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Sowing the Seeds

Author: Bonnie Durrance
July, 2011 Issue

For first time in decades, there’s an increase in farmers on the land—and the greatest percentage of these new farmers are women.


Just when it seemed the culture of family farming was going the way of the auk, a whole new generation is going back to the land. These people aren’t necessarily children of farmers, but “new people” says Jennifer Fahy, communications director of Farm Aid, the group Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews established 26 years ago to keep family farmers on their land. What’s more surprising, the new people are mostly women.

“According to the last farm census in 2007, we’re seeing, for first time in decades, an increase in farmers on the land—and the greatest percentage of these new farmers are women,” says Fahy. These women may be descendents of family farmers; middle-aged change-of-lifers; or people who grew up in cities, went to college, trained for established careers but then had a transcendental, food-related epiphany and took up a shovel and hoe.

Culture shock

What happened to most of these new people was: They discovered they liked real food. They wanted to eat real food. They wanted to grow real food. They discovered they wanted to get down in the dirt and make a go of it—as farmers. Right now, these new farmers, mostly women, mostly growing with organic or sustainable guidelines, all passionate, are creating, with chefs and customers who are equally passionate about fine ingredients, a whole new way of looking at food production. California and the North Bay women are leading the way.

Deborah Brenner, author of Women of the Vine and founder of Women of the Vine wines, brings a journalist’s insight to the pressures women farmers face and why women are now so drawn to the land. During a visit to Napa, as she was getting her first introduction into what was going on behind the scenes in wine and agriculture, Brenner began to be captivated by the strength and passion of the women who chose to work the land as their way of life. “Their passion is so overwhelming,” she says. “These women are not only facing adversity and conquering gender stereotypes that occur regardless of what industry they’re in, they’re also encountering the toughest boss in the world: Mother Nature.”

She talks about women farmers with the enthusiasm of a lifelong New Yorker just discovering a new continent populated with an unknown species. “In winemaking, you have to nurture something all year,” she says. “You get curve balls thrown at you from Mother Nature without any warning, and you only get to practice your craft once a year. It’s just an amazing thing to see someone nurture and grow something every year—and start over every year, from scratch.”

The biggest realization for her was that these women, like family farmers all over the country, were dealing with competition from large-scale, multinational corporations. “We’re not competing just with California, we’re competing with the world.”

Staying competitive

Multinational corporations are, as everyone knows, driven by profit, says Brenner; they employ modern economics and winemaking techniques to ensure their product succeeds in the mass market. “For our family farmers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete.” She wanted to help and, in 2007, decided to put her background in marketing and business to work. “Since I’m not farming the land, I could be out on the street,” she says, explaining that she founded Women of the Vine wines to be “the first collaboration of sustainable grape growers and women winemakers under one label.” Women of the Vine now partners with Farm Aid to raise funds to support family farmers nationwide.

“The economic model has changed here, as in many places,” says Jennifer Bice, owner of Redwood Hill Farm, a Sonoma County sustainable goat dairy farm and creamery. “The cost of land, feed and production has increased so much that agricultural commodity products can’t be affordably produced here.” By “here” she means Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, where commodity production, even of milk, has just about died out; and by “commodity,” she means the lower-cost corn and grain or low-end grapes for industrial wine production and their association with mass production or factory production.

“If you look around, it’s high-end wines, flowers, berries, organic veggies—it’s all pretty much niche farming in the three counties we’re talking about. The real reason is, the cost of land is so high, you can’t afford to do commodity products.” When she was growing up here, for example, the apple business was dying out, “because everything could come more cheaply from China.”

Many of the farms that have stayed and survived have done so, she says, because they’ve gone organic, like Straus Family Creamery or a lot of Clover products, so they can get a higher price for that same milk. Sonoma and Marin have also become hotbeds of artisanal cheese production. “And that’s because people still want to have their goats and farms, but they know they can’t afford to just sell the milk. They have to create a product that’s unique and different” for which people will pay a higher price.

A perfect partnership

“Goat products are definitely a niche,” says Bice. “When my parents built the original dairy in 1968 and I was a child in 4H, if you mentioned goat milk, people would gag. They certainly didn’t want to taste it, much less buy it.” Today, however, goat cheese and milk is desirable and fashionable, but with a small market. “I’m just so gratified in my lifetime to see the change. When I mention goats now, people say, ‘Oh, I’ve read about this,’ or ‘Oh, I want to try it.’ So that’s all positive.” And it’s a great farming model for women. According to Bice, about 80 to 90 percent of goat farms across the United States are run by women. But why?

Size, for one thing, she says. Goats are easier for women to handle than, say, buffalo. Also, because goat farming tends to be smaller in scale, fewer men are likely to go into it.

