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Meet the Women Growing Your Organic Fruits and Vegetables

By Anna Soref, Editor in Chief

If you grew up like most Americans, the word farmer probably conjures an image of a man in overalls, maybe driving a tractor or standing by a trusty dog. Preschool songs and television taught you that men farm and women garden.

In the past decade, however, the farmer concept has evolved to also imply organic, local and farmers’ market.

The evolution of the iconic farmer needs one more tweak to get us up to speed, says Temra Costa, author of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat (Gibbs Smith, 2010). The farmer needs to be a woman.

The last agricultural census showed women-owned farms have increased by 30 percent. Additionally, women are the founders and force behind much of today’s sustainable-food legislation and emerging businesses. “We know that women are there, very much involved in food, but for some reason those stories weren’t being told,” Costa says.

Sustainable Renaissance

The burgeoning sustainable agricultural renaissance has been upon us now for about a decade. Small farms are popping up everywhere, many offering Community Supported Agriculture memberships that quickly sell out each spring. Most cities offer at least one farm-to-table restaurant. Salad bars are even creeping into public schools, some supplied by local farms.

The sung heroes of this movement show up in the media frequently. People like Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, Joel Salatin and Mark Bittman share the good news of sustainable ag. But the women often remain in the shadows.

Women such as Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm, who had the courage to take enormous risks for change. In 1979 Henderson retired from teaching at a university to start a farm. “I wanted to live in a way that was in concert with my beliefs about the environment and community,” she says. Her farm debuted one of the first CSAs twenty-three years ago.

To do this, Henderson had to break with the values she was taught in the 1950s, “that there is only one true way to do things,” she says. Along the way she encountered many condescending and unpleasant men, “but that’s how social change is.”

Women stuck in behind-the-scenes agricultural roles is nothing new, according to Costa. “Before the Industrial Revolution you had couples who were farming with their children and their families, and the women wouldn’t call themselves farmers. You still see that today; a woman will say, ‘My husband is the farmer and I’m the farmer’s wife.’ It wasn’t until 2002 that the U.S. Census of Agriculture added a place for a second signature to indicate more than one farm owner.”

Costa got up close and personal with small farmers while working for the nonprofit Community Alliance with Family Farmers, in California. Her job entailed visiting area farms and getting to know the farmers. “I found myself driving around to different farms taking photos and writing down the farmers’ stories; I felt like Dorothea Lange. Meeting the people—that’s what hooked me,” she says.

Throughout her six and a half years working with CAFF, a thread was constant: the large number of women in the sustainable-food movement. “It was something that couldn’t be denied. I became intent on helping them succeed and connecting them to the world,” Costa relates. The result was her book, Farmer Jane, which profiles thirty women involved in sustainable food, from farmers to legislators and chefs.

Was Costa worried about backlash from the male-dominated farming and ag community? Nope. “If anyone had a beef with me they could bring it up in a public forum and we could discuss why women are important in the movement, and why haven’t they been given their due attention?” she states.

Women, a Natural Fit for Farming and Food

Women tend to possess characteristics that make them a natural fit for sustainable farming and food production, observes Costa. “Women are very relationship oriented, very community based. They’re connectors and they care about future generations. Many of them have children, and that was one of the things that drew them into the field in the first place—wanting to grow or produce food in a way that wouldn’t compromise the health of their children,” she explains.

These skills translate to successful marketing as well. “The women that I know are interactive people and they love to bring their product to market; they love to meet the people and they love to create that relationship,” Costa says.

For Nancy Vail, a farmer at Pie Ranch in Pescadaro, California, it was the relationship aspects of CSAs that lured her to farming. CSAs “went beyond the individualism of homesteading and created a context where eaters and producers can be in direct relationships,” she says in Farmer Jane.

Community has certainly been a central part of the success at Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, California. Opened in 2006, this women-run cooperative makes healthy meals with local sustainable meats and vegetables that are available for delivery or pickup.

Three Stone Hearth runs on what co-owner Jessica Prentice calls feminine-based principles. “The male restaurant world is often highly competitive, stressful and often fairly miserable,” she points out. At Three Stone, collaboration and no ego is the name of the game. There’s also a spiritual component. “We look at food as a gift and treat it as such, with respect,” she says.

Given women’s common need for community, it’s no surprise that when women farmers and women in sustainable agriculture have struggles, it usually results from lack of community.

