65%) were in their 40's and 50's; only 16% were younger than 40. 94% were married. 94% had children; 65% had children living at home. 54% had some posthigh- school education, up to and including college degrees. The majority of respondents (65%) came from a farm background (grew up or worked on a farm as a youth.) 73% had been farming for 20 years or more; 43% had been farming 30 years or more; and 17% had been farming 40 years or more.
The women responding to the survey were involved, either presently or in the past, with many different tasks on and off the farm. The first number represents percentage of women doing these tasks at present; the number in parenthesis represents “not now, but in the past”: 47% (45%) cared for children; 52% (30%) milked cows; 69% (27%) fed cows, heifers or calves; 33% (31%) worked with other animals besides cattle; 50% (27%) operated barn or farmstead equipment; 47% (34%) operated field equipment; 81% (9%) performed office work; 66% (27%) kept a garden; 44% (31%) had an offfarm job; 20% (26%) cared for an elderly parent or in-laws; and 58% (13%) traveled for business.
The majority (64%) operated a farm that was previously operated by their parents or their husband/partner's parents. Of those farms, only 12.5% had been operated by the woman’s parents, while 87.5% had been operated by their husband/partner’s parents.
The majority (73%) of respondents said their dairy operations were best described as "stanchions or tie stalls;" 19% said "freestall or loose housing;" 2% said both stanchions/tie stalls and freestall or loose housing; and 6% said "managed intensive grazing."
46% of the farms were described as “multigenerational,” with two or more generations operating the farm together. 22% of the farms were "multifamily" operations, with two or more families operating the farm together. 41% of the farms had been in the family for three or more generations.
98% of husbands/partners were involved with the farm operation; 96% came from a farming background. A minority (36%) had some post-high-school education, up to and including college degrees.
The questionnaire was organized into the following sections: Time Pressures, Sleep, General Health, Health Insurance, Off-Farm Employment, Childcare, Children's Work on the Farm, Farm Safety, Changes in Agriculture, Community, Extended Family and/or Farm Partners, Farm Transfer or Retirement, Finances, Socializing and Networking, Personal Feelings, Marital Communication, Husband/Partner Relationships, and Views on Male-Female Relationships on Farms in General. At the end of the survey, extensive space was specifically provided to write about any additional concerns and needs not covered by the survey.
Listed below are the 20 sections of the questionnaire followed by the actual questions or statements in the order in which they appeared. The levels of agreement and disagreement are the sums of "agree and strongly agree" or "disagree and strongly disagree," respectively. From those numbers the percentage of "neutral or undecided" responses can be calculated, which sometimes in itself can be revealing.
At the time this survey was conducted, 45% of women who responded held an off-farm job, 19% had held an off-farm job in the past but not at present, and 36% had never held an off-farm job. This section was completed by the 64% of women who at present or in the past had held an off-farm job.
16% of respondents currently had children young enough to use babysitters or daycare, 54% had in the past had children young enough to use babysitters or childcare but not at present, and 30% never had children young enough for babysitters or daycare. This section was completed by the 70% of women who at present or in the past had children young enough to use babysitters or childcare.
42% of respondents currently had minor children (under age 18) at home and at least one of the children worked on the farm. 40% did not currently have minor children who work on their farm, but did previously. 18% never had minor children who worked on their farm. This section was completed by the 82% of women who at present or in the past had minor children working on their farm.
98% of respondents indicated they had a husband/partner. This section was completed by those respondents.
Additional comments were solicited on the last page of the questionnaire, and two blank pages were provided. Contact information for appropriate agencies and organizations, such as the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection's “Wisconsin Farm Center Hotline,” was included in the event that participants felt they needed to talk with someone about any personal issues relative to the concerns or needs discussed in the survey.
Of the 648 eligible surveys received, 230 surveys had written comments. For quantification purposes, comments were grouped into the 20 survey categories (i.e. Time Pressures, Health Insurance, Finances, etc.). Actual disclosure or summarization of these comments is beyond the scope of this report, but the top five categories of comments were:
Lorelle Benetti 1
Richard Berg, MS 1
Marilyn Bruger 1
Data Entry/Quality Assurance Specialist
Tammy Ellis 2
Research Program Associate
Mark Purschwitz, PhD.3
Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist
Christy Carter, EDD
Jennifer Michels, PhD
National Farm Medicine Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Women's Health & Women's Health Research
Wisconsin Alliance for Women for Women's Health
Wisconsin Maternal and Child Health Hotline
Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation
US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health
Cooper Center. (2006). Unpublished data from the USDA Economics Research Service, August 26, 2003, as reported by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, accessed via internet on March 9, 2006, at Dillman, D.A. (1978). Mail and Telephone Surveys, The Total Design Method. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
The development of this report was coordinated by staff of the National Farm Medicine Center and Biomedical Informatics Research Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, Marshfield, WI.
Funding for this project was provided by the National Farm Medicine Center and Marshfield Clinic.
We are especially grateful to the women on farms who shared their inner thoughts and concerns with us, and we thank them profusely. We would also like to thank the individuals who provided their time, input, and guidance on this project, particularly Christy Carter, Ed.D., and Jennifer Michels, Ph.D., of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, Marshfield Clinic, as well as Sandi Cihlar, Shannon Schaefer, Mary Ann Krainz, and Marcy Fitz-Randolph. We would also like to thank the sixty Review Team members for providing feedback on the survey instrument.
We are grateful to Erik Borreson, Marshfield Clinic, for graphic design of all printed materials used in this project and to Alice Stargardt, Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, for her review of the content.
We sincerely appreciate the data entry support by Marilyn Bruger and Cathy Schneider.
Photos are courtesy of Lori Glebke, Renee McAlpine and Lu Meissner.
Copies of this and other documents are available by contacting the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield, WI. Phone: 1-800-662-6900 or 1-715-389-4999
Disclaimer and Reproduction Information: Information in NASD does not represent NIOSH policy. Information included in NASD appears by permission of the author and/or copyright holder. More