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Women Increase Stake in Small New England Farms

Six states in region are among the top 15 in the United States in female-run operations. Many are stepping out from supporting roles.

October 27, 2002|Krista Larson | Associated Press Writer

CHESTER, Vt — CHESTER, Vt. -- When Lisa Kaiman began pursuing her dream of opening a small dairy farm, she didn't get much encouragement.

Still, Kaiman, who first milked cows when she thought she might become a veterinarian, was determined to make it work. The Princeton, N.J., native spent eight years working on other people's farms, studying what she liked and didn't like. She bought an old farmhouse without running water or electricity and started remodeling.

In 1999, she officially opened her solo operation, Jersey Girls Dairy, a farm in Chester dedicated to providing her registered Jerseys with a comfortable life.

"I can't even tell you how many people told me it can't be done, you can't do it," said Kaiman, 35, who now milks two dozen Jerseys. "Which actually is really good because I'm stubborn as a mule, and the best way to get me to do something is tell me I can't do it."

She is one of a growing group of New England women who have been changing a traditional stereotype. Six states in the region are among the top 15 in percentage of female-run farms, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, completed five years ago.

No. 1 was New Hampshire, with 17.6%; No. 4, Massachusetts, 16.6%; No. 5, Rhode Island, 15.7%; No. 7, Connecticut, 15%; No. 11, Maine, 14.1%; No. 14, Vermont, 13.4%.

In the decade that ended in 1997, as the proportion of female-run farms nationally rose 37%, Maine saw a 57% increase and New Hampshire 39%.

Getting started in agriculture may be easier for women in New England because the region's farms tend to be smaller, according to Vivianne Holmes with the Women's Agricultural Network in Lisbon Falls, Maine, which provides workshops and other support services to farmers.

"Our regular traditional farms are small here in New England, and so if women tend to want to stay small, want to stay out of debt, want to be able to handle the whole process themselves ... it's less burdensome, it's less frightening to get into it than it would [be] out West, where you're talking thousands of acres," said Holmes, who has her own farm with small livestock, pigs and chickens.

Experts believe the figures underestimate the role women are playing because they don't account for farms that women run jointly with their husbands.

"Women really are silent partners in a lot of farms where they don't get a lot of credit," said Mary Peabody, director of the Women's Agricultural Network in Berlin, Vt.

They're now stepping out of supporting roles in increasing numbers, Peabody said.

"Women have money now that they haven't had in past generations that they're able to invest in their business," she said. "They have access to education; more and more young women every year are going through and getting college educations in animal sciences, and plant and soil sciences."

Jennifer Mayo, 53, started Arbutus Hill Farm in Meredith, N.H., about eight years ago. She'd earned a master's degree in environmental resource management and knew she wanted to live and work off the land.

"If you're a female farmer, I think you have to accept the fact that it is not the norm," said Mayo, whose 50-acre farm sells pork, lamb and organic vegetables. "A lot of the farming community is very traditional, and if you're a woman without a mate, I think it's even harder."

Mayo started the Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire, a group with three-fourths female membership, to help new farmers network with one another.

"I think it's a process, and you just have to be patient and just keep reassuring people that you really are serious and you have some very specific goals, and you keep plugging away and you don't let anyone discourage you," she said.

Some farmers like Martha Izzi entered into agriculture after long careers in other areas. Izzi, 63, a former federal employee, began keeping animals on her Shrewsbury, Vt., farm in 1986 and initially commuted every weekend from Boston.

Izzi has taken to farming in a serious way. She now lives there full-time and raises sheep, goats and chickens, alongside her husband, a horticulturist.

"We both have found our callings in some ways," Izzi said.

Another factor contributing to the rise in female-run farms is simple demographics. "As the average age of farmers increases, just by virtue of the fact that women live longer than men, women will inherit a substantial amount of farmland that they're responsible for being the decision makers for," Peabody said.

Operators like Rosina Wallace, 55, of Waterbury, Vt., are running the farms on which they were reared. She first worked as a teacher before returning in 1980 to the farm that her family has run for five generations. Fifteen years later, she became its primary operator after her father's death.

Still, Wallace doesn't consider herself much of a phenomenon. After all, her paternal grandmother took over the family farm she now runs after her grandfather died. And she was rearing seven children.

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