THEIR FIELDS TO WORK
EDITION: Final Edition
Farming is male-dominated, in part because of tradition, in part because of the labor involved. But as direct marketing and social media have evolved as important business tools, women became the ones updating the farm's Facebook page and acting as the face of the farm at farmers markets.
Carol Clement, the owner of Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow in Albany County, said in a general sense, women are more comfortable putting themselves out there.
"More and more, I see women doing it all, the marketing piece and the labor," Clement said.
There are more formal programs meant to draw women into farming. The USDA, together with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, funds a Beginning Women Farmer Program, now in its sixth year. The participants meet in 10 sessions and cover topics that include financial planning, marketing, soil health and grazing. It's an empowerment program, says coordinator Sarah Williford. More than 300 women -- many of whom tend to produce more diverse crops on less-mechanized farms -- have completed the course, which will be held this winter in the Oneonta area.
The New York State Farm Bureau was one of the first to do away with what was called the "women's committee" in an effort to be more gender-neutral, said spokesman Steve Ammerman. About a fifth of the county farm bureau presidents are women, and two women serve on the 15-member state board of directors. Many more are voting delegates at the annual state meeting to set public policy.
The Meacher women do everything by hand, everything themselves. Elfreda Meacher, 58, is a widow, but even when her husband was alive, the goats were always her thing. She grew up on the dairy farm founded in 1954 by her grandfather, Emil Ericson, and operated by her father. When she grew up, she became a nurse and settled nearby with her husband, a lab technician. She didn't choose the farming life, but she missed it. When she was seven months pregnant with Lauren, her third child, Meacher brought home her first two goats. Over time, she assembled a herd of Alpine goats and made milk and cheese.
"I loved being able to see them from the windows of my house. I would open a drawer in the kitchen and they would call for me," she said.
Lauren and Dorothy were raised to be as comfortable inside the goat pen as they were out of it. Now, Coon's children, 8-year-old Noah and 2-year-old Kody, are the same way.
The women don't make a big deal out of being part of a woman-owned and operated farm. It is simply the way they have always done it. Dorothy Meacher, 28, is single. Coon, 30, left home after high school and joined the National Guard. She said her ex-husband never understood her connection with farming, and it put a strain on their marriage.
Clement, who started farming more than 30 years ago, said the perception of women has changed over the decades.
"Back then, the other farmers (all men) were amused by this girl from out of town who wanted to farm," she said. At the beginning, Clement raised one litter of pigs each year, and unlike the other farmers, she kept them in a large enclosure so the animals could move around. But unlike the men, she didn't have the muscle to push the pigs back when they crowded her. Instead, she trained them to lie down when she tapped them on the back. Pigs are smart and highly trainable, she said; when they learned they would get a belly scratch if they laid down, they were happy to stay on the ground while Clement did what she needed to do in the pen.
"The men thought this was hysterical," Clement said.
Clement's husband, John Harrison, works the farm, too, but Clement is in charge. She's noticed it makes some people nervous. The guys who cut her fields would much rather deal with her husband, she said. Some of the sexism is more subtle -- Clement noticed the spelling of her name on the farming magazines that come to the house is sometimes changed to "Carroll," the masculine spelling of her name.
State Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, the only working farmer in the state Senate, said all small farmers face the same obstacles -- access to money to build their business and access to affordable land to grow crops and graze animals. But women are confronted with an extra hurdle.
"For women it's more difficult, because they're not seen as farmers," Tkaczyk said. "A banker thinks of a farmer as a man in his 30s or 40s."
Necessity also keeps women out of the leadership role on the farm. In the case of a husband-and-wife operation, it's often the wife who works off the farm to gain access to health insurance. Coon now manages the office at a construction company. Dorothy Meacher has a landscaping job. They women dream of a day when they can build a house near the barn and continue to expand their operation. Already, it is the focus of their lives.
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