Affinity for another. “Goats are sweet, tame and friendly,” says Bice. “Plus they give wonderful milk.” Together with Cypress Grove, a cheese maker in Arcata, Bice started an annual Goat Festival in the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco in 2009. There, in addition to lectures and tastings of goat dairy products, she sets up a pen outside where people can see and pet the kids. This year, as with the previous two years, the kids were the show stealers, with lines around the corner to get just close enough to see them. (As one who’s stood in that line, this writer will confess: It’s hard to think of a more charming creature than a two-day-old goat!)

And values. “Women don’t tend to look at the animals as a unit to make money,” says Bice. “Most people who go into goats and goat dairying do it because they love the animals.” This love and lack of monetary focus, even in a strong business setting, is characteristic of the women farmers whose names and products appear in local markets and on local restaurant menus.

Farming for love

In Healdsburg, Heidi Herrmann, blonde and tanned, with a face that could be the emblem of a farmers’ market poster, is co-owner of Strong Arm Farm. She’s one of the “new wave of farmers” who choose farming for the lifestyle it provides. With a horticulture degree from California Polytechnic State University, 20 years’ experience managing estate gardens and farms, and an intrinsic need to “be on the land,” Herrmann launched her own farm business about three years ago on a rented plot and with a business plan. She’ll be the first to tell you the farm doesn’t run on love alone. For her, the farming and the business part go hand-in-hand.

“Many people go into farming to escape the office and organizational work of daily jobs,” she says, “but that’s a mistake. That’s why, a lot of times, people fail.” To her, what she’s about is clear. “It’s a business. It’s a farm business. And there’s some consistencies that go with that.” For her, the bookwork, the permits and licenses and careful tracking of it all—which has to be done in the evenings, or in winter, not during growing time—is, if not fun, “enabling.”

Now, with business partner Scott Knippelmeir, she produces specialty vegetables—crops that have a quick turnover, like beets, carrots, leeks and fennel. They also sell flowers, preserves (peppers and beans with cute labels) and seaweed (nutritious, if not delicious), which they gather on the coast north of Jenner. “The process of collecting is fun,” she says. “You have to cut it from the plant as it’s growing. Don’t ever take what’s washed up on shore.”

She’s now finishing their paperwork to get certified organic, which will be a big selling plus. When the label says “organic,” she says, the public knows the item has been inspected and meets certain standards, which makes it easier for marketing. “Conversely, with phrases like ‘This is natural,’ or ‘This is sustainable,’ well, what does that mean? If it’s labeled ‘organic,’ it’s explained. It’s done.”

With the future in mind, she continues working on her graduate degree in experiential education at Sonoma State University and, to finance the farm, she teaches sustainable agriculture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. She says her students tend to be the 19-year-olds, who are dreaming of a career on the land, and the over-50s who want to get out of their jobs and into gardens. “I tell them, ‘Keep your day job!’ The economic return isn’t there unless you have a crazy niche.”

It’s not that she wants to crush dreams, but business is business and farming has its own cruel balance sheet. “I talk a lot about economic return. Making a business plan: ‘Are you going to start your own seeds or are you going to buy seedling six-packs?’ ‘OK, you’ve just spent $80 on seedlings, how are you going to get the return?’” It gets down into that kind of detail. At this scale, every penny counts.

Still, in that little penny, earned from the sweat of her brow, there’s great value. “It’s not money motivated,” she says. “I value the control of how I spend my time,” she grins from under her broad-brimmed hat. “Farming puts food on my table, keeps me healthy and contributes to my community.”

Bees and berries

On another end of the “wave” is Shelley Arrowsmith, a former interior designer, who can usually be found steering a tractor around her farm in the southern end of Sonoma Valley. Arrowsmith, whose farming career evolved from tending a hobby patch in the Mill Valley Community Garden to farming (for pay) two and a half acres in Sonoma, says she does it for the life, not the money—but the money helps pay for the life. She and her husband, Norman Gilroy, left Mill Valley and bought the land so they could spend their latter years doing what they love. After some tutelage from a famous local farmer, SRJC instructor Bob Cannard, Jr., she now farms vegetables, raises bees and grows flowers while Gilroy tends the ducks. (They say the eggs are great.)

She sells at the Tuesday night Sonoma Farmers’ Market all summer long, as well as at the Marin Civic Center market on Thursdays and Sundays. “I start my season off with tulips, then roses, then I have berries (raspberries, marionberries, boysenberries and blackberries), then tomatoes—the European, Middle-Eastern types, black ones, the striped ones, and various kinds from seed bank sources." She also sells six kinds of basil, unusual cucumbers and heirloom apples. About 10 years ago, when they began worrying bees were in decline, she and Gilroy began keeping them. She now has 20 hives and, with careful organic treatment for mites as needed, all are doing fine.

