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By Kelsey Figone, local food system and sustainability advocate

I asked my sister to describe an entrepreneur for me. “A man, obviously…he’s in front of a whiteboard, pitching an idea.”

This is our stereotype of the entrepreneur, a man that we simultaneously glorify and mock for his contributions to the changing face of business. But the entrepreneurs I’ve met recently are quite different. They look like women wearing durable pants and driving tractors. They talk about risk and cash flow, but they also talk about gravity-fed irrigation systems and weed control. They slice open a sun jewel melon in the field and pass around tastes during a break in harvesting. They know numbers and long days at work and competition, but they also know what it’s like to “live a life in tune with natural cycles.” These entrepreneurs are women farmers.

I met Liz Whitehurst, farmer and owner of Owl’s Nest Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD, three years ago at the Petworth Farmer’s Market. I joined her community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and our friendship ignited my interest in food and local agriculture.

I’ve carried that interest in my move to Oregon this year, where I met Brenda Frketich via her farm blog. She is the third generation to farm her family’s 1,000 acres of grass seed, hazelnuts, and various other seed crops.

These two women may farm at different scales and with different growing practices, but they are similar in that they both own and operate their own business.

So, what does it mean to be a modern-day female entrepreneur in agriculture? Liz and Brenda shared their experiences with me, and these are their realities.

Agriculture as business

Make no mistake, these women aren’t homesteading or “going back to the land” – these farms are their businesses. Agriculture, in many ways, is the opposite of nature because it harnesses the land for human needs.

“It is easy to romanticize this off-the-grid thing, but I’m totally ‘on-the-grid,’” Liz said. “I’m running a business, number one, that has employees and pays taxes like everybody else. Still, it’s beautiful that it’s not just that.”

While Liz manages her business solo, Brenda’s operation is a family endeavor. Brenda and her husband took over her parents’ land. Right now, the office work is chiefly her responsibility and she does a lot of farming with her three children in tow. The day-to-day of her job often focuses on planning, forecasting, and other typical office and financial activities.

While she grew up on the farm, she hadn’t looked at the farm as a career until mid-way through college. “I knew a lot about harvest because that is when I worked on the farm the most,” Brenda said. “But I had no idea about all the work that went in, year-round, to growing a crop and running a business.”

Women in agriculture

It’s clear that owning a farm shares many aspects of other, more mainstream, entrepreneurial endeavors. Unfortunately, one of those aspects includes a historical resistance to women owners.

“When I first started, I had multiple women approach me, saying that their dads wouldn’t let them farm because of the physical labor side of things,” Brenda said.

She initially encountered some physical barriers, such as adapting equipment to quite literally “fit” her or accommodate her when she was working alone. Now, she feels a lot of that has changed because of “how far farming has come with the use of technology.” “Something as simple as a cell phone has allowed me to stay a lot more involved ‘on the farm’ even when I’m home with my kids,” Brenda said.

She feels part of a generation and a region that has mostly accepted women farmers and encourages women not to despair. “We go to meetings where we are the only woman,” Brenda said. “We joke about it, and we move on because we all know it doesn’t really matter, the soil doesn’t care, the tractor doesn’t care, the plants don’t care. And if a guy does care, then that’s on him.”

Liz admits that she occasionally encounters male farmers who mansplain and assume that she needs help, even some “cool, progressive men.” Still, she doesn’t let it discourage her. She capitalizes on those perceptions of herself as weak and lets them give her a hand, thinking, “whatever, if you’re going to help me out!”

Support for farmers

Neither Brenda nor Liz will deny the incredible help they’ve received from family, mentors, and the broader farming community. Their parents supported them in different ways, with direct farming experience and land, or financial support to purchase a farm.

Today, they go to meetings, workshops, and retreats, where they can learn about the latest technology and methods from peers. They connect with other farmers at farmer’s markets and make trades for massages or meat or a crop that wasn’t successful. They cooperatively buy seed or equipment with neighboring farmers to capitalize on economies of scale. They also respond to inquiries from other young women farmers looking to get started, in order to keep that community going.

Liz views her role as a mediator between the land and the people. This mediator role helps her CSA grow and keeps human interaction at the center of her work. For both Liz and Brenda, farming is more than the land and its plants. They cultivate communities.

Considerations for new farmers

It’s important to note, though, that farming is a challenging field to break into. Both Brenda and Liz are white women, and were steeped in agriculture before deciding to make the career switch themselves. Like Nichelle Harriott’s blog post in January and Leah Penniman’s recent article on Civil Eats point out, communities of color may associate agriculture with slavery and sharecropping.

Also, don’t discount the financial barriers to starting a farm, with its high up-front cost and land access challenges. Most U.S. farm households bring in significant income from off-farm sources, with either a spouse or another family member working an off-farm or off-season job.

“It’s good to look seriously at your relationship with money and things,” Liz said. “If you’re going to be a farmer, you’re not going to be rich, I don’t know any rich farmers.”

Despite the challenges, Brenda and Liz are proud of the work they do every day. They’re entrepreneurs in their own right. As fewer people choose to farm, the population grows, and society increasingly values urban-centered desk jobs, their role in our food system is important. They need our support and investment, just like any other entrepreneur. Consider that the next time you go grocery shopping!

Kelsey Figone designed and implemented international engagement programs with PYXERA Global in Washington, DC. While living in our nation’s capital, she was a passionate advocate for strengthening and diversifying local food systems. She recently moved back to the Pacific Northwest where she is excited to delve into local issues of food and sustainability.

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