The number of female farmers is on the rise across New York.
A Center for Economic Growth analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s newly released 2017 Census of Agriculture finds a 24 percent increase in women farmers in the Capital Region between 2012 and 2017. Marge Randles runs a cheese manufacturing operation in Glens Falls and a dairy farm in Argyle. She’s noticed more women farmers and points out some facts that she feels are influencing the perception of women in agriculture. "The number of dairy farms has decreased significantly in New York state because of the economics. And I think there are less dairy farmers, most of them are male but there's less of those, so the percentage of women increases because there's less of the dairy farmers. Small farms have been bought out by large farms. Henceforth, there might be one farm but he might own what was four different forms. I presume you consider me a woman in agriculture. In reality, I'm a cheesemaker and own a cheese and yogurt processing business with my husband and legally, I'm, according to the IRS, we are not a farm, we're a manufacturing plant, So sometimes those lines of what's a woman in agriculture sort of seem a little fuzzy to me."
According to CEG, as of 2017, the eight-county region had 3,405 farms, and women farmers worked at 2,225, or 65 percent, of them. Regionwide there were 2,433 women farmers, or 40 percent of the 6,055 total farmers. Only the Hudson Valley had a higher concentration at 42 percent. At 678, Washington County was No. 4 of the state’s 62 counties.
Aliza Pickering, originally from Vermont, now calls the Pitney Meadows Community Farm in Saratoga Springs, where she is the vegetable manager, home. "I had a lot of women farmer role models growing up, and there's a really strong network of farms in Vermont doing really neat things. I guess I've never seen it quite just as a man's role."
For Pickering, it was a rocky road to farming. "In college I felt very kind of confused with a lot of things. I didn't really find my place and I just felt like coming back to the land made sense. There's just a lot of things in the world that didn't make sense. So what did make sense so what did make sense was doing something with purpose and meaning and growing communities through food could be an outlet for that. And I was lucky enough to have family background with those resources and so I then perceived that as an option."
Pickering loves the long days and the many facets of farm work. "I like to get to the farm before everybody else and kind of get organized before they trickle in and, right now it’s harvesting a lot of lettuce in the morning, before 9:30, you've gotta have those greens harvested, and then it's washing lettuce, getting it out to the restaurants and then shifting gears and getting into the field and getting a lot of field maintenance done out there. You know the crew usually leaves around 4 or 5, and I like to stay after and finish some things that didn't get done, and then I head home.”
Diane Allen co-owns Lavenlair Farm, growing lavendar in Whitehall, near Lake George. "We have 80 acres of land. The front 10 are what we have open to the public. And we have thousands of lavendar plants. 30 different varieties. Predominantly English Lavendar because it is much more winter-hardy for our climate."
Allen characterizes lavendar as "the jacknife of all of herbs." Products sold on Allen's farm, considered an agro-tourism attraction, include bath salts, soaps, candles, teas, jellies and honey.
Allen urges any girl or woman thinking of adapting a farm lifestyle: "If it's your passion, then go for it. It is a lot of hard work, you know it's one of those, as with any small business, the first 24 hours of the day go to the business and any time after that is all yours. It's a lot of hard work but when you see how happy people are it really makes it worthwhile. Particularly for women, owning a business, and farming is a business, make sure you're farming outside the box, so to speak. Grow wrong color fruits and vegetables. Orange carrots are a commodity, purple carrots are a novelty. Harvest them when they're tiny. drive down to the city with them and sell them to high-end chefs. That's how you're gonna make money. you have to be creative."
The 2017 Census of Agriculture also shows New York's average annual net farm income of $42,875 per farm is slightly below the national average.