Loving farms, working fields no longer limited to men, as women's roles grow

On the Farm

September 10, 2006|By Ted Shelsby

Cheryl DeBerry grew up on a 1,000-acre beef cattle and sheep farm in Tucker County, W. Va., where, as she put it, "There were no little towns nearby."

When she moved to a tiny truck farm a mile outside Oakland, Md., a few years back, she brought her love of farming with her.

On weekday evenings this time of the year, you're likely to find her in the vegetable patch picking tomatoes, peppers, kale, collard greens and extended-season strawberries, and readying them for sale at a local farmers' market.

"I handle the farmers' market on Saturday," she said. "Other times, I help weed. I dig potatoes. I drive the tractor. I help make the hay, I do whatever needs to be done."

DeBerry is a farmer in a state that has 40 percent more female farm operators than the national average, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Women are the primary operators of 15.7 percent of the 12,100 farms in Maryland. For the nation as a whole, 11.2 percent of farm operators are women.

"Women have always been involved in farm operations, but they were not out front the way they are today," said Candace Lohr, 34, who took over the family business, Lohr's Orchard, near Churchville in Harford County, last year.

The 85-acre orchard produces a variety of crops, including peaches, apples, plums, sour cherries, pumpkins, sweet corn, strawberries and mixed table vegetables.

Lohr and state agriculture officials say the relatively high percentage of female farmers in the state is probably a result of the type of farms in Maryland.

Maryland has more part-time farms, more fruit and vegetable operations and more of the greenhouse and nursery operations that tend to appeal to women. And women are more likely than men to be selling produce at farmers' markets.

In the future, women are expected to be an even bigger part of the agriculture scene, said John Doerr, assistant dean of academic programs at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Doerr said that 60 percent of the undergraduates at the College Park school are women, the reverse of the national situation, where 40 percent of the students in agriculture studies are women.

In some areas of study, including animal science, where students learn to be veterinarians, the percentage of women exceeds 60 percent, Doerr said.

"Doors are opening to women to become veterinarians that weren't open in past decades," he said.

The increased demand for veterinarian service for small animals, including pets, and the declining populations of large animals such as cattle are creating more opportunities.

Other areas of interest that are attracting more women include greenhouse operation, landscape architecture and agricultural economics, Doerr said.

DeBerry's 9-to-5 job also is in agriculture. She is the agricultural marketing specialist with the Garrett County Office of Economic Development.

"I work with farmers to help them make their farms more profitable and try to develop markets for locally grown crops," she said.

"I love the lifestyle," she said of her involvement with agriculture. "I'm not afraid of hard work. I wanted a place where my children could go out into the fields and pick berries, where they could learn about bugs, dirt and engines - it's a good way to raise kids."

Lohr concurs.

She worked as an office manager at an auto body repair shop in Frostburg after graduating from the college there with a marketing degree.

"It got a little boring," she said. "I can't say that about the orchard. It's a hard life, but it's a good life."

The field of agriculture "offers women more opportunities than they may ever have imagined," says Mary Ann Ottinger, a professor at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

To that end, the college and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are teaming up to present a free symposium, "Women in Agriculture," on Thursday at the College Park campus.

The program will feature women speakers from diverse careers, including veterinarians, consumer advisers and botanists.

"We want participants to hear the stories of invited speakers involved in agricultural sciences and share their own experiences so that we can all learn from each other," Ottinger said.

The session will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Student Union Building's grand ballroom. Information: Loretta Carstens, 301-405-2072.

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