Women farming the Finger Lakes are on the rise
Written by Kacey Deamer, photos by Jan Regan
“A farmer’s work is never done.” The adage rings truer when the farmer is a woman, and even truer when the farmer is a new mom. Mere weeks after giving birth to her first child via cesarean section, Erin Bullock is already back walking the fields of her CSA farm in Ionia, NY. In theory she is on maternity leave, but there is produce to clean and decisions to be made.
“I can push the stroller over the farm, and wash lettuce for a little bit,” she explains.
Erin also joins her farm crew—all of whom are women—in the field to review the season’s planting priorities. While her crew is not intentionally all women, Bullock and her team at Wild Hill Farm reflect the growing number of women in agriculture.
“There’s this old-fashioned view that men are farmers, that it’s a masculine-gendered profession,” Bullock says. “But the qualified candidates who apply for the position are overwhelmingly female. The feedback from them is that they were seeking a female boss to work for.”
Over the past two decades, the number of women serving as the “principal producers”—like Bullock—on farms in the United States has grown by more than half a million. “Principal producers” distinguishes which farmers are the main decision makers, and the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture in 2017 saw a 23% growth of women principal producers.
In New York State, 65% of all farms have a female farmer—a total of 21,880 farms. Of those farms, 14,065 have a female “principal producer.” In the Finger Lakes region alone, there are 3,783 women identified as their farm’s principal producer.
The principal producer title doesn’t always translate from census data to real-world experiences for women farmers, despite the clear increase in women farming.
Amy Pyra has spent 25 years working as a livestock farmer, and yet people will still assume the male members of the farm are in the lead positions. Pyra started raising livestock at age 10 and while growing up farm decision-making was a family matter, but Pyra, her sister and her mother definitely took the lead. Now Pyra is a principal producer of Rugenstein Family Farm in Canandaigua, which she runs with her parents and husband.
“It was a hard thing for people to understand that we were the main decision makers over my dad growing up,” Pyra says. “There are still people that think that my dad and Mike [my husband] are the farmers.” These situations always give the family a chuckle, and thankfully have become less frequent over the years.
Women’s roles on farms have historically been diminished, with early records of women working in American agriculture limited mostly to colloquial evidence of them bookkeeping or marketing for farms. It was not until World War II that women’s stories were more clearly told. While men were called to support wartime efforts, women took control of the farms. In fact, the USDA Extension Service estimated that 1.5 million nonfarm women were placed in agricultural jobs between 1943 and 1945.
National and regional organizations—the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association, the Women’s Land Army, the Women’s Emergency Farm Service, to name a few—were established to support these women both in the technical aspects of their farm work and in building community support. These efforts continue today.
One example is the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming, a beginning farmer training and food justice nonprofit based in Ithaca. This year Groundswell launched a “Women on the Land” series of hands-on workshops covering topics from welding to butchery, designed for and led by women and gender-nonconforming folks.
“People shared how great it is to meet other women who are also trying to build their own confidence and skills in their life,” says Elizabeth Gabriel, executive director of Groundswell who is a farmer herself at Wellspring Forest Farm in Trumansburg, which she runs with her husband.
“One of the challenges for women farmers in particular is just knowing that it can be done,” says Emma Rainwater of Rainwater Farms in Honeoye Falls. “It’s not going to occur to everyone, ‘Yeah, we can do this ourselves.’”
Women have proven they can do it themselves, but everyone needs help sometimes. Like the formal organizations that supported women in the past, new digital networks are helping women farmers today.
When Susan Clark started Bristol Hills Lavender & Flower Farm in Bloomfield, she had education and experience to inform her farm plan. However, by reaching out to other farmers—mostly women—she was able to refine her farming efforts to be a more sustainable business.
“I met a lot of flower farmers through Instagram; I’ll reach out and ask them questions,” Clark says. “They’ve all been very receptive and very kind and very willing to share their knowledge.”
Despite many achievements for women in agriculture, some aspects of farming are still creating barriers for women who wish to enter the profession.
One of them being that most farming tools were designed and manufactured for men, with their height, strength and body type in mind, according to the USDA Extension Service. For a woman to use a tool that is too big requires more work and can cause pain and muscle strain.
For Sarah Meyer of Worker’s Ransom, her work as a beekeeper is exponentially more challenging as a petite woman because of the farming equipment available to her.
“At five feet, two inches, the suit is so big, especially long, on me,” Meyer explains. “The crotch of the suit is down at my knees so I have a really hard time squatting down to lift my hive boxes or bending over to check frames and entrances without having to hike up the waist of my suit.”
Strides are being made in farm tools—and by women, no less. The founders of Green Heron Tools in New Tripoli, PA, Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger, recognized this need for women’s tools, and developed their own product offerings as well as sourced size-appropriate tools for women.
“The ergonomic tools we developed also work very well for men, but for women they are a necessity,” Brensinger says.
Green Heron Tools’ cornerstone offering is the “HERShovel,” designed with an enlarged step to help women capitalize on the strength in their lower bodies. Much of the company’s work in creating tools is based on listening sessions with women farmers.
The number of women farming is likely to continue growing, even as the total number of farmers overall has gone down. Maybe that’s because the higher visibility of women farmers, like these, is inspiring younger generations. Or perhaps it’s because farming is becoming easier for women thanks to innovators like Green Heron Tools. Whatever the reason, women farmers clearly are here to stay.
Kacey Deamer works with the Cornell Small Farms Program as a communications specialist, and writes freelance articles generally focused on science and sustainability.
Jan Regan is a longtime Geneva-based photographer happiest when capturing the people, places and things of the Finger Lakes – and beyond. More at: janreganphotography.com.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Women’s Issue of the magazine.