A trip to any Asheville-area tailgate market reveals as many vendors with hair pulled back into a bun as those sporting a bushy beard. Of course, hairstyle does not necessarily indicate gender, and although some farmers have both bun and beard, a great number of Western North Carolina’s farm-fresh products represent the hard work of women farmers.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013, for the first time in history, women outpaced men in the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in agriculture.
On a local level, Amy Marion, program coordinator for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Local Food Research Center, says, “Forty-five percent of all Appalachian Grown farmers in Western North Carolina are female, and 38 percent of the principal operators — people making the primary day-to-day decisions about farm operations — are female.”
“Women are the fastest-growing demographic in primary producers,” says Nicole DelCogliano, farmer programs coordinator at the Organic Growers School and co-owner since 2001 of Green Toe Ground Farm. “OGS tends to serve more women; people that come into our programs are more likely to be women — I think it’s over 60 percent.”
Women in WNC are obviously increasingly looking at careers in agriculture as an attractive and viable option. And with that, they are beginning to question accepted norms surrounding the definition of the word “farmer.”
Women’s leadership in farming is nothing new in WNC. “I am the sixth generation on a farm that was inherited from the female side of our family,” says Robin Reeves, who runs her family farm, Reeves Home Place in Leicester. “My great-grandmother ran the farm when her husband passed away. She had seven children and would take eggs into Asheville on horseback.”
Susan English, co-owner of the Marion-based English Dairy and English Farmstead Cheese, tells a similar story. “If it weren’t for the women on this farm, English Dairy, which has been here since 1900, would have closed.”
Annie Louise Perkinson, co-owner of Flying Cloud Farm, says her mother and aunt kick-started the agritourism industry that still thrives today in the Fairview valley her family has farmed for four generations. Apples from the family’s huge orchard were being sold to Gerber to make baby food, and in the early 1980s, Perkinson says, “My mom and her sister, Annie, started making the apples into a direct-market agritourism thing. They would press cider, and people could walk around and buy apples.”
But historically, the vital roles women played on farms did not necessarily entitle them to be viewed by society as farmers. Even today, women may be hesitant to give themselves the title of primary operator.
“When we do our Local Food Guide, we ask how many primary operators there are on the farm,” says Molly Nicholie, ASAP’s Local Food Campaign program director. “The person filling out the survey is often a woman. Usually, they don’t claim themselves as the primary operator.” Nicholie reports that, in many cases, the same women who do not see themselves as filling leadership roles on their farms manage their operations’ accounting, production, marketing, sales, infrastructure, agritourism, strategic planning, human resources or bookkeeping — all critical elements to a business’s survival.
White males on tractors
“It’s only in recent history people are starting to value the occupation of farming,” Nicholie says. “In rural Appalachia, people wanted to get off the farm because it was associated with poverty. So, as farmers are valued, there is also this opening up of what it looks like to be a farmer — it doesn’t have to be a white male on a tractor.”
Endless amounts of innovation and creativity can come into play when producing food. Gabi White, urban homesteader and Patchwork Urban Farm collaborator, began her journey to farming during college in Ithaca, N.Y. “I came into farming through wild foraging because I was so passionate about free things that are in the most beautiful places in the world that I can ingest, then enjoy the beautiful places even more,” she says.
She found it fascinating and fun to learn from mentors who were experts in areas of nut production, mushrooms, processing roadkill for food and gleaning wild fruit like pawpaws. Now she grows and sells plants and does raspberry production for PUF.
Lauren Rayburn, co-owner of Rayburn Farm, gives herself the title of “gap-filler.” “I run the numbers, handle and collect invoices, and update our weekly availability — pretty much anything that needs to be done on a computer,” she says.
Rayburn says she also spends a lot of time doing strategic planning, figuring out what niches her Barnarsdville farm can fill in the Asheville market. This is a critical part of any business, but one that definitely takes place behind the scenes.
