Women, farms & food

This Saturday we attended an all-day conference at the WSU extension in Mount Vernon, WA geared toward women in agriculture. It was one of 16 locations in the state hosting this event, with both local and webcast speakers. It was very eye-opening and inspiring to realize that there were over 500 women taking part in this conference. That’s a lot of people interested and working in agriculture in all its varied forms. From large-scale commercial dairy operators to backyard flock keepers, and much in between.

There were also plenty of opportunities to make connections with other women farmers, and everyone took full advantage.

One important fact we took away from this day is that size doesn’t matter when it comes to farming. Nearly every farm, of every size, depends on off-farm income to make ends meet, whether that be government subsidies for commodity growers, or a day job in town for the people of Seven Trees.

Another interesting fact is that while most Americans think of a farm as a giant swathe of mono-cropped acreage, planted, cultivated & harvested by expensive machinery, in most of the world the average farm is well under 5 acres and depends on hand tools and family labor.

In the past, the US census of agriculture only allowed one person to be reported as the main farm operator. That was usually a man. Now that the form has room for more than one farmer, women are being counted, not as ‘farm wives’, but as the honest-to-goodness farmers they are.

From the Grow Northwest article on the conference, quoting Margaret A. Viebrock, Director of the Washington State University Extension in Douglas County:

 “According to the Washington State agriculture census, female principal farm operators increased 44 percent from 5,632 in 2002 to 8,090 in 2007,” she said. “Women manage 881,612 acres of farmland and sell $184,307,000 annually in farm products.”

Ninety-eight percent of women-owned farms, she added, are small farms with total sales less than $250,000. While numbers are increasing, “women farmers continue to be underserved in agriculture education and technical assistance,” she said.

For more information about women farmers, check  out this amazing site – Women’s Agricultural Community Web Resource 

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The conference really inspired us to take Seven Trees Farm to the next level. This spring & summer we will be upgrading the hen coop, setting up and seeding high-quality grazing paddocks for the hens, and with Katie’s help, planting (and fertilizing) fodder crops especially for the flock. It takes more work and planning to grow your own feed, but someday we’d like to sell eggs from hens fed on homegrown chow.  What we decide not to grow here, we’ll buy from Scratch & Peck Feeds. They source their feed ingredients as locally as possible, which keeps our food fresh and our economy strong.

A longer-term idea we’re exploring is to raise our own replacement hens on-site. The big boys call the practice of controlling every aspect of production, from feed to hen to eggs, vertical integration.  We’ve come to rely on Barred Plymouth Rocks as our go-to laying ladies, and they are also an old-fashioned heritage breed that we would like to help preserve. It might also be nice to offer homegrown chicks for sale as well.

In the meantime, we’re starting seeds for spring greens, and anxiously peeking at the chard, spinach & lettuce plants that somehow managed to weather the cold & wind since last fall. It’s that time of year again – spring fever is upon us!

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