4 Fantastic Stories of Women in Agriculture (Farming Isn’t a Boy’s Club!)

women farming

Agriculture seems like a bit of a boy’s club from the outside, doesn’t it?

Well not anymore. There are thousands of females working in farming all over the world. To give you an idea of the variety that is women in agriculture, we’ve taken the time to explore three different agricultural projects run by women seeking to make a difference.

1. Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm, Teaching Her Kids That Farming is for Everyone

dela ends

Image care of Tony Ends

Dela Ends owns Scotch Hill Farm, a certified organic family farm complete with CSA and farmstead soap-making business, with her husband Tony. The small, family-run business is an equal-opportunity farm, with an intriguing past. While Dela did not always intend to work in farming — she actually has a degree in history and had a career in Vocational Rehabilitation — when she and her husband Tony found themselves in Wisconsin for Tony’s work, Dela discovered that her calling was in agriculture.

While the switch to farming was certainly surprising, it didn’t come out of nowhere. “Ever since my early 20s I had a nagging feeling that it was vitally important to know how to grow your own food and live off the land,” Dela says. “I still believe that is important and wanted my children to learn to be self sustaining.” It was this desire and philosophy that led Dela to buy a small farm in Wisconsin. She decided to homeschool her children there, utilizing the farm itself as a classroom tool.

“We bought some assorted livestock mostly for 4H projects for the children and started a small CSA. This put the old farm back into agricultural production although it was very different from our conventional farming neighbors.”

And Dela’s desire to instill her own farming philosophy in her children worked out perfectly, as is evidenced by the choices made by her children today.

“Over 20 years later my oldest son is taking over the CSA and my youngest son has taken over our goat herd with his wife,” Dela says. “It is lovely to be to this point of transition.”

But working with her children is only part of the story. For years, Dela had to separate farm tasks between herself and her husband. Dela tried to look at this as a division of labor between two personalities as opposed to between two genders.

“My husband and I try to divide labor by our personal skills, strengths and what we enjoy,” she says. For Dela, this means caring for the animals and vegetables as well as mapping the gardens, while Tony does the field work and machinery maintenance as well as grant writing and newsletters.

“It is really a team effort,” she says. “My husband is more of a people person. I enjoy the solace on the farm.”

As a woman in agriculture, Dela has recognized the importance of her work as a role model for other women seeking to do the same, which is why she decided to participate in the In Her Boots workshops that Lisa Kivirist facilitates for the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). “I have known Lisa since the mid ’90s. We were kind of “pioneers” in sustainable agriculture in our area,” she says. Through the project, Dela has been able to share her thoughts on farming with other women, thoughts that show how much farming has taught her.

“Farming is hard work,” she says. “Things go wrong and that’s okay. Expect it, adjust and move forward. Sometimes the best laid plan turns out to not really be best. In farming adaptability is essential. Nature is good at throwing curve balls.”

And as for those who think that women can’t farm as well as men, Dela has quite a few things to say. “That’s sexist thinking,” she says. “There are some people who are not suited to farming (male or female). They are physically out of shape or have not desire to work in the dirt and nature. I know plenty of women farmers who can do every bit as fine a job as a man, even better.”

“In most of the rest of the world women are doing the primary agricultural work feeding their families and communities. In our country there’s been the farmer and “the farmers wife” who worked just as hard as her husband on the farm but was not recognized as an equal partner. It is positive change to see women taking their rightful place in the agricultural community.”

Dela’s perception of women in agriculture elsewhere in the world is particularly appropriate now that she seeks to join them. With her children taking on responsibilities on the family farm, Dela is working towards joining her former Peace Corps volunteer husband in the Republic of Congo, where he has been working since October, in just a few months.

“In developing nations we can share our farming skills with people who are really struggling to feed their families,” she says. After teaching her own children and fellow local female farmers these skills, Dela is ready to share them with the world.

2. The Fairtrade Foundation: Helping Female Coffee Farmers Become Self-Sufficient

David Finlay with women members of Kabngetuny cooperative

Image care of Fairtrade Foundation

David Finlay has coordinated the launch of a fantastic new program at Fairtrade Foundation with a very specific goal in mind: highlighting the hard-working female Fairtrade coffee farmers of Kenya.

The ‘Growing Women in Coffee’ project was built on the back of a pilot program with the Kabngetuny Co-operative in Kenya. Whereas these women often contribute 70 percent of labor to coffee plants, they are rarely recognized as legal owners or part-owners of these businesses. The goal of the program became, then, to transfer ownership of coffee bushes from husbands to wives, thus giving these hard-working women the recognition and purchase power they deserve. In addition, this transfer of power seeks to create change within the communities themselves.

