Women farmers taking root

Call it the lure of the land. But a growing number of Minnesota farms are now run by women.

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Across southern Minnesota, women fill about half the chairs in workshops on sustainable farming.

Outside North Branch, a new "Girls Farm" project just graduated its first batch of would-be teen farmers. Near Rochester, women such as Kathy Zeman have joined one of the fastest-growing areas of agriculture, namely women-owned farms. "Looking back, I don't remember seeing any sole female proprietors when I was [growing up]," said Zeman, 53, who has run her own farm for more than a decade, raising goats, sheep, pigs, hay and more.

"We had strong women in agriculture, but none on their own," she said. "Whereas now, there's lots of us out here."

"Out here" is in Minnesota and the nation, where a record number of women are taking to the land. The number of Minnesota farms operated by women jumped from 4,205 in 1997 to 7,361 in 2007, the most recent figures available, said Doug Hartwig, chief Minnesota statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The number of women-operated farms jumps to more than 30,000 if farms where women are joint operators are counted, he said. That's roughly 40 percent of state farms.

The trend is fueled by new opportunities in small-scale farming, the lure of the land for young women in particular, and collapsing gender barriers for women such as Zeman who grew up on farms but had few pathways to start their own.

In addition, more and more nonprofits and government groups have launched programs to educate and attract women to the field.

"We're definitely seeing this as a trend over the past four, five years," said Brian DeVore, a spokesperson for the Land Stewardship Project, a sustainable agriculture association based in Minneapolis.

"Roughly half of the people coming to our workshops are women," he said. "Even if a couple takes the course, and they need to keep an [outside] income for health insurance, it's not necessarily the woman taking the job. It's often the man."

Organics fuel trend

Men still own and operate the vast majority of large farms with commodity crops such as wheat or soybeans that require heavy equipment, capital and labor. But woman-run farms cover the gamut, USDA figures show, reflecting everything from widows running dairy businesses to recent college grads entering specialty markets such as grass-fed goats or heirloom tomatoes.

Their farms range from one acre to more than 500 but trend toward the small. About 40 percent are under 50 acres.

Betsy Allister is among the 20-somethings entering the field. Armed with an English degree from Macalester College in St. Paul and a couple of organic farming internships, she and a friend rented a farm outside Rochester two years ago. They're building a business, raising sheep, bees, pigs and chickens and growing vegetables.

After solidifying a customer base, they plan to buy a farm.

"I was attracted to the balance between physical work and being part of a movement building local communities and sharing food with those communities," said Allister.

Up near Bayport, Sara Morrison, 36, is growing heirloom tomatoes, garlic and vegetables both in her own yard and on her mother's farm in Wisconsin. She sells them mainly at the Bayport farmers markets. She also created a side business teaching suburbanites in Woodbury and Stillwater to plant their own vegetables.

Like Allister, she feels she's contributing to the health of her community. "Plus, I like being outdoors. I like physical work," said Morrison, adding with a laugh, "I've found bugs are fascinating."

Zeman, meanwhile, belongs to the ranks of farm girls returning to their roots. She bought her first farm in 2000 after earning a college degree in Agricultural Business and working at the University of Minnesota extension service and several agri-businesses.

In fact, women now comprise roughly 60 percent of students at the U's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Men held that lead two decades ago.

"I learned early, as a female in a male-dominated industry, not to listen to people who told me no,'' said Zeman. ''I just needed to wait until I had the knowledge base and experience to do it on my own.''

Younger girls courted

Meanwhile, thousands of girls participate in programs run by various nonprofits, including a new "Girl Farm" run by the Women's Environmental Institute outside North Branch, which promotes women-run sustainable agriculture.

Last week, the first graduating class of about 20 girls, all from Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul, tended their vegetable field and talked about what they had learned.

"I learned bio-intensive farming techniques, what crops are good to plant next to each other, about what is good soil and not good soil," said Mehda Nagar, 13. "And how to plan. We plotted all this out," she said, gesturing to a field of peas, kale, cabbage and more.

Nagar now has a career path. "I want to be a frmer."

It's a long way from the days when agriculture was not a career option for women, said Yvonne Erickson, a retired Otter Tail County farmer and former president of the national American Agri-Women, a national coalition representing women in agriculture.

Erickson, who jointly owns a farm with her husband, Charles, said women have always played a big role in running farms. Many were relatively equal partners with their husbands, but they weren't owners and weren't publicly recognized for their work.

"There's more opportunity today," Erickson said. "It's easier for women to get financial help. The USDA and other groups are promoting women on their committees. There's different opportunities if you enter [the field]. And it's not just farming. It's research, marketing, agribusiness.

"Back in my day, if you married a farmer, you quit your job and became part of the farm," she said.

"A lot has changed."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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