Stefanie Stauffer battles against Old Man Winter and the first frost as she systematically harvests the remainder of her ripened heirloom tomatoes and peppers.
Stauffer, the owner of Nightshade Farm Industries in Ann Arbor, yields heirloom varieties in an organic, small farm setting to produce flavorful salsas and hot sauces.
She began growing her own produce when she suffered from a foodborne illness after a trip to Albania.
“When I was there, I got really ill from a foodborne stomach parasite,” Stauffer explains. “I couldn’t eat processed foods anymore.”
According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, there are 969,672 female farmers nationwide as of 2012. Females in agriculture account for 31 percent of the nation’s farmers and have a $12.9 billion impact on the U.S. economy.
But female farmers are attracted to agriculture for a variety of reason. Many, like Stauffer, are first-generation farmers who want to provide affordable, healthy produce for underprivileged groups.
“My mission is to run my farm from a food justice and food equity standpoint,” Stauffer says.
Erin Caudell is a first generation female farmer who started a nine-acre farm called The Flint Ingredient Co. with her partner, Franklin Pleasant, in 2012. They are stewards of healthy food access in the Flint area.
The farm, located north of Flint in Beecher, Mich., supplies the community with fresh, organically-grown produce. Caudell and Pleasant also own a grocery store in Flint called The Local Grocer that has been providing their community with locally grown, healthy food options for the past two years.
“[Genesee County] has one of the lowest health outcomes by county in the state, so we are really passionate about creating opportunities for people to eat healthy,” Caudell says.
Many female farm owners, like Caudell and Stauffer, find themselves drawn to small-scale, community-based farming. Hannah Weber, owner of the Land Loom in Ann Arbor, was introduced to small-scale farming at a young age.
“I was introduced to small-scale vegetable farming through my family. We were a part of [Community Supported Agriculture] when I was growing up,” Weber says.
CSAs are popular among small-scale farming operations. Members of the community buy shares of a farm’s produce or meat at the beginning of a season and receive weekly portions of organic fruits, vegetables or meats.
Weber offers a salad and spinach club where customers purchase a 10-week membership and receive weekly, crisp salad greens during the spring and fall, and garden-fresh spinach during the winter. She explains that the hardest part about owning a farm isn’t necessarily tending to the crops.
“Growing vegetables is one skill set and running a business is a completely different one,” Weber explains.
Female farmers, much like any female in a male-dominated profession, face an assortment of issues. Issues such as gender discrimination, patriarchal power dynamics, and lack of access to education plague the agricultural profession for women.
Caudell says that she sees the gender discrimination firsthand when purchasing farm equipment with her partner.
“I have a lot more experience with equipment than my partner and whenever we shop together they always speak to him only. He’s a good ally and often redirects it to me but inevitably the salesperson ends up talking to him first,” she explains.
Stephanie Willette is the co-owner of Two Tracks Farm, a pork, beef and chicken CSA located on 10 acres of land in Grass Lake, Mich. She says that she sees the patriarchal divide when she is selling at the farmer’s market.
“Almost without fail, people will ask me if I’m working on my family’s farm,” says Willette. “I think people don’t expect to see a young female as a farm owner.”
Willette also says patriarchal gender roles have led her to rely heavily on her male business partner.
“I hinder myself when it comes to certain tasks because society has taught us that men should do physical labor,” she explains. “For example, I don’t know how to do a lot of maintenance on the tools and machinery that I need to run my farm.”
Weber explains that gender roles defined by society have inhibited her from developing skills that would help her in her career as a farmer.
“My partner is a fabricator and a builder. These skills of independence and self-reliability were instilled in him from a very young age and I didn’t get taught that,” Weber says. “It’s more challenging for me as a female to be a single farmer.”
Luckily, Michigan Food and Farming Systems has created programs like the Women in Agriculture Network where female farmers learn to solve problems and create solutions together to grow their business and help their communities.
Caudell helped create the Women in Agriculture Network to provide educational opportunities that were led by women for women.
“There was a desire to have women-led educational opportunities that teach women how to use equipment, how to solder, or how to use a chainsaw, to name a few,” Caudell says.
The Women in Agriculture Network helped create a community that fosters the development of relationships between female farmers to support each other. Because of these developing communities of female farmers, women are becoming less of a minority among small-scale farming.
“On the small-scale farming scene there are a lot of first-generation female farmers so I don’t necessarily feel like a minority,” Weber says.
Communities like the Women in Agriculture Network are important to the growth of female farming because women bring a different set of values to the table compared to traditional farmers like white, middle-aged men.
“Women think about farming differently and a lot of women make choices outside of farming about what to feed their families,” Caudell explains. “Women farmers are also making decisions on what to grow based on what they think their community needs or would appreciate.”
“It’s based on connection and sustainability. In a lot of ways you can say that is organic farming,” Weber says. “But I think it could also be called feminist farming.”