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Women Lead the Way in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture

(Image: Locally grown via Shutterstock)

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the number of women-operated farms more than doubled in the 25 years between 1982 and 2007. In fact, female farmers now make up the fastest-growing sector of the country’s changing agricultural landscape and nearly 1 million women – approximately one-third of total domestic farmers – list farming as their primary occupation. The National Women in Agriculture Association calls it “breaking the grass ceiling.” It’s that and more.

Some are choosing to farm as a way of maintaining continuity, tending land that has been in their families for decades. Others, however, are choosing farming for many different reasons, among them the desire to do something concrete, constructive and quickly gratifying; to tweak gender norms; or simply to have better control over their work lives. Many see their efforts as overtly political.

“Women are leading the way in sustainable and organic agriculture,” Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition told Truthout. Although she works for the Coalition full time, as co-owner of the Healthy Roots Community Farm in Tivoli, New York – 100 miles north of the city – she is involved intimately in all aspects of growing fruits and vegetables in a sustainable manner.

A Midwesterner whose grandfather farmed, Lusher Shute’s career was launched in Brooklyn, New York, where she helped create the East Williamsburg Community Garden in 2002. “We grew vegetables, ornamental plants and flowers,” she begins. “I loved the interface between gardening and the community. The community started out divided between residents who’d been there for a long time and newcomers, but the opportunity to work together on something to beautify the neighborhood led to friendships that might not have happened otherwise. We held weekly barbecues, and the garden became a place to work out community tensions and problems.”

Lusher Shute, now 34, ultimately left Brooklyn, married, had children and moved upstate. Nonetheless, the desire to farm led her and her farmer spouse to buy 70 acres of farmland. “It is critical for farms to ring cities,” she said. “We employ eight or nine people, some of them year-round and some seasonal, and grow vegetables and produce eggs for a community-supported agriculture program that runs 22 weeks a year.”

As Lusher Shute speaks, her enthusiasm and pride are obvious. “For me, farming is an amazing career. It allows you to be an entrepreneur and offers flexibility. I like being able to put high-quality, healthy food in the hands of people. It’s something you can feel good about. It’s a way to give back and at the same time earn a paycheck.”

But this is not to say that it is easy. “Over the next 20 years, 70 percent of the nation’s farmland will change hands,” she said. “At this point the social circles you see farmers running in are largely male. They’re typically very buddy-buddy and may never think to involve younger female farmers. It’s hard to know why, if it’s gender-driven discrimination or if they’ve just known each other forever and are comfortable doing what they’ve always done. Plus, the young people may want to do things differently.”

In addition to being ignored or greeted with overtly sexist derision, Lusher Shute reports that a lot of young farm women are working hard to figure out how best to balance parenthood with their work lives. Indeed, the Young Farmers’ discussion board is filled with questions, concerns and suggestions about achieving an effective balance. A closed thread called “Moms and Dad/baby wearing on the farm” includes Emily’s post: “Instead of carting my screaming child out into the field where we’ll both be uncomfortable, I’ve decided to take over more of the business end of things,” she wrote. “And God knows, there are tons of things to be done on that end of the farm operation – applying for grants, responding to emails, keeping up the website and blog, writing our newsletters, organizing our CSA, hiring interns and staff. Although it’s been really hard to be out of the field, I have come to the conclusion that all the other stuff is essential to running our farm and I’m grateful to have enough flexibility to be able to tailor a role with my son in mind.”

While some might see this as falling into traditional gender roles – with mom in the house and dad on the tiller – 30-year-old Debbie Weingarten, one of four co-owners of the 15-acre Sleeping Frog Farms in Cascabel, Arizona, notes that for her, the decision to focus on business tasks was driven by pragmatism. “My son is 30 months old, and I have had a very difficult time trying to integrate him into my farm responsibilities. He has been a difficult sleeper, which has left me pretty sleep-deprived and not operating on all cylinders. I also have a 7-year-old stepson who we are homeschooling, which further splits my time. As my journey into motherhood has progressed, I’ve found it easier to take care of the backbone of the business.”

Like Emily, Weingarten answers emails, organizes the farm’s CSA and develops fliers and promotional materials. But she also makes deliveries, milks the goats, and runs their farmers market. “In between I raise my children,” she wrote in an email. “I definitely see this as becoming more of a central conversation between women as more young families become involved in agriculture.” That said, Weingarten admits that the stress – worry over uncontrollable things like the weather as well as fear of a pest infestation or CSA closure – can impact the household in negative ways.

Still, Weingarten underscores how much she loves farming and farm life. “There is something inherently nurturing in food production,” she wrote. “It feels important, like a tangible piece of the revolution.”

Discrimination and Isolation

For Leigh Adcock, executive director of the 16-year-old, 3,200-member, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, the social and political empowerment of women is always front and center. The group’s goal? “To strengthen the role of women from the farm house to the White House.” Nonetheless, Adcock concedes that obstacles abound and are significantly worse for women living in remote, rural areas. “Farm women face three primary challenges,” she said. “First there is discrimination. Then there is geographic isolation. Many farms have no close neighbors. Cultural isolation is also a problem. Women in male-dominated professions need to talk to each other and see others like themselves, but a network like ours exists primarily on the Internet. It’s a Catch-22. Women in the most need of a network are usually in isolated areas with little Internet access and have to go to a library or community college to use a computer.”

