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A New Crop of Farmers

More Md., Va. Women Turning to Agriculture, Bringing Organic Meat And Harvests of Heirloom Vegetables to Markets in the D.C. Area

According to recently released figures, women now run one of every 10 American farms.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Julie Stinar once worked with some of the top names in fashion: Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Tracy Reese.

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Now she works with some completely different brand names: Cornish and Poulet Rouge chickens and Red Devon cattle.

Stinar is the owner of Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Md., and an example of the changing face of American farming.

Women always played important roles on the family farm. They kept the books, milked the cows and fed the children, often juggling another part-time job while the men worked the fields. Sometimes, they ran the farm after their husbands or fathers died.

But increasingly, women such as Stinar are turning to farming on their own. According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture released this year, more than one in every 10 U.S. farms is run by a woman. In Maryland, the number of farms in which a woman is the principal operator jumped 16 percent between 2002 and 2007. In Virginia, female-run farms also grew by 16 percent.

"Just as we've seen the numbers of women increasing in the workplace, we are seeing more women" in farming, said Stefphanie Gambrell, a domestic policy economist with the American Farm Bureau.

Some say that the statistics simply reflect better outreach efforts by census takers, but others point to the growing number of female-focused farming organizations as proof that the number of female farmers is on the rise.

Women's agricultural associations have popped up in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. In Pennsylvania, membership in the Women's Agricultural Network, which is affiliated with Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, grew from 100 members in 2005 to 1,000 in 2008, said Linda Stewart Moist, a senior extension associate at the college.

While men tend to run larger farms focused on such commodity crops as soybeans and wheat, women tend to run smaller, more specialized enterprises selling heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef to well-heeled, eco-conscious consumers.

These smaller enterprises have gotten a boost from the popularity of farmers markets and programs in which people pay in advance to receive weekly produce baskets, as well as renewed consumer interest in buying locally.

The lavender Deborah Williamson and her mother, Edith, grow on their farm, Seven Oaks Lavender Farm in Fauquier County, is sold locally at Whole Foods Markets. Stinar built her heirloom vegetable business by selling to her husband's office colleagues. The Internet has also made it easier for farmers to sell directly to consumers without heavy start-up costs, experts say.

Women say they are drawn to farming for a number of reasons. Many like the independence and flexibility that comes with running a farm. Many younger women choose farming to do something positive for the environment by employing sustainable farming techniques, said Amy Trauger, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Georgia who has studied women in agriculture.


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