Women are reviving Pa.'s farms

Some are part-timers whose lifestyle change matches care for their communities

October 21, 2007|By The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- In the early morning darkness, Kathy Fields rises, readies the ingredients to make a batch of cheese, washes and milks the cow and four goats, and turns out the horses to graze at her Upper Saucon Township farm - all before heading off to one of her two other jobs.

A midwife and assistant professor of nursing at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Fields is among a growing number of women farm operators who are sowing the seeds of joy.

While the number of Pennsylvania farms is falling, the number of female farmers has grown.

According to the latest U.S. Agriculture Department figures, the number of farms in the state fell 3.5 percent, while the number of women farm operators grew 21 percent from 1997 to 2002, the latest five-year snapshot.

A new breed of farm women, they often hold down full-time, bread-winning jobs as they plant, tend and harvest.

For them, farming is a labor of love. Many of the farms produce goods for niche markets: organic, heirloom or unusual vegetables, fruits, cheeses and other products. For most, making money is not the goal.

"A lot of us are getting into farming later, as we get older," said Fields, of Flint Hill Farm. "We're willing to toss sanity to the winds. It's just a different focus for women."

In New Tripoli, Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger grow 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, herbs and exotic vegetables on their 2-acre Green Heron Farm. They also have a consulting business for nonprofit groups. Brensinger is an adjunct professor at East Stroudsburg University.

They sell their produce at the Saucon Valley Farmers' Market in Hellertown and to Adams' son, Michael, the chef and owner of the Farmhouse Restaurant in Emmaus. "Nobody would work this hard for so little without it being a passion," Adams said.

In Upper Saucon, Fields, who operates the farm with her sister, Anita Russo, makes cheese, yogurt and butter from milk that is free of the growth hormone given to cows at most commercial dairies; spins wool from her sheep; and gathers eggs from her free-range chickens.

Fields sells her dairy products at the 28-acre farm and also at the Saucon Valley Farmers' Market.

"For women, farming is not just a job; it's a mission," she said. Women keep on moving toward their goals even in the face of discouragement.

Women farm operators have the "passion to continue when everything is saying it won't work," Fields said. "We catch a vision."

Carolyn Sachs, professor of rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University, says the increase in the number of women farmers will probably continue.

"It seems like what we're seeing is that more women are getting into farming as a second career," she said. "They have gotten some resources to buy some land. I see this as something that's going to continue."

Most women farm operators, she said, "really care about giving back to their communities."

Some women farmers sell goods in urban markets. Others, such as Fields and Russo, are starting educational programs on their farms.

A founder of the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network, Sachs said she hopes the organization "will help women scale up their operations" to make more money. "Women tend to have smaller farms, and less access to capital and credit," she said.

Linda Moist, senior Penn State Extension associate with the network, said the reasons women are turning to farming are many.

"My perception is that the number of women in farming is increasing for at least three reasons," Moist said. "The average age of a farmer is 57, and some farm women are widowed now and farming alone. Young women are increasingly drawn to farming as a career, particularly organic and sustainable operations that involve direct marketing and can be profitable. [And] middle-age or older women are leaving other careers and looking for a lifestyle change that allows them to live their values."

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