Then there’s outright backlash, especially against those who favor sustainable or organic methods. Several years ago, in 2010, Adcock reports that the National Soybean Association and the Corn Growers Association teamed up to create an ongoing campaign called Common Ground. “They wanted to put a softer face on big ag,” she said, “and have used women to say that genetically modified organisms give us better-tasting fruits and vegetables that are naturally resistant to insects. The message is that we should not worry about hormones or GMOs in our food.”

Like many farmers, Adcock disagrees and, through WFAN, promotes chemical-free agriculture.

Likewise the Oklahoma-based National Women in Agriculture Association, founded by Dr. Tammy Gray-Steele in 2008. “I grew up on a farm in Wewoka, Oklahoma,” she said. “My family was awarded 40 acres and a mule. We still have the 40 acres, but now five family members collectively own 2,600 acres there. I live in Oklahoma City, where I do urban farming and outreach in the heart of the low-income community.”

Each year, Gray-Steele brings approximately 50 schoolkids to her 10-acre plot. “We run a highly structured program,” she said. “Between October 1 and the end of November, we do outreach. Then from early December to mid-March, we sponsor a once-a-month class in sustainable horticulture practices, covering everything from pest control to planting. In April we begin implementing what we learned. We grow greens, purple peas, berries and squash and have another acre of raised beds and a flower garden. In the summer the kids make snow-cones from fresh fruit grown on the land and run a weekly farmers market. What they make, they take. The participants are typically 60 percent female. I always tell the kids, you’ll always have a job if you work in agriculture.” Secondary skills, including the ability to work cooperatively and market and advertise their produce are emphasized simultaneously.

“Farming Was ‘Women’s Work’ “

The multiplicity of tasks involved in farming is part of what drew 33-year-old Sarah Sohn, a former public interest lawyer, to farming. As a child growing up in an affluent Detroit suburb, she loved annual trips to the County School Farm, an educational demonstration project. Visits to a neighboring family’s 30-acre “hobby” farm were even more pleasurable. Her parents, both of whom grew up in Seoul, South Korea, further captivated her with stories about the gardens in their ancestral homeland. “I can’t explain it,” she laughs, “but growing things became an obsessive delight to me. And when I get interested in something, I want to learn everything about it.”

As a high school student, Sohn got hooked on a Learning Channel program called “Gardening Naturally.” Her interest developed even further following a summer internship at an Ann Arbor farm and a part-time job in a natural-food store that introduced her to wheat grass, sprouts and other organic items. Volunteer work at a garden affiliated with a homeless shelter during college gave her additional experience. Nonetheless, she went to law school and, for nearly five years, represented the urban poor.

“In 2006, we moved to Maryland for my wife’s job,” Sohn said. “I was home with our daughter, who was then under 1. After a while I began looking for legal work, but the downturn in the economy meant that none of the nonprofits in the area were hiring. I knew that I really needed to get out of the house at least one day a week so started looking at farms because I wanted to be outdoors, move and clear my head.” By the summer of 2007, Sohn had secured work on two organic farms, one 285 acres and the other a smaller, family-run operation. Several years later, in the winter of 2013, she became the manager of the 3-acre Side by Side Farm in Freeland, Maryland, and is presently in the process of leasing land to create her own small farm in partnership with the Camellia School in Arlington, Virginia. The farm will serve special needs children. “Horticulture gives participants – adults as well as kids – the skills to work efficiently. There are also built-in opportunities for a sense of accomplishment, from growing something to selling it to a CSA, farmers market, restaurant or individual.”

“Traditionally, for the vast majority of human history, farming was women’s work,” she said. “Then it changed into a masculine, patriarchial model with a man on a giant tractor trying to beat nature into submission. But small is not just beautiful and quaint. It’s economically viable and smart. You can manage an acre and make a living. If you manage well, you can gross $20,000 per acre per year.”

Can, of course, does not mean will and Leigh Adcock of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network cautions that 75 percent of women farmers earn less than $25,000 a year. At the same time, she notes that many women find the work deeply fulfilling and their efforts often extend far beyond the fields in which they toil. And thanks to the many groups that have developed, women farmers now have the tools to advocate for better policies – from more government support for family farms to subsidies for farmers markets and local food promotion.

Deborah Maud, who works with Sarah Sohn at the Side by Side farm in Maryland, said she loves farming because “it puts you in an intimate relationship with the Earth. You’re caring for it, and, in turn, it’s caring for you.” At the end of the day, however, she said what motivates her is not particularly ideological. “I believe people across the economic spread should have access to good, clean, healthy food. Women know they can provide it and can develop the confidence to do what needs to be done. We sometimes have to be aggressive, pushing to learn how to change the oil on a tractor or to weld, but we have the endurance and sustaining strength to feed ourselves and our neighbors.”

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