For the operation she and her husband, Michael Rayburn, run, this means growing produce that meets the needs of the area’s creative artisan food and beverage producers, which can be anything from berries for The Hop Ice Creamery to herbs for the Asheville Tea Co. or pumpkins for a local brewery’s special fall beer. Finding a niche in a competitive market can translate to success or failure for a business, so having the vision to be strategic can change everything for a farm.
Thinking outside the stereotypical box for a farmer might also look like increasing flower production, an incredibly Instagram-able version of farming that’s seeing a recent rise. At Flying Cloud Farm, Perkinson says, “I’ve always enjoyed doing the flowers. They attract beneficial insects and pollinators. It’s fun having things blooming throughout the season.” Not only does she grow the flowers, she arranges and sets them up for clients at weddings and other events.
Meeting the challenges
So much ambition and drive are evident as women farmers describe their work, especially when discussing the challenges they face. Reeves recalls wanting to be a part of the WNC Beef Cattle Commission when she was young, but at the time, women weren’t even allowed to attend the meetings. As an adult, she went on to become the first female president of the commission, even though “one man quit coming to the meetings because a female was there,” she says.
White laments a lack of female mentors in the male-dominated industry. Recalling gatherings of women farmers, she says, “The culture is breathtakingly different. There was so much sharing and reciprocity; it felt a lot more equal.”
When her children were young, English says people questioned what would happen to her farm because she didn’t have any sons. “It used to infuriate me,” she says. “It doesn’t mean the end of the road for a farm just because I don’t have sons. Daughters can do it!”
If farming itself isn’t hard enough, the additional obstacles female farmers face point to a particular resilience and grit needed by women in the business. As global and political forces make it increasingly difficult to make a living as a farmer, innovations like offering flower arranging, producing value-added products and engaging in agritourism are the key to survival for many farms.
A series of studies from the Catalyst Information Center dating back to 2004 shows that organizations with women in leadership roles have improved financial performance, better-leveraged employee talent, increased innovation and superior group performance. That is certainly true in English’s case.
For 35 years, she worked as a nurse, making money to put help put her three children through college. When she quit nursing about five years ago, she started a whole new business making value-added cheeses with milk from her dairy. “I turned my hobby into a business, and now the cheese business supports the farm,” she says.
She thanks the attorney who advised her to start English Farmstead Cheese as a separate entity. “We are in the third year of terrible milk prices — they are almost half what they were five years ago,” she explains. Her cheese business is able to support her dairy business by paying more than market price for its milk. As a result, the generations-old dairy farm lives on.
At Flying Cloud Farm, conservation and diversification have been integral to the operation’s continued success. “I harvest everything there is to sell — the little sweet potatoes and the funny-looking carrots — I make sure they get picked and dispersed to someone who is going to use it, even if I’m feeding it to pigs or donating to Lord’s Acre,” says Perkinson.
She adds that setting up a farm stand along Charlotte Highway, the busy road next to her farm, accounts for a surprising amount of her overall business. The sales breakdown, she says, is “one-third farm stand, one-third [community-supported agriculture program] and one-third direct tailgate markets.”
Offering everything from berries to flowers to kale and squash, her stand can almost be one-stop shopping for the customer, and growing a wide range of products has benefits for Perkinson as well. “Having a diversified farm makes it more interesting as a farmer,” she says.
But sometimes making ends meet on a farm requires some moonlighting. Historically, Nicholie says, subsistence farms in WNC’s isolated rural communities were likely to source some income from women’s off-farm jobs. “When you were looking for work, there wasn’t a factory or other type of job; there was a school. And so women would work off the farm as a teacher or a nurse,” she explains. “So in some of these small rural communities, there were more employment opportunities off the farm for women than there were for men.”
White says she holds down two part-time jobs in addition to her farming work, while Reeves says she is an Uber driver part time. In Rayburn’s case, she always planned to have a second career outside of farming. As an environmental planner in rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she facilitates reviews and grants for the utilities sector.
After receiving a full scholarship from the USDA to study Earth and environmental science at N.C. A&T State University, she was guaranteed a job at graduation. Her husband studied horticulture. “He followed me around for a while — I worked in [Washington] D.C. for four years — but we knew we would move when we wanted to start a family.”
