UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Audrey Gay Rodgers has been running the Hameau Farm
in the Big Valley for about 25 years. Not only does she raise Scottish Highland and Ayrshire cows and Alpine goats, but she also runs a summer camp for girls on the farm.
Until recently, however, Rodgers felt isolated in her enterprise. Rodgers says she “no longer feels alone” because of the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network
She says that now, as a member of PA-WAgN, she appreciates “hearing about and learning from other women’s trials, tribulations and successes.”
Female farmers on the rise. Encouraging such camaraderie is one of the goals of PA-WAgN, which was created in 2003 as part of a study conducted by Penn State postdoctoral researcher Amy Trauger. Trauger discovered a growing group of women eager to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
With the support of Penn State Cooperative Extension, WAgN aims to meet the needs of female farmers across the state by facilitating activities such as monthly field days and workshops.
The rapid growth of WAgN – membership jumped from 120 to 500 in the past year – reflects an upward trend of women in farm management.
According to Census of Agriculture statistics, the United States saw an 86 percent increase in women-operated farms between 1980 and 2002.
Though Pennsylvania lost 2,000 farms between 1997 and 2002, the number of women identified as primary operators on farms climbed by more than 1,000 in that same period.
“There is an increase in demand for a kind of green, environmentally friendly agricultural product,” explained Trauger.
“Farms that produce that kind of product tend to be smaller-scale, less capital intensive, more urban and more community oriented. These kinds of farms seem to attract women like magnets.”
PA-WAgN founding member Carolyn Sachs, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology and Trauger’s academic adviser, added, “Conventional farmers are having a hard time making it without some form of off-farm employment.”
Sachs said many female farmers have had other, nonfarming job experiences that enable them to more quickly embrace new ideas for making struggling farms profitable than their male counterparts.
For example, women are increasingly taking the lead in developing growing markets such as Community Supported Agriculture (weekly shares of a local farm’s vegetables, meat and eggs or other produce) and the value-added production of foods, such as cheese and yogurt, made on the farm.
We need this. Trauger said while conducting her graduate research in geography and women’s studies, she found most of the women she interviewed did not know of each other’s farming activities.
“I wanted to change that,” she said. When she and Sachs met the director of the Maine Women’s Agricultural Network at a conference, they had what they call a “light bulb moment.”
The two organized a meeting of about 20 female farmers, activists and academics at the Equinox Cafe in Milheim to decide if it was worth organizing a similar group in Pennsylvania.
“The answer was an overwhelming ‘yes, of course, we need this,'” said Trauger. Trauger and Sachs started making connections and took guidance from key groups, including the existing WAgNs in Maine and in Vermont, and in October 2003, a steering committee was formed at a retreat at a Belleville farm.
Two and a half years later, PA-WAgN has grown to include outreach programs throughout the state.
“There really is a broad range of topics that people want to know about,” said Program Director Linda Moist, who operates a farm herself.
“Women farmers want to go to other women’s farms and see what they’re doing,” explained Moist.
Overcoming sexism. PA-WAgN member Sandra Kay Miller of Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, believes outreach activities are important for female farmers.
“After working on offshore oil rigs for 10 years as a petroleum geologist, I overcame a lot of sexism and discrimination,” she said. “It’s frustrating sometimes because as a farmer I’m up against the ‘good ol’ boys club’ again, and in some ways, it’s worse.”
Through PA-WAgN, Miller said, “I’ve found a network of women that I can go to for both technical advice and inspiration.”
As new members sign up every week through the Web (http://wagn.cas.psu.edu), PA-WAgN continues to grow. And its goals are growing, too.
“We are trying to get a discussion board or something similar online so that women can talk and share their information,” said Moist. She also hopes to create some online tools for business planning and marketing.
In addition, PA-WAgN now offers leadership training for regional leaders throughout the state to help women farmers organize their own local events.
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