Women take larger roles in agriculture
On spring mornings, Terri Fetterolf rises before the sun and treks from her farmhouse to the barn to see if any of her sheep have gone into labor.
The pregnant sheep typically give birth between 5 and 10 a.m., and a sheep in labor needs to be checked every few hours. Once the lambs are born, Fetterolf needs to clean them up, tag them and put them in pens with their mother under a heat lamp.
“Nobody gets a vet to deliver sheep,” said Fetterolf, owner of Dundee Farm in Sewickley Heights.
The 32-acre farm once belonged to industrialist Henry Chalfant and his wife, Nancy Chalfant. Fetterolf owns and manages Dundee, while her husband — who has a “regular job” as a builder — helps out after work, she said.
That arrangement is becoming increasingly common in farming as women take on bigger roles, said Carolyn Sachs, a professor of rural sociology and women's studies at Penn State University. Sachs was the lead author of the book, “The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture,” published in May.
From 2002 to 2012, the number of women nationwide serving as principal operators of a farm jumped 29 percent, Sachs found. And for women who farm with a spouse or partner, many have bigger responsibilities than in decades past, she said.
About 30 percent of farmers in the United States are women. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said there were nearly 970,000 female farm operators in 2012.
“Women have always been involved in agriculture and farming, but they often didn't identify as being ‘the farmer,' ” Sachs said. “Farms were (typically) organized by family, and women were often identified by others as ‘the farmer's wife.' ”
Fetterolf said she always loved the outdoors and horticulture but fell in love with farming in the 1980s after visiting Dundee and helping Nancy Chalfant, whom she met through church.
“I decided we were going to move to this farm and it was sheep,” Fetterolf said. Because she didn't want to raise animals for meat, she focused on wool fiber after she and her husband bought the farm.
Many women are focusing on smaller farms that produce specialty crops or organic produce while large-scale commercial farms — such as those that produce more corn, soybeans or dairy cattle— are still dominated by men, Sachs said.
According to the Department of Agriculture, more than 90 percent of female farmers operate farms that generate less than $50,000 each. Eighty-two percent of farms whose principal operator is a woman are smaller than 180 acres.
“Women tend to be more interested in the environmental implications of producing foods for their families and for the broader communities,” Sachs said.
Jen Montgomery, 39, owns Blackberry Meadows Farm in Fawn with her husband, Greg. The 85-acre, certified organic fruit and vegetable farm includes some pasture-raised beef cows, a milk cow and fruit trees.
Montgomery was the one with farm experience when the couple bought the farm in 2008. For the first few years, she worked there with two business partners while Greg worked elsewhere. Now, she manages the farm operations while caring for the couple's two children, ages 4 and 6 months.
“The sustainable agriculture community is actually pretty forgiving, I think, in terms of being a woman farmer. We're all pretty progressive people,” Montgomery said.
“But I have gone and done things like go to the diesel repair shop and felt like I'm not being treated like a dude — either I'm getting swindled or ... I don't know what he's talking about so I could be getting swindled,” she said. “If I had my choice and needed to get equipment repaired, I'd probably just send Greg and let him do it.”
Female farmers face any number of obstacles, from bucking traditional gender roles to using tools designed for men's bodies.
“Mostly still to this day, when family events happen, the woman gets called off the job” to care for family members, said Fetterolf, who works with female farmers as a regional director with the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network.
“You still have animals to feed, crops that need watered,” she said.
Sachs said it isn't sexist to note that women have additional physical challenges when farming — a career that's physically demanding for anyone.
“A lot of the equipment and tools are built for a man's body and physical strength,” Sachs said.
Enter Green Heron Tools, a Lehigh County-based company founded by two female farmers with public health backgrounds. The company specializes in shovels, rototillers and other items designed for women using statistics and ergonomic principles.
The tools have larger handles to accommodate both hands in different positions, shafts in varying lengths and wider bases with angled steps, which allow women to capitalize on their lower-body strength.
“Our philosophy is to build on women's strength and what works well given the realities of our bodies,” said Liz Brensinger, one of the founders. “We're all about trying to create products that are truly going to work better for this really large segment of the population that was pretty much ignored before.”
Brensinger said their tools are nothing like the flimsy pink versions of tools some companies market to women.
“The whole pink thing is grotesquely insulting,” she said. “If they paid attention to function, that would be one thing.”
Sachs predicts that as emphasis on locally grown and organic food grows, even more women will begin farming and stepping into leadership.
Hannah Smith-Brubaker, a deputy secretary with the state Department of Agriculture and a Juniata County farmer, said she believes having women in top agriculture policy positions helps everyone feel their voices will be heard.
“It helps that (Sec. Russell Redding) makes it a high priority to diversify the face of agriculture,” she said. “I know it's a priority of the governor as well that all of agriculture be welcome at the table.”
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.