According to Leigh Adcock, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, farming women are often isolated geographically because they are in rural areas. They can also face cultural isolation because they are practicing an alternative form of a very traditional field in a male-dominated trade. “We find that providing even an online forum for these women helps them feel supported,” Adcock says.

The two biggest areas of growth in sustainable farming are women inheriting their farms from their husbands and the growing market for local food. “The small and diversified farming that’s being demanded by eaters all over the world right now is the perfect place for a woman to start her own 2-acre, 5-acre or even 250-acre farm,” Costa continues. “Women are really into this connection between food and community, and it’s something that’s drawing them out to start their own operations.”

When Costa talks of women being sustainable farmers, she means beyond organic farmers. “I’m talking about women in smaller-scale diversified farming that respects the land and doesn’t compromise its ability to grow nutritious foods. Sustainable farming uses less machinery than conventional farms, and you typically see fewer women involved in farms that require more machinery. I say that as a generalization. Small, diversified farms use a lot more hand labor like picking, cutting, pruning and weeding. More women feel they can do that work versus running large machines,” says Costa.

And they’re successful. Women are now the principal operators of 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms—a sea change from 1978, when the figure was 5 percent, according to WFAN. “We’ve found that when women run the farm as their primary source of income, they are successful,” Adcock reports. “They probably aren’t prospering, but they are making a living, which is the usual goal.” Sustainable agriculture also provides many women with part-time work that allows them to raise a family.

Beyond the Fields

Historically men have dominated in government agricultural roles as well as farming. “It is largely still men in government roles, although women are certainly making their way,” says Costa.

Farmer Jane includes profiles of several women in government-related roles, such as Glenda Humiston, Director of Rural Development for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “I feel she has kept up with a lot of her community-based work that differentiates her from other candidates,” Costa says. “She pioneered land policies that have engaged a broad range of stakeholders—no small feat—and continues to listen.”

Humiston has found that being a woman in what is often a man’s world has not posed too much difficulty. “I have done a wide variety of jobs throughout my career that would traditionally be called ‘men’s’ work. Although there was the occasional misogynist, most people were more interested in the quality of my work than my gender. Some of that had to do with my realization early on that women did have to produce very high quality work in those fields while also reaching out in appropriate ways to socialize and network.” Humiston is finding more women are involved in or passionate about environmental land issues and farming. “In many ways I think women are better at seeing how environmental and farming issues tie into food and family. Making those connections is vital if we are to develop good policy on agriculture, food safety, healthcare and related issues,” she says.

In addition to working the land, women are making inroads fighting against issues such as GMOs. Claire Hope Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon, 2008), is a lawyer, has been a farmer, and is an anti-GMO advocate.

GMOs are inherently a women’s issue, remarks Cummings. “Because of both the way they are made, which interferes with the reproductive process of seeds, and the fact that they are patented forms of life, GMOs put a primary part of the food system—seeds—into the hands of private corporations.

“And since women feed the world (almost 85 percent of farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia are women) and all women care about feeding their families, they should be concerned that we no longer have control over our food system,” Cummings asserts.

She points out that men are the ones primarily behind the creation of GMOs. “I don’t think a woman would ever give a name like Terminator to a life-giving source,” she says, referring to the Monsanto seed of that name.

Farming Forward

Although budget cuts could hurt some of the inroads women have made in sustainable farming and leadership roles, Costa feels confident. “I think it’s always been the case that these programs are in peril. Look at how much our government has been supporting programs that are based on conventional crop production versus sustainable organic food production. So it’s a very challenging time in keeping the interest alive in the sustainable-food system in the country,” she says.

Costa hopes her book inspires people to get more involved in community as well. “I think we are all craving more interaction these days, and I wanted to provide the information so that readers can make choices to interact more with people via food. If you look at our population that’s involved in farming, it’s 2 percent, whereas before the Industrial Revolution it was 60 percent. So you had more people connected to the land back then.”

Costa believes that food is a powerful vehicle to address the economic and social disparities and environmental degradation now occurring. “Food offers solutions that don’t have to cost a lot of money,” she concludes. “If you can spend a little bit of time every day learning how to work with it, to grow it, we could all eat more healthfully and be healthier people in this country.”

To learn more about Farmer Janes across the country and to view links to organizations making a positive change, visit