For Arrowsmith, the farmers’ market scale works. “I don’t want to grow in size,” she says. “I want to keep my business small, strive to be the best I can at what I do and provide something unique for people.” But even with all the satisfaction she derives, she admits that farming, even on a small scale, is hard, unappreciated work. “The value that people put on food doesn’t really match up to the value of the labor that goes into food production.”

Small scale, big ambition

Lizzie Moore is trying to change that by educating her community about the joys of growing and eating real food. “I was a gardener before I became a farmer, and farming on a small scale lets me incorporate garden techniques into the field work and work with my own two hands, so the romance is still there,” says Moore, who runs BOCA Farms in Napa. BOCA stands for Building Our Community through Agriculture (and also, though she didn’t mention it, “mouth” in Spanish, which seems an appropriate association). “I’m sure that if I were farming hundreds of acres, it would be different.”

Moore thinks farming organically allows for a meditative quality of life, especially in the cool months, with all the work in the greenhouse. “You enter through the door, and it’s this quiet, private place. You’re working with fine motor skills, precision, focus, transplanting things, monitoring things, looking delicately and closely at everything. So it’s different from the major work we do in the summertime—weeding, irrigation, driving the tractor. It’s this whole other realm.”

The project started up last year. “I was working as a teacher at Blue Oak School in Napa,” says Moore, “and began discussion with a parent and chair of the school board, Tim Rogers, about acreage he had leased behind his vineyard management business. Tim and his family wanted to create something agriculture-based that would be beneficial and educational for the community, especially children.’” The idea was to create an organic farm that would be a community education center, and to open an area of the farm as a small community garden as well as a learning garden for kids. “We’re trying to work within our current food system in Napa to do something that’s fruitful and benefits our whole community,” she says. “We believe that sustainable, accessible agriculture and community welfare are interconnected, and our mission statement says that.”

Profit is the goal, but not the point

“Right now, we’re custom growing produce for five local restaurants,” says Moore. “The chefs choose what we grow, and each restaurant has its own plot at the farm.” This guarantees the chefs can boast genuinely custom-grown produce. To help them choose, she meets with chefs regularly, shows them catalogs, asks what they want and then constantly communicates with them about when things are ready and how they’re tasting. “So it’s basically like they have their own culinary garden.” Moore says she likes the direct sale model, because she gets to know the food intimately and gets to combine field work with tasting food with chefs in their kitchens.

BOCA Farm was formed with the real principle of farming for the whole community. It’s inspired by many different farm and garden programs in our area, such as the Life Lab Science program in Santa Cruz and the Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley (part of the Chez Panisse Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by chef and author Alice Waters).

Values veer from the mainstream

“I was always extremely grateful to Alice Waters,” says Annabelle Lenderink of La Tercera, a niche organic grower in Bolinas. “I feel, without her, we wouldn’t be able to be viable as small farmers.”

Lenderink, whose parents were Dutch and English, came to California to farm organically in 1989 after going to school in Holland and living in the Caribbean and New Orleans. She farms five and a half acres and has a crew, accounts in the farmers’ markets in Berkeley and the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, plus restaurant accounts—plus a full-time job. She says she’s in the business for love. “I like to grow forgotten vegetables, things off the beaten track,” she says. “I like to go to Europe and find things people haven’t thought of growing here.”

She came to the farm, as many do, via food. “A lot of chefs are starting their own gardens,” she says. “Once you start cooking with something, you want to know how it’s grown. Once you’re growing your own stuff, you get to pick your own varieties.” She became interested in organic food while living in New Orleans, but at the time, finding such products was fairly rare. “There were only two organic farms within 100 miles of New Orleans,” she says. So she set out for California thinking farming would be fun.

Lucky for her, making vast sums of money in a corporate model wasn’t her dream. To remain viable, she currently works full time as sales manager for Star Route Farm, her neighbor in Bolinas, and does her own markets on her days off. The job supplies her with housing and health insurance (“It keeps me afloat”) and she says she breaks even most years. But, again, thanks to Waters and the culture of awareness—even reverence—for healthy, organic, interesting ingredients, chefs are always interested in knowing about new sources for new varieties and fine tasting, organically grown food, and customers are always eager to buy them at the markets. She praises Waters for that.

“I think she created a whole new way of eating and, because of that, I have customers. It took 30 years, but look at it!”

Trends come and go, some stay longer than others—think lava lamps and hula hoops—but the trend that’s been building of women going back to the land as owner, farmer, grower or winemaker is a trend that must be here to stay. As long as people care about health, life and quality of living, farmers will continue offering an edible experience direct from the land. Even if you can’t afford Chez Panisse, just go to a farmers market and feel the glow. These women (and, let’s be fair, there are men who do this, too!) are preserving the essence of health and life in the way we eat and relate to our food. It doesn’t get more basic than that.


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