At forum, women told, treat farm as a business

Networking, ideas, resources and skills are emphasized at agricultural session


The hot topics at the Women in Agriculture Forum at the Howard County Fairgrounds this week were not particularly feminine, or even specific to farming.

Even before the forum, the message from participants was that "it is not about being a woman; it's about having business skills," said Ginger S. Myers, an agricultural specialist for the Howard County Economic Development Authority and one of the organizers.

So, speakers were invited to talk about labor issues, insurance, marketing and business plans at an event that drew about 40 women from Howard and neighboring counties and that organizers hope will be an annual gathering.

In its 2002 census, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 5,530 women operators worked on Maryland farms. That was the first year the census counted more than one operator per farm, creating a more complete picture of women's roles in the farm community.

In 2002, there were 1,917 farms in Maryland where women were the principal operators, the census found, including 100 in Howard County and 178 in Carroll County. That was a jump from 1997, when there were 1,614 female principal operators in the state.

Martha Clark, whose family farms 400 acres in Glenelg, said she believes there are more women moving into farming locally. Some are looking for productive ways to use a few acres of land, she said, or seeking jobs that let them stay at home with children. Others have enjoyed a taste of farming through their children's 4-H projects.

Sally Voris moved from Elkridge to a 132-acre farm near Taneytown this year, shortly after she inherited the property from her parents.

She rents much of the land at White Rose Farm to nearby farmers and sells memberships to people who want to enjoy her "minifarm," with its garden, pond, flowers and animals.

"I always wanted to run a farm retreat," she said. "Now I can do what I dreamed of doing."

She said she appreciated the networking that took place at the forum. Several women suggested ideas and resources after she asked questions.

One of the key pieces of advice at the event was summed up by Jack Gurley, owner of Calvert's Gift farm in Sparks.

"You have to treat your farm like a business," he said.

To learn how to do that, participants spent several hours hearing about different types of corporations they can set up, regulations they should observe to limit their insurance liability and issues with hiring, managing and retaining workers.

They also heard from three farmers about their marketing efforts and from one speaker about balancing work, family and personal lives.

Despite the challenges, Gurley said, farming can be a satisfying enterprise. He said that by fine-tuning their production and marketing of organic vegetables, he and his wife have achieved the lifestyle they want, including vacations, hobbies and time with their family.

The current forum is a revival of a program run by women farmers about 20 years ago, Clark said.

At that time, "Women's contributions to farming weren't recognized," she said, though women were often keeping the books and serving other important functions on family farms.

Today, farming has changed, Clark said. Locally, there are fewer farms producing grain and milk and selling their products through large cooperatives. Surveys confirm that more and more farms in Central Maryland are small, niche businesses that rely on direct marketing to customers in nearby suburbs and cities to get more money for each product.

As more women embrace these enterprises, Clark, Myers and Caragh Fitzgerald, an educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension, decided it was time to get them together through the forum.

"I think women will talk more around each other," said Carolyn Derrenbacher, of Dayton.

Now that her children have a few animals for 4-H, including goats and ponies, she wanted to get some ideas about starting a farm business. She said her family has 5 acres and wants to know "what can we do ... to put that land to use."

Diane Brown, who owns Carlhaven Emu Farm in Highland, said the forum "is kind of a pep rally. It's interesting to hear what other people are doing."

She said farmers often feel isolated. "It is energizing to me [to attend the forum]," she said, "particularly with other women farmers."

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