Maryland abounds with female farmers

Versatility: Maryland's relatively large number of female farm operators raise just about everything from trout to tobacco.

February 18, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

FLINTSTONE -- Like most other farmers, Mary Stickley is up at dawn.

She has the fish to feed, more than 150,000 of them.

Stickley, 72, raises trout for the state Department of Natural Resources. She grows them from eggs until they are large enough to be placed in Western Maryland waterways where they will live out their lives pitting their wits against the skills of sport fishermen.

While the Stickley farm, nestled in a hilly region of Allegany County, also has about 50 beef cows, the trout pay the bills.

"Oh yeah," says the soft-spoken Stickley, peering out from a flower print bonnet as she makes her way down the board steps leading to the fiberglass fish troughs, "we'd be in the poorhouse if it wasn't for the fish. It pays real good."

Mary Stickley is a farmer in a state that has about 34 percent more female farm operators than the national average.

According to the recently released 1997 census of agriculture, nearly 12 percent of Maryland's 12,084 farms are run by women. For the nation as a whole, 8.6 percent of the farm operators are women.

"Women do everything these days." Stickley said. "It's a good way of making a living. It keeps me young."

Stickley's fish farm is centered on a limestone spring that supplies a steady flow of crystal-clear water rich in oxygen needed for the healthy growth of the tiny brown and cutthroat trout.

She takes feed to the fish five or six times a day. Between feedings, she cleans the tanks to reduce the chances of bacteria that could wipe out a trough of 40,000 tiny trout.

"It's not hard work," she says, "except in the winter when there's ice everywhere and I have to go back in the house three or four times to warm my hands."

Ray Garibay, head of the agricultural statistics service for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said of the relatively high percentage of female farmers in the state, "It is probably a result of the type of farms we have in the state.

"We have more part-time farms and more fruit and vegetables farms that appeal to women. The person at the local farmers' market selling produce is likely to be a woman."

Marla McIntosh, associate dean of academic programs at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that 60 percent of the undergraduates in the school's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are women.

"This is just the reverse on the national situation, where 40 percent of the students in agriculture studies are women," she said.

McIntosh also attributed the high percentage of female farmers to the kind of farming done in the state. "Maryland has more nontraditional agriculture and more alternative agriculture, like greenhouse and nursery operations," she said. "I'm from the Midwest, where they have big corn and soybean farms. In Maryland, we have smaller farms with a wider variety crops that appeal more to women."

For Kristen Nickerson, raising hogs had more appeal than accounting.

The 25-year-old hog farmer studied accounting at Wesley College and was a certified public accountant for two years. "But that wasn't for me," she said. "I'm an animal lover, and I like working outside.

Nickerson and her sister, Jennifer Debnam, 30, run a 300-sow pig farm near Kennedyville. They will send about 6,000 hogs to market a year.

"It's a good living," she said of the hog operation. "I do some accounting work on the side."

A number of women probably got into farming the same way Mildred Darcey did. Darcey, 72, took over the operation of the 155-acre tobacco and grain farm near Upper Marlboro after her husband died.

"If I wanted to keep the farm, I knew I had to keep farming it," she said.

She is assisted by her sons, Kenny and Steve, who have off-farm jobs. "I keep the books; I pay the bills and make the decisions," she said.

Though most of the outside labor is performed by her sons, Darcey helps in preparing tobacco for market.

David Knopf, Maryland's deputy agricultural statistician, noted that 84 percent of the farms operated by women in the state have annual sales of $50,000 a year or less. By comparison, 70 percent of the farms run by men fall into that category.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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