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These sisters became co-owners of the family farm at 22 and 24, joining the ranks of women as key decision-makers on farms

Rebekah Alstede Modery, left, and Sarah Alstede, sisters and co-owners of Alstede Farms in Chester, New Jersey.
Courtesy: Alstede Farms

Sisters Rebekah Alstede Modery and Sarah Alstede were raised on a New Jersey farm. This year, they decided to spend their careers there, too.

Rebekah graduated in 2023 with a double major in agricultural business and sustainable agricultural production from Delaware Valley University. When it was time to decide on her next steps, it was easy to commit to staying on at the family farm, she said.

“I grew up here, and I loved doing it, and particularly loved the business and marketing side,” Rebekah, 24, told CNBC in the living room of her childhood home, nestled on Alstede Farms‘ 600-acre property in Chester, New Jersey.

Sarah, 22, had a similar bond with the farm: “I knew really my entire life growing up that I would want to be here forever.”

She recently graduated from Centenary University with an associate degree in animal science with a focus in equine studies.

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In February, the sisters joined their father, Kurt Alstede, and their stepmother, Mary Thompson-Alstede, as co-owners of Alstede Farms.

With the younger generation of Alstede women owners, the farm is now majority women-owned. While farming is often thought of as a male-dominated field, there’s data indicating women are often key decision-makers for farms.

What decisions women farmers make

There were about 1.22 million female producers, or women farmers, in 2022, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s still a male-dominated field: Those women represent about 36% of all producers.

Until recently, government data didn’t fully capture the role of women in farming, said Dominique Sims, an agricultural statistician at NASS.

NASS conducts the Census of Agriculture once every five years. It updated its practices in 2017 to collect more detailed demographic data, and ask more questions about who makes key decisions for farms and ranches. For its 2022 survey, it added another decision-making category: marketing.

“Women have always been a part of agriculture and always been a part of the decision-making, but the Census of Agriculture hasn’t always had the questions to ask,” said Shoshana Inwood, an associate professor of community, food and economic development at The Ohio State University.

Of the women who were in farming in 2022, many were key decision-makers, according to the 2022 Census of Agriculture.

The category women are most involved in is making day-to-day decisions, with 78%, the data shows.

Record-keeping and financial management is the only area where women are more likely to be involved than men, at 71% versus 70%.

“If you look at the female producers specifically, those are the categories where they reported the highest rate of involvement,” said Lance Honig, chair of NASS’ agricultural statistics board.

Both genders are equally as likely to be involved in estate and succession planning, at 53%.

High interest rates, climate change challenge farms

As younger women such as Rebekah and Sarah take on roles making key farm decisions, they’ll need to be prepared to navigate a host of growing financial challenges.

While the total number of producers in the U.S. has hardly changed in recent years, farms continue to consolidate.

There were 1.9 million farms in the U.S. in 2022, a 7% decline from 2017, according to USDA figures. Over that same period, the average farm size increased 5%, to 463 acres per farm, according to the agency.

About 23% of farms in the U.S. carried debt in 2022, a decline from 28% in 2018, according to the Agricultural Resource Management Survey by the USDA Economic Research Service.

However, that’s not indicating a healthier farm economy, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. High interest rates have made it more expensive for farms to carry debt and created liquidity challenges.

“Operating loans and other forms of financing cost farmers a whopping 43% more in 2023 than in 2022 and are forecast to remain elevated for much of 2024,” wrote AFBF economist Bernt Nelson.

Climate change and weather extremes that come with it have also become increasingly challenging for farmers. Two of the biggest stressors are changing temperatures and rainfall or precipitation, said Rachel Schattman, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine.

“Farmers are very good at thinking on their feet and they’re great problem solvers,” said Schattman. “The variability makes that problem-solving process a lot more intense and it’s a lot more financially demanding.”

Changing weather contributes to issues such as frost and freezes after long, warm periods in the spring, flooding or ponding events, drought, hastened crop developments and changing dynamics with pest and weed pressure, she said.

Some farmers have the cash flow to pay outright for the labor costs and equipment needed to mitigate such problems, while others might have to take lines of credit at the beginning of the season, said Schattman.

“For large-scale investments like wind machines to deal with frost in perennial fruit orchards, those are much more capital intensive and are often financed through things like traditional loans,” she said.

‘A huge undertaking’ as a family

Co-owners of Alstede Farms from left to right: Mary Thompson-Alstede, Rebekah Alstede Modery, Kurt Alstede and Sarah Alstede.
Courtesy: Alstede Farms

In mid-March, Alstede Farms experienced a frost-freeze period, which threatens the life of new blooms, said Rebekah, who now works as the farm’s assistant production manager out in the fields. Warmer temperatures earlier in the spring had spurred the apples, peaches, plums and apricots to further develop, putting them and early crops including strawberries at risk.

“We were out with different tools trying to keep everything warm. We double-covered our strawberries and we had fans blowing, just mixing the air to keep it warmer for the apples,” said Rebekah.

Such efforts are “a huge undertaking,” said Mary Thompson-Alstede. “We have people up all night long making sure everything is working and operational and driving tractors around with heaters to move it to all different places on the farm.”

In addition to labor costs, the double layer of row covers for the 22 acres of strawberries was $25,000, said Kurt Alstede. “We successfully protected them, but now there’s another $25,000 investment because of climate change.”

Rebekah Alstede Modery, left, and Sarah Alstede, sisters and co-owners of Alstede Farms in Chester, New Jersey.
Courtesy: Alstede Farms

Sometimes the risk management tools are not enough. Apple-picking is one of Alstede Farm’s crown jewels, along with pumpkins, and both share a peak season that spans from early September to late October, said Sarah.

Last year, the farm lost eight of its busiest weekends in the fall due to rain. Alstede Farms resorted to selling hundreds of tons of apples to juice at 5% of the price, or 10 cents a pound instead of $1.99.

Sarah believes that she and her sister have the grit to withstand such challenges, after seeing their family deal with hardships.

“It’s definitely equipped us to what the future will bring once we really take over,” she said.

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