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The Swannanoa Journal - Female Farmers

by Casey Doyle





Thirty years ago, when women ran only 5% of the farms in the US, sustainable agriculture, organic farming and food consciousness had not yet captivated the public’s attention. Today women run 14% of the farms in the US, and of these 300,000 farms, many are likely to be rooted in localism and sustainability. While there are currently many farmers who focus on sustainable practices, female farmers are especially connected to small-scale farming that values sustainability and passion over large corporate industry. 22% of all organic farms are run by women, and on average the female run farm is 40 acres, compared to the 149 acre average of male run farms.  

In North Carolina, over 1,000 different farms are managed by women. Like the national trend,  many of these women are incorporating sustainable practices and contributing to their local food system. The North Carolina Women of Land Agriculture Network, located in Chapel Hill, is a support system for these female farmers working in North Carolina. Dr. Trudy Matheny, Executive Director of the Network says that “The 21st century belongs to female farmers -- those women who own or operate small-scale sustainable farms are on the increase. Our numbers from 2007 data have risen 31% and I suspect that number will be higher once we get data from the last census.”

Sustainable Agriculture Professor at Warren Wilson College, Dr. Laura Lengnick has been in the field for over twenty years. She has witnessed the growth of food consciousness movement and describes the reasoning behind such a large female presence is sustainable farming. She says, “Conventional agriculture is a male dominated field, so if a woman is interested in being a farmer, it will be much easier to enter into sustainable agriculture, rather than enter the industrial, dominating field of agriculture.” She goes on to explain that for any young farmer, whether they be male or female, it is easier to enter the niche of small-scale farming, which also happens to be rooted in sustainability. As more women enter the field, their presence in this community is pertinent.

NC Women of the land Agriculture Movement puts forth that some women find appeal in small scale farming because it is “It's a kinder, gentler method of agricultural production involving all the senses.” Farming in which artisanal skills are needed can also be appealing to women.

But women face challenges in the farming industry, especially in larger scale farming. Dr. Matheny remarks on the difficulty of finding farming tools and machines that are made to fit women’s bodies. She explains,, “The farming ‘industry’ is still geared toward men in so many ways. I have had established (successful) female farmers -- in the business for decades -- tell me that they still cannot get credit on their own.” Many of these issues, she explains, surround access to capital, land, and health care.

Organizations such as the Women of Land Agriculture Network exist to help combat these challenges and provide support for female farmers.Their goal is to support female farmers “who want to increase their income, business opportunities, production practices and farm ownership and are committed to an ethic of stewardship and safe farming methods that are healthy for the land.”

They provide programs such as The Farm School for Women, a residential, on-farm training program for new and beginning female farmers to work the land, care fore animals and brings products to market, especially in terms of small scale and sustainable agriculture, and Go Farm!, a summer educational program that brings adolescent girls to farm and learn of small-farm life. Dr. Matheny also describes the importance of the online community that the network provides. She says, “The primary goal in creating NC WOLAN is to bring women of agriculture together.” Forums and an online community can help do this.

Another organization, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, located in Boone, also works with local female farmers to strengthen the local food system. They support  “women and their families with resources, education and skills related to sustainable food and agriculture.” They provide educational events and farm tours, participate in farmers markets, offer scholarships and grants, and create yet another outlet for a community of female farmers.

Women’s impact on sustainable farming is a significant one. Dr. Lengnick says,

“It is well known that there is a much higher proportion of women working in the field of sustainability and agriculture; the organic faculty member [of a college] is most likely to be a woman, as is the sustainable agriculture professor… women just flock to sustainable agriculture as if it just started developing, and I was one of those women.” These women that are a part of sustainable agriculture are making a great impact. Dr. Matheny  says, “Women do tend to have a kinder, gentler footprint on the land. They are not only the farmer's wife now, they are the farmer. If we could encourage more women of Agriculture to take positions of leadership within their communities, then there would be a sea change in policy decisions affecting everyone: I think our communities would be safer, healthier and richer (economically and socially). As a group, we could be a significant force.”