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Pam Flory first apprenticed at Howell Living History Farm near Lambertville, NJ, before serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga
Pam Flory first apprenticed at Howell Living History Farm near Lambertville, NJ, before serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga
Landed Jersey Girls
In East Coast lore "Jersey Girls" hang out in malls, not in fields of organic vegetables. Yet, in central New Jersey, more young women are getting into farming-and thriving. Is it part of a national trend?
By Laura Sayre
Farms at a Glance
It all started at Spring Hill Farm, when Pam Flory hired apprentices, all of them women – but not by design. The "movement" spread to Hope View, when a former Spring Hill employee started an organic field there, and finally on to Cherry Grove.
August 1, 2003: Pam Flory didn’t set out to create an ‘all-girl farm.’ But that’s how people started to refer to Spring Hill Farm, five acres of organic vegetables and flowers on the edge of Hopewell, New Jersey, a leafy suburban village in the rapidly developing country just north of Trenton. Flory launched Spring Hill in early spring of 2000, and for its first three seasons all of its employees were women: not by design, Flory emphasizes, but simply because most of the applications she received-and all of the strongest ones, in her opinion-came from young women.
Three and a half years later, the effects of that non-decision are still rippling through the local community. Although Flory herself is taking the season off to care for her new baby, Martin, Spring Hill is now under the management of Amy Longo, Flory’s second in command for those first three seasons. Another former Spring Hill employee, Erica Phillips, has started a 7-acre organic field at Hope View Farms, a third-generation family farm and retail produce stand on the other side of Hopewell. This year, Spring Hill and Hope View Organic have attracted yet another cohort of hard-working young women as full-time apprentices and part-time labor, one of whom wound up taking a job at Cherry Grove Organic Farm, another recent start-up just down the road outside of Princeton.
"Every time I give a talk about farming, that’s how I begin. I started out with no land, no capital, and I became a farmer. If I can do it, anybody can."
In fewer than four seasons, in other words, Spring Hill has not only earned a reputation for top-quality organic produce, grossing $17,000 an acre selling to local restaurants and at farmers markets (one of which Flory and Longo inaugurated, on the lawn in front of the local coffee shop). It’s also begun to function as a farm ‘incubator,’ providing training and support to young people interested in making a career out of farming and forging links with the remaining traditional family farmers in this area-who tend to be older, male, and growing conventional row crops, hay, and perhaps tomatoes and sweet corn. Incidentally, it’s also demonstrated to whoever’s watching that women can and do make great farmers.
Nobody knows exactly how many women are working on organic farms, but the consensus is it’s a number on the rise. As such, it provides another example of how organic farming is at the forefront of more widespread trends in American agriculture. What statistics there are suggest that in the US, organic farm operators are more than twice as likely to be women as are farm operators generally.
A report published by the USDA’s Economic Research Service found that in 1997, women were lead operators on just 9% of all farms, while the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s National Organic Farmers’ Survey of the same year found that 21% of organic farms were headed by women. Moreover, the latest USDA Census of Agriculture showed a significant increase in female farm operators between 1992 and 1997-from 145,156 women farmers to 165,102. The number of male farm operators fell over the same period from 1,780,144 to 1,746,757. (Results from the 2002 Ag Census and the 1999 OFRF Survey have yet to be fully crunched.)
Pam Flory, with son Martin: Pam is the mother of this mini-movement. By hiring women as farm employees at Spring Hill Farm, she unintentionally created a pool of hard-working women who spread out to other area farms as they gain experience.
In short, it appears that the changing conditions of farming are indeed creating new opportunities for women-but you don’t have to tell that to the young women farmers around Hopewell. If access to land and capital has traditionally been a major limiting factor for women getting into agriculture, these young women are proving that you no longer have to be born or marry into a farm in order to become a farmer. Nearly all of them got started farming by finding an apprenticeship-usually through the on-line listing maintained by Katherine Adam at ATTRA (the USDA-funded, Arkansas-based Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, a great source for all kinds of information about organic and sustainable farming).
Flory, now 37, first apprenticed at Howell Living History Farm near Lambertville, NJ, before serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga. Longo, 28, apprenticed at the Audubon Society’s Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, MA, and then moved on to Common Ground Organic Farm in Spring Hills, PA. Kerry Goodwin, one of Phillips’s apprentices at Hope View, spent last season at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek, MD. Caroline Wardlaw, 25, came to Spring Hill as a novice apprentice and is now working her second season; Meg Metz, also 25, is in her first year as an apprentice at Cherry Grove; as is Colleen Harrington at Hope View.
And while, as Longo puts it, "how and whether you can move up and move on is definitely a hot topic among apprentices," these women are also showing that for those who take the time to get experience, management opportunities can be found. Phillips’s situation at Hope View, in which an established farmer is supplying land, equipment, and some labor in exchange for consulting on organic production and marketing, is a case in point. Flory was instrumental in brokering that situation, and is herself a veteran of such creative arrangements. Before she started Spring Hill-which belongs to an heir of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, and got start-up funding from the Atlantic Foundation-she spent four seasons co-managing an organic CSA and farmstand that belonged to a friend. "Every time I give a talk about farming, that’s how I begin," says Flory. "I started out with no land, no capital, and I became a farmer. If I can do it, anybody can."
Although none of these women grew up with farming backgrounds, many of them grew up in New Jersey, and have returned from travels and studies elsewhere with the explicit goal of being nearer to family. Like Flory, Phillips and Harrington came back from Peace Corps postings-Phillips in Niger, Harrington in Malawi-addicted to working outdoors and convinced that the most valuable strategies for international development are those that focus on the direct link between soil health and human health. Otherwise, these young women were drawn to farming along diverse paths.