“Research shows that when women are in control of a greater proportion of the household income, there are improved development outcomes for the community, particularly in areas such as health and education,” David says.

Further steps will include training in good agricultural practices as well as marketing endeavors to highlight women’s position at the forefront of the manufacture of these products.

While Fairtrade Africa is currently working with two co-operatives to find the perfect market for this coffee, be aware that voting with your dollar may not be feasible on an international scale — at least not right away. “One of the aims of the project is to grow the East African market for Fairtrade certified coffee,” David explains. “So it is hoped that they will be able to sell to local and regional buyers.”

3. Fulfilling Cheesy Dreams with Marieke Penterman

For Marieke Penterman of family farm Marieke Gouda, cheesemaking was, quite literally, a dream come true. She had always grown up in the milieu, born and raised on a dairy farm, but at first had a different goal in mind.

“My dream was to become a veterinarian for large animals,” she says. “My passion has always been cows, and because of what I wanted to become, my studies were always focused on agriculture.”

She pursued her studies and internships in the farming world, taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities and facing many new challenges along the way. “There was a farmer that made me work in his garden for the first couple weeks, instead of his free stall barn,” she recalls. “But after a successful calving, while he was gone, he started to trust me a bit more.”

The return to the world of dairy came from Marieke’s dream to start her own business before reaching her 30s. She was lying awake at night on the dairy farm, letting her mind wander as she overheard one of the cows calving in the night. “I was tossing and turning and couldn’t sleep due to the sound she was making,” she remembers. “I started to think that we should start making our own gouda from the cow’s milk.”

Marieke made her dream a reality — 10 days before she turned 30!

Where there’s a will, at least in Marieke’s case, there seems to be a way. She concedes some of the physical barriers for women in agriculture, saying that, “Females in general are not as muscular as a male, but our problem-solving brain can come up with different ways to get the job done anyway. The agriculture world is a very innovative world.”

Marieke’s goal-oriented way of working has paid off — in 2013, she was awarded the best cheese in the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. Even now, two years later, it’s hard for her to describe the feelings that flooded her mind when she received the award.

“Who would have ever thought that that would be possible,” she says. “The idea was just to make a couple wheels a week and sell it out of our little store on the farm with my husband. This was not part of the business plan.”

4. Jenni and Jodi Harris, Bringing White Oak Pastures into its Fifth Generation — And into the 21st Century

white oak pastures

Image care of Angie Mosier

Jenni and Jodi Harris are the fifth generation of farmers at White Oak Pastures, a farm that highlights both females and family.

However, being a fifth generation farmer isn’t as easy as you might expect. Both women were required to work elsewhere for a year after finishing college before coming onboard in accordance with a family rule, and yet both made their way back to the farm, Jenni as the farm’s marketing manager and Jodi in public relations.

“Working in a family business is something special and so fulfilling,” says Jodi. “I really appreciate what we do and the work environment that my daddy has created.”

“A job is a job, and passion is passion,” Jenni adds. “When I was working away from the farm, I focused on what to do in my time off. Go to the park, the bar, a restaurant… whatever it was, that’s what excited me. Working on the farm gives me the exact opposite feeling. I focus on what I can do for White Oak Pastures, how I can impact the farm and our mission. I lose track of time, because I’m motivated by passion.”

But perhaps one of the true reasons Jodi and Jenni have had so much success here is because each knows how to play to her strengths.

“It took me a couple of months to find my place on the farm,” says Jodi. “I began stocking shelves and doing odd jobs until I started giving tours and discovered that people really want to come here and learn more about this operation and our family. Then I realized we needed cabins for lodging and now, after months of doing research, we have five cabins to accommodate guests. And I have a part in inviting people here to show them what we do.”

Having grown up on the farm, it’s perhaps no surprise that neither woman sees her gender as a handicap.

“If my toothpick arms can pick up a 50 lb bag of horse feed, so can you!” Jodi jokes, and yet the very serious desire to show women just how much they can do in agriculture is clearly important to both sisters.

“Quit waiting on things to be perfect, or even an invitation,” Jenni says. “Take some initiative, walk wholeheartedly in one direction, working harder than anyone there, male or female, black or white, tall or short. Don’t use ‘being a girl’ as a handicap, because that’s all it will be — a handicap. At the end, you might decide that it wasn’t for you, but at least you found a starting place.”

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Farming image via Shutterstock: Eugene Chernetzov

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco