Why More American Women Are Becoming Farmers

·Editor
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A selection of heirloom tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket (Photo: See-ming Lee/Flickr)

The Union Square Greenmarket in New York City was swept up in a deluge on Monday, with tents flapping violently as wind and rain bore down on them. But the dampened vendors barely batted an eye, and neither did the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy secretary Krysta Harden, who was in town to promote farmer’s markets just like this one. 

“Farmers never complain about rain,” she told Yahoo Food knowingly.

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The flooded scene at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City earlier this week. Photo: Rachel Tepper

Harden also had a personal agenda: to get more women into farming. By the time I arrived at the flooded market, Harden, several vendors, and members of GrowNYC (which manages the Union Square market) had decamped to higher ground at a nearby sandwich shop. Among them was 61-year-old Karen Washington, one of six female urban farmers who earlier this year left the city to found Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York.

“If someone had told me one day I’d be a farmer when I was growing up, I would have had mixed emotions,” Washington told me. Though an urban child of the Bronx, she’d watch the U.S. Farm Report when it interrupted Saturday morning cartoons. “I’d think, I want to be on a farm. I want to milk some cows.” 

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Karen Washington poses with poultry on the farm. Photo: karwasher/Twitter

Still, it wasn’t until Washington was a single mother in her 30s with two young children that she first thought to plant a few tomato seedlings in her backyard. It was 1985, and, as Washington puts it, “a tomato changed my life.” Sweet and juicy, the tomato tasted “totally different from tomatoes in a store.” She was hooked.

Not long after, Washington spotted a stranger raking a patch of ground in a nearby vacant lot. She asked what he was doing. “I want to start a community garden,” he told her. With help from the New York Botanical Garden, Washington co-founded the Garden of Happiness, which is today managed with help from GrowNYC.

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Plums at the Union Square Greenmarket. Photo: See-ming Lee/Flickr

“Women have been involved in agriculture since the beginning of time, but with today’s technology and science, it’s not as much about manual labor,” Harden said, citing examples like Washington. “Now you’re seeing more and more women saying, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

She’s right — according to census data, in 2012 there were 969,672 women farmers in the U.S., which accounts for a 10 percent rise in principal operators of agricultural operations who are women since 1978. As of 2012, about 30 percent of all farmers are women.

There’s now more help available to women farmers than at any other point in American history, Harden stressed. In February, she announced the launch of the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network, a support system through which women farmers share their stories and experiences. Today, there are more 800 women in the network.

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A Swiss chard seedling at Rise & Root Farm. Photo: Rise & Root Farm

“Sometimes they feel alone, so we need make sure they realize that they’re not,” Harden explained, adding that there are a slew of other programs available for small, disadvantaged, and women-owned businesses. Minority and women farmers and ranchers are also eligible for microloans up to $50,000.

Then there are nonprofits including GrowNYC, which runs programs including FARMroots. Its purpose is to offer practical training on the business of running a farm, from bookkeeping to food safety.

“When we did the Farm Beginnings course [through FARMroots], the one thing that they had us do was dream big,” Washington recalled. That dream? To own and operate a “real farm” beyond the city limits, one that remembered its roots through on-site educational programming for would-be urban farmers. “GrowNYC helped us with our dream,” she said.

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The team at Rise & Root Farm, from left to right: Jane Hodge, Karen Washington, Lorrie Clevenger, Maggie Cheney, D. Rooney, and Michaela Hayes. Photo: Rise & Root Farm/Facebook

Harden believes that people like Washington are important for the future of farming. She hopes, too, that the young women she meets on college campuses and 4-H clubs begin to see farming as the viable career path it is.

“We’re creating a bridge from our old and new communities, bringing people to farming,” Harden said. The daughter of an aging farmer herself, she worries about who will run the family farms once older generations are unable. The answer, she believes, is to get more women into farming. 

“Barriers still exist, and we’re trying to break them,” she said.

More about life on the farm:

The story behind one of America’s most coveted butters

Meet the farmer who’s helping Chipotle go organic

Behind the scenes at a Georgia Farm

Would you ever consider starting a farm? Tell us below