By Maya Dollarhide
Thursday, November 28, 2002
Increasingly, women are becoming full owners and operators of farms in the United States, especially on smaller, organic farms.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The food served on Thanksgiving tables this year may be part of the bounty being grown or raised by women farmers across the country.
Women farming and agriculture networks say that the ranks of female farmers--or more precisely, farm managers--are on the rise in America. According to a survey conducted five years ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 5.2 percent of the nation's farmers are women.
"The numbers from 1997 have gone up, and we are happy to see this significant increase," said Mary Peabody, director of the Women's Agriculture Network in Berlin, Vt. Although the newest Agriculture Department statistics will not be released until next year, Peabody says she has seen the numbers rising in recent years.
"Women are really one of the only growth trends in agriculture," she added. "After 30 or 40 years of corporate income many women are choosing to buy or rent land and do some farming."
This country's first government study profiling women farmers came out in 1985, and showed that nationwide 5.2 percent of the nation's farmers were women--the same percentage found in the 1997 survey. But these surveys did not include women who operated farms as a "silent partner"--the wife or companion, mother or sister of a deed-holder to a farm. These women often ran, but did not actually own, the operation.
Peabody said that these "silent partners" are beginning to disappear as more and more women strike out on their own or inherit family farms.
"Women are investing their money and time and going and running farms by themselves or with a partner." She added that had the "silent partners" been counted by the Department of Agriculture the number of women farmers would have been much higher.
Terry Gilbert, the chairwoman for the American Farm Bureau's Women's Committee, who spoke in October at the Third International Conference on Women in Agriculture in Madrid, Spain, said that the Farm Bureau is doing more and more to attract young women into active roles with farm groups and are encouraging American women to step forward into leadership capacities in agriculture.
"One of our concerns is finding ways to attract young farm women into active roles with farm groups," said Gilbert. "In many cases the young farm wife has an off-farm job and is juggling that with raising children and assisting with farm operations. We are trying to do more to shape programs to fit in with these busy schedules."
Family farms are part of America's fabric, but the place of women in traditional farming roles has been virtually passed by historians until quite recently.
Historian and photographer Peter Miller has just released his "Vermont Farm Women," a collection of 44 profiles and photographs that capture women farmers in the state that boasts 13 percent of its farmers are female, one of the highest percentages in the nation.
"These women are at the forefront of a revolution," said Miller, in reference to his subjects. "They don't like what is happening to our culture as it grows corporate and global. They are trying to put a sense of individuality and integrity into their lives and farming serves their concern about clean food and environment."
Peabody said that her own personal experience in farming has boosted her belief that "women tend to view the world holistically and are intuitive in many ways to nature."
She added that Vermont women tend to grow bounties of vegetables, raise sheep and goats, pretty much do everything but raise dairy cows. The network for women's farms, especially those who run organic farms, appears to be quite vast: Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont all have farming networks that are especially geared to female and beginning farmers.
"There is tremendous support here in Vermont for women farmers," Peabody said. "Women don't need to even own their own farms; they can rent land as well. Vermont has so many co-ops and organic markets where goods can be sold. In Southern Vermont you are only two hours from markets in Boston."
New England boasts more female farmers per state than any other region in the United States, and according to Kathy Ruhf, project director for a four-year imitative called Growing New Farmers in Belchertown, Mass., this is due to the nature of the land.
"Things here are a little smaller scale than out West; crops like herbs and flowers can be produced here, and women also tend to find in pockets more diversity, and there sometimes is more acceptance to holistic and organic products," she said.
Jennifer Mayo of Arbutus Hill Farm in Meredith, N.H., started the Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire, which helps farmers network with one another. This can be invaluable support system for women farmers, who make up three-quarters of the group's membership.
"By initiating the Beginner Farmer Project in 1997 in New Hampshire, I found that I was not alone," said Mayo. "Across New Hampshire, beginners have now networked with others who are new to farming. Getting connected and learning how to navigate through the maze of agricultural service providers has moved our farming goals forward. Our collective voice is being heard and our unique needs are being addressed," she added.
Mayo also said women must be patient and set their goals on becoming a new farmer. Her 50-acre farm that provides eggs, organic vegetables, lamb, and pork is a testament to her own patience, hard work and determination.
"For a long time there wasn't anything that celebrated women farmers; women who didn't come through traditional farming channels did not have a place to go, so the Women's Agricultural Network in Vermont, we have created a sense of community and a safe place for women to learn about farming," said Peabody. "We are happy to see the significant increase of women farmers empowered."
Maya Dollarhide is an associate reporter for the Asahi Shimbun Japanese daily newspaper.
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