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Women flourish in farming
Shunning traditional gender roles, they demand to be taken seriously
For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Catherine Lazure

Tricia Bross is no farmer's wife. She is the owner and farmer at Luna Circle Farm in Rio. Twenty years ago, when she started, women were farming, they just weren't always getting credit.

"When I first started, it was hard to get recognition," says Bross, 51, of being a woman farmer - and a non-dairy farmer at that. When she sought assistance after a hailstorm, she says she was asked: "How many cows do you milk, and who's your husband?"

She's gone back to the same office since, and it's not like that anymore. But the mentality persists in subtle ways.

Bross doubles as an accountant during tax season, and she sees that people fill in the occupation "farmer" only for the husband. "Why?" Bross would ask. The classic response: "I'm not the farmer, I'm a farmer's wife," even if farmwork is done jointly, as it often is.

But, Bross says, "Things are changing."

The number of women in farming is rising, in real numbers and also because farmers' wives are more often getting credit for calling their work what it is. There's also been a change in the way census data are collected.

According to the USDA Census on Agriculture's most recent report in 2007, Wisconsin had 9,176 women principal operators, up 58% since 10 years prior. Nationally, over 300,000 women principal operators were reported in 2007, up 24%, accounting for 14% of the total.

It wasn't until 2002 that the census counted all operators on a farm and collected more detailed demographic information for up to three operators, which now better accounts for women.

Why should gender matter? Both men and women have thumbs and a pre-frontal cortex. Both men and women can operate farm machinery. And plenty of women can handle the physical demands of the job.

Yet there does seem to be something different about the tone women bring to farming. The scene has its own movers and shakers: Bross at Luna Circle, a hub where many women learned from a woman; urban trailblazer Claire Strader at Troy Community Farm; Anne Topham at Fantme Farm with its renowned farmstead chevre.

Then there's Shirley Young and Karol Niemann's Young Earth Farm, where I've been a community supported agriculture member for the last few years. This year I have a worker share there. My hands deep in dirt, closer to my food than I've ever been, I'm a woman farming, too. And I'm inspired by the stories of mentorship, hard work and, yes, peeing in the back of the barn.

The Mentor
Tricia Bross, Luna Circle Farm

Tricia Bross has been farming for 20 years. She teaches a class at UW-Madison for beginning market growers and regularly presents and trains at farming conferences. Instead of interns, she now hires employees.

"There's still a few people out there who think I don't hire men, but after a couