AN EARLY 2005 conference “to enrich the lives and empower the participants in all aspects of agriculture and in the rural community” is planned for Arkansas farmers. If you think that doesn't sound like a typical farmers' meeting, you're right: this one is for women only.

“In Arkansas, an estimated 19,900 women are farm operators, and nearly 5,000 are principal operators,” says Jennie Popp, an agricultural economist with the University of Arkansas.

Popp and colleague Janie Hipp received a grant of $20,000 to help pay for the first Women in Agriculture Conference in Arkansas, which they hope will become an annual event. The grant is from the Women's Giving Circle, made up of about 80 women involved in the University of Arkansas Campaign for the Twenty-First Century.

“We asked for just over $10,000, and they gave us $20,000,” says Hipp, an attorney who teaches and develops Extension programs on legal and regulatory issues that impact agriculture.

The growing number of women in agriculture make the conference not just a good idea, but a necessity. “This is a large group of people who are not being adequately served,” Hipp says. “Anything we do to help women do a better job will pay off in a stronger agricultural sector and better communities.”

Arkansas is part of a national trend of increasing numbers of women as farm operators. From 1992 to 2002, the number of men as fulltime farm operators in the United States declined, but the number of women increased by 42 percent to 236,269, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The conference program will include topics on family and community life as well as farming and agribusiness, Popp said. A public invitation will be extended to all of the 600,000 women living and working in rural communities in Arkansas.

The conference is being planned as a day-and-a-half meeting in central Arkansas in early 2005 (exact date yet to be set). More sponsors are being sought to help keep the registration fee low.

Attendance at similar conferences in other states has been as high as 425 in Nebraska in 2003 where one of the first such events was held in 1985.