Milwaukee Edition

Soil Sisters

Female Farmers Come of Age

More women are becoming farmers, bringing with them a passion for producing organic and sustainably raised fare and transforming America’s food system. The U.S. Census of Agriculture reports that their numbers rose by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2012, to 288,264.

Historic Roots

“Women have played an integral role in farming for centuries, but in the last 100 years they’ve started to self-organize and be recognized for their important work,” says University of California garden historian Rose Hayden-Smith, Ph.D., author of Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I and editor of the UC Food Observer. “During that war, the Women’s Land Army of America, a female-led initiative, recruited nearly 20,000 mostly middle-class urban and suburban women to enter the agricultural sector as wage laborers at farms, dairies and canneries, often in rural areas, where farmers urgently needed help while the male labor force was off fighting.”

Women also helped feed Americans during the Victory Garden era of World War II. “It’s also estimated that more than 40 percent of fruits and vegetables consumed on the American home front then were grown in school, home, community and workplace gardens,” says Hayden-Smith, possibly resulting in America’s highest period of produce consumption ever.

When the commercial organic industry launched in the 1990s, women organized to provide overlooked and undervalued perspectives. The wakeup call for Denise O’Brien, an organic vegetable farmer and owner of Rolling Hills Acres, near Atlantic, Iowa, came during the farm economic crisis of the preceding decade. Although still considered “just” farm wives, “It was the women on the farms that had foreseen where things were heading, because they often kept the accounting books, though nobody took their voices seriously,” O’Brien recalls.

This launched O’Brien’s agriculture activism: balancing farming, raising children and serving as a national advocate and spokeswoman for women in agriculture in an ecological and just food system. In 1997, she launched the Women, Food and Ag Network to collectively advocate for a stronger voice.

“Throughout history, women in agriculture have been relegated to providing assistance, rather than making decisions,” O’Brien explains. “It’s up to us as women to collaboratively support each other while challenging the system.”

Cultivating Change

For her 50th birthday, Paula Foreman gave her life a new chapter. She launched her midlife “second act” in 2007 with Encore Farm, a name that serves as a rallying mantra for her peers. “The name is a tribute declaring that fresh starts and new beginnings can happen at any age,” explains Foreman, now an urban farmer in St. Paul, Minnesota. Embodying this business moxie, she chose to specialize, producing one thing very well: organic dried beans.

Innovation, independence and vision drive women to use their organic farm ventures to create a livelihood, express themselves and do their part to change how America eats.

Relinda Walker, of Walker Organic Farms, outside Savannah, Georgia, represents a cadre of “boomerang” farmers; women that return to the land to continue a family farm with a commitment to organics. Like many farm kids, after college, Walker left to pursue a corporate career in the city. Then the 9/11 terror attack shifted her priorities. “All roads led me to coming back home and growing food,” she says. Launched in 2005, Walker’s farm was one of southern Georgia’s first organic operations, yielding specialty varieties like rainbow carrots in vivid shades of purple, orange and red.

Future Femme Power

Young women in their 20s and 30s are adding energy, diversity, vibrancy and fresh outlooks to the female farming movement. Lindsey Morris Carpenter runs Grassroots Farm, in Monroe, Wisconsin, a diversified operation of certified organic vegetables and pastured livestock, in partnership with her mother, Gail Carpenter.

“A crucial key to farming happiness is being a good neighbor,” she shares. “I call around when I see livestock and pets outside of fences; maintain my fences; share my garlic and potato seed; and always invite neighbors to parties and events, even though they may not attend. Even if others’ personal lifestyle and farming philosophies are radical opposites, we still have our physical location and appreciation of nature in common, and that’s big.”

“The women farmer movement is just a toddler,” sums up O’Brien. “We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet, especially with representation on the national leadership platform.” It’s easy to support female growers at local farmers’ markets. Cultivating change can be rewarding—and tasty.

Lisa Kivirist is the author of the new book Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers and a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. Her family runs the energy-independent Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B, in southwestern Wisconsin.

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