Kids and community
The desire to have children and farm eventually brought the couple to WNC. They now have a son, Elijah, 6, and Rayburn says she and her husband try to incorporate him into the farm activities and consider his input. “This summer he was part of the farm team, doing deliveries and handing off invoices,” says Rayburn. “Sometimes he would say, ‘Mommy and Daddy, you’re doing too much,’ and then we try to stop and do something as a family.”
“That’s one of the reasons women and younger families are drawn to farming,” says Nicholie, who operated a farm in Yancey County for several years before moving to Asheville. “It’s something you can do and be with your kids. When you talk to farmers, that whole lifestyle of living and working and being with your kids and having it be a part of your work is very different from other jobs.”
She describes picking up her kids from school and having everyone harvest with headlamps in the dark because the produce had to go to market the next morning. Or waking up at 2 a.m. to check on the sheep because “you have to see how the lambing is progressing, but then at the same time, you can stand with your 2-year-old and watch a lamb being born.” Not many other professions allow for that level of family involvement.
English says all of her children and grandchildren have always worked on the farm, and they still do. Her three daughters all have professional careers off the farm, but they still help with various aspects of the business. “My 10-year-old granddaughter can run the farm stand store in front of the cheese room. We sell more retail out of our store in two days than all of our wholesale business.”
As helpful and fulfilling as it can be to have family involved with farm work, DelCogliano says she talks with professional women farmers about how their role changes on the farm when they have children. “They didn’t really anticipate that,” she says. “Your career is interrupted in a different way, especially with a land-based-type business.”
She says she’s considered working with beginning women farmers through the Organic Growers School on ways to strategize for integrating parenthood into the business, asking questions such as “who’s going to do what, and how are you going to stay engaged and part of the business?”
In some cases, community becomes family and vice versa. Reeves has plans to give back to her community and to the Latinx people who work on farms in her area by constructing a building for hosting coming-of-age celebrations, known as quinceañeras, on her farm. “I have two Hispanic nieces, and I want them to have their ethnic or other cultural traditions fitting in here,” she says.
Seeing the future
According to census data, the average female farmer in the United States is just over 60 years old. Yet the work is physically demanding, and the hours are long. Reeves relates that she had a heart attack four years ago and now just can’t do what she could previously.
As a result, she’s had to make some changes. “I reduced the number of cattle I have and got some sheep instead,” she says. “They don’t require as much.” She also gets her cousin to help her when heavy lifting is required.
Perkinson also talks about the physical aspects of the work. “I think it can be healthy as long as it’s a diversity of activity. But truthfully I kind of hurt right now,” she says. “I’ve never really gotten massages, but I want one bad. But sometimes I don’t know when I’m going to have time.”
A growing number of resources are becoming available locally for women farmers to gather and address such issues in women-only spaces. An upcoming event planned by the Organic Growers School, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture and the Western Women’s Business Center will focus entirely on self-care techniques, yoga and networking for professional women farmers.
These kinds of opportunities to gather and share information specific to women in the farming business have the potential to bring about innovation and change in the industry, says DelCogliano. “Women want to be in a space where they are not necessarily shy or embarrassed to ask certain questions that might be obvious to someone with more experience,” she says. “So trying to create the spaces where it can just be women, I think, is important.”
Many visions of WNC’s farming future are not, as Nicholie says, just white men on tractors. Not only are there women on the tractors, but as Rayburn says, “There are multiple models and hybrids for sustainable agriculture.” She envisions introducing new products outside of existing markets and monetizing items through social media. “It’s a unique skill set sharing family, sharing farm life and not being confined within a stereotypical role.”
Rayburn sees women using technology and taking advantage of opportunities to get involved in farming on various levels. “Since I’ve been involved, I’ve seen a shift in agriculture,” she says. “It’s not just male, and it’s not just white. These shifts have to happen to ensure we’re able to have a more equitable food system.”