Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network: Women Craft New Agriculture Archetype
Sep 02, 2016 11:30PM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger
Women farmers learn from each other at networking events and mentoring opportunities.
From an interest in growing sustainable food and making a side income to contributing to local food movements, more women are taking a leadership role in agriculture. One unique agricultural organization specifically meets the needs of these women farmers, helping them adapt best-practices to their ventures.
By Robin Crawford
According to research by the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN), the number of women identifying as principle farm operators increased 71 percent between 1997 and 2007.
It’s expected that women will continue to enter the field of farming due to a variety of factors, including: explosion of farmers’ markets and Grow Local campaigns; a stronger emphasis on eating healthy and organic, and a bigger awareness of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets; more women are going into business for themselves; and layoffs or early retirement forces some to build a second career.
“One reason for that is increasing gender equality,” according to Carolyn Sachs, professor of Rural Technology, Penn State University. “And the growth in organic and sustainable foods makes it easier to enter smaller markets where capital needs aren’t so huge.”
Patty Neiner, educational program associate at Penn State and a partner at Over the Moon Farms, Rebersburg, believes census numbers may or may not reflect reliably on actual numbers. “There is a belief that a lot of older women are getting out of farming, but others see a lot of younger women coming in who don’t call themselves farmers,” she said.
Challenges loom large
For the ever-increasing number of women farming in Pennsylvania, obstacles loom large in the traditionally male-dominated field.
“They often don’t have the level of assets men do, to get money or credit, to buy the equipment and technology they need,” said Carolyn Sachs, professor of Rural Technology at Penn State.
“Land access is an issue,” added Patty Neiner, educational program associate at Penn State and a partner at Over the Moon Farms in Rebersburg. “If you have enough money you can rent land, maybe even work with your local municipality. But many women don’t have access to the capital required. Besides the land, there’s a lot of infrastructure you need, and banks don’t generally want to give loans for that.”
Then there are the deeply ingrained attitudes about women in farming. “They’re not being taken seriously as farmers,” Sachs said. “Getting access to farming organizations that are male-dominated is a real issue.”
Help is available
Enter the PA WAgN, a Penn State research and extension program founded in 2003, in conjunction with the rising number of female farmers, to help women navigate the challenges and complexities of running farming enterprises of any size.
Through research accomplished by Sachs and colleagues in a paper, “Women Farmers: Pulling Up Their Own Educational Boot Straps with Extension,” many women farmers felt isolated from other women farmers, and from farmers in general, and women wanted educational programs to improve their agricultural skills and allow them to learn from women who had experience with the same problems.
The program, run by women farmers and agricultural professionals, offers educational programs, online information-sharing tools, webinars and Virtual Field Days. There are mentoring programs and networking events, such as the Women’s Wine Walks, held at farms throughout the region and a popular way for members to visit, share experiences and tour other farms, all while enjoying local wine.
“I think WAgN is really important because women have always been involved but they were never taken seriously,” Sachs said. “Specifically, women doing smaller scale sustainable farming said they weren’t being taken seriously by their male colleagues. They wanted to be able to ask questions and be taken seriously.”
Educational events are designed to combat issues traditional learning models presented members.
“There is definitely a different learning style that is more supportive of women,” Neiner said. “Women tend to like to learn in a discussion style, and the hands-on networking is learning-conducive.”
Neiner referenced a recent marketing workshop in which discussion groups, rather than power point presentations, allowed participants to share ideas, using the host farm as an example of how they could increase their visibility.
Unconventional teaching methods are a cornerstone of the program, notes Kathryn Brasier, associate professor of Rural Sociology at Penn State and a member of WAgN’s research team. Learning-by-doing events emphasizing skills such as dressing a chicken to learn about livestock processing, making cheese or changing oil for tractor maintenance all give participants a greater understanding of a topic as well as increased confidence in their own abilities.
There is another stubborn obstacle that women must overcome: physical restrictions. “Equipment may not be made to women’s bodies and require greater brutal physical strength that women in general may not have,” Brasier said.
But women are working on creative ways around that issue.
“When we were looking to rebuild our barn, we contacted another member and her husband and they gave us a lot of ideas about how to structure a barn so it didn’t require a lot of upper body strength,” Neiner said. “For example, women have more leg strength, so instead of storing heavy chains on the floor, you keep them a little higher so you’re not trying to lift them from the floor. There are ways to store hay so you don’t have to reach over your head to bring it down.”
“Green Heron Tools, for instance, has developed shovels and forks that emphasize lower body strength rather than upper body,” Sachs added. “There are ways to manage livestock using fencing and chain instead of just trying to push them along.”
The bottom line
More than 100 participants gathered last December for PA WAgN’s fifth annual networking symposium in State College. The topic was “Women Farmers Building Agricultural Resilience Through Diversity.” Participants shared inspirational stories, planted the seeds of new relationships, and gained both personal and professional insights through speakers, panels and workshops that covered a variety of topics such as challenges of different scales of production and grower backgrounds, urban farming, marketing diverse products, herbal remedies for the farm, and business management.
“Women have always been very involved in the food movement, making it more organic, sustainable and high quality,” Sachs said. “A lot of these women are trying to shape a new model of agriculture.”
Robin Crawford is a freelance writer based in State College.