Farmers today are more likely to rent land than they once were, and the odds are greater that the landlord may be a woman.

A recent study by the Agriculture Department found a growing trend among farmers to lease land, combining owned and rented land in a farming operation. In the past, leasing was seen as a step toward full ownership.By leasing, farmers can quickly expand or contract their operations. Cash from the rent can be used to pay for operations.

Forty-five percent of all agricultural land was leased in 1988. And 41 percent of farmers operated some leased land.

Tenant farmers, those who leased all the land they operated, accounted for only 12 percent of all operators in 1988, compared with 39 percent in 1940.

The farm population has been steadily aging as well. Fewer people have taken up agriculture, with newcomers unable to replace the steady number of farmers who have abandoned the land since the Depression.

Because women often outlive men, the number of women owning and leasing out farmland has been increasing, USDA researchers said. Women control 40 percent of the privately held farmland being rented out.

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The women landowners are older and less involved in farming than male landlords or husband-wife landowners. The average age of women landowners is 66, compared with 64 for men.

But women landowners are more likely to depend on farming and farm rent for their income. Some 34 percent depend on farming and farm rent for more than one-fourth of their income.

Although most farm landlords charge a fixed cash amount for rent, women are more likely to share-lease the land, meaning their income varies with the harvest and price of the crop.

The highest percentage of landlords who are women - 46 percent - are in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. The next highest - 41 percent - are in Mid- and South Atlantic states: Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

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