Amy Longo, current manager at Spring Hill, in the peppers: Amy, second in command under Pam Flory for three years, has taken over as manager while Pam takes a season off to care for her new baby.
Amy Longo majored in environmental studies and then pursued an interest in photography by taking a job in New York City. Once in Manhattan, however, she discovered the legendary Greenmarket in Union Square, and was hooked. "I started talking to some of the farmers there," she recalls, did some research, "and decided to go for it."
Caroline Wardlaw, in her second season at Springhill, earned a degree in anthropology from the University of Georgia and then worked as a field archaeologist, but found she harbored a Southerner’s attachment to the Jeffersonian ideal.
Meg Metz, first year apprentice at Cherry Grove: One of many new apprentices in the Princeton area, Meg works at a recent start-up, the Cherry Grove Organic Farm.
Meg Metz, an apprentice at Cherry Grove, studied gender and globalization at the University of Hawaii and started volunteering at a couple of farm-based, non-profit community development groups: the North Shore Country Market, which runs youth programs and a farmers market, and Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio, which trains native Hawaiian high-school grads in organic farming and business management. "There was amazing stuff going on in Hawaii," Metz reflects, "but I wanted to bring that inspiration back home and get involved with something similar here."
The Hopewell women report mixed reactions from friends and family about their decisions to farm. Most have parents who are generally supportive but not always fully comprehending-who worry about the low pay and (often) lack of health insurance that young farmers endure but are glad to see their daughters doing something they love. "My mom probably still doesn’t understand what I do," says Flory, "but my dad is so proud of me-the first thing he tells people is, ‘my daughter’s an organic farmer.’"
Longo remembers that when she left Manhattan, her friends "were all confused but I think secretly jealous. I have friends now who are lawyers or in med school, and they’ll say, ‘I wish I could do what you’re doing.’ I say, you can! What’s stopping you? They’re making big bucks, but they’re not happier."
Asked if they feel they have encountered gender discrimination in farm work, these women give an ever-so-slightly qualified no. Says Metz of working at Cherry Grove, "Maybe I head some of that potential off by being assertive and strong-which you have to be anyway to survive the work." On the whole, any negative feedback the women receive comes not from co-workers but from other sources. One strange situation arose last season when a reporter from the New York Times did a story about Spring Hill Farm that was laced with sexual innuendo.
"We were so excited because it was our first feature in the Times," recalls Longo. "At first we just laughed it off, but then we thought, why did they choose to do that? What kind of impression was that going to give people who were learning about the farm for the first time?"
"Sometimes customers at market don’t take you seriously," agrees Hope View’s Erica Phillips. "Maybe it’s age as much as gender, but it’s not until they see my hands that they believe I’m farming, not just selling." As Metz puts it, "I get opposition off the farm, not on it. People are always saying to me, ‘Why do you want to do that? Why do you want to work so hard?’" Longo reports that especially in the early days of the Spring Hill start-up, "as many times as you told people you were doing five acres, they’d say, ‘how’s your garden?’"
Erica Phillips introduces organic to Hope View Farms: Erica, a former Spring Hill employee, has started a 7-acre organic field at Hope View, a third generation family farm and retail stand.
After that initial period of disbelief or resistance, however, Flory and Longo emphasize, people in the area quickly began to rally around the farm-volunteering, bartering all kinds of services from cups of coffee to housing, or just spreading the word. Other farmers in the neighborhood in particular, the women say, were "enormously generous and helpful," offering advice, lending equipment, and generally throwing in their support. That kind of give and take has helped to stitch the young farm into the fabric of the community.
"That’s how it used to be" in farming areas, Flory points out, and "it just makes sense-to have one corn-binder, say, instead of three or four." In this way, too, these young women have established common ground with the older generation. "I like to believe that a farmer is a farmer," says Longo, "and generally I’ve found that to be true." Phillips agrees. "Any differences in perspective between me and Joe [Ruggieri, owner of Hope View] have to do with age, experience, and organics. Those are all much greater factors than gender."
Most of these young women are likewise hesitant to outline a set of gender-specific farming skills or propensities. "I sort of subscribe to the idea of women’s connection with the land, but I’m not sure," equivocates Longo. Flory is a bit more outspoken: "Women and men are different. I know I’m generalizing, but women tend to be more meticulous, more focused on detail. They put things away!" she laughs.
Another difference she’s noticed between the way she works as a farm manager and the way some of her male neighbors work, however, has to do with integrating production, marketing, and community relations. Longo agrees, explaining that that was one of the most important lessons she learned from Flory.
"In the direct-marketing or CSA-type model, marketing is half the work. It’s every bit as important as production. It can be the difference between making it and not making it. You’ve got to say yes to every inquiry from the local paper, be nice to every random person who comes up the driveway, because you never know when those connections are going to pay off. That’s not always easy for farmers, because they tend to be more loner-types. I’m like that myself; part of me just wants to be out in the field, on my own. But there are other days when the most rewarding part is being with the apprentices, meeting people, relating to the larger community."
That strategy seems to be paying off, both in short-term success for the farm and in long-term prospects for the farm’s employees. Asked what she likes about working at Spring Hill, Kate Michael, 20, replies, "What don’t I like? I love working on the farm-being outside, growing food organically, being in a place where I feel so welcome. I will definitely keep working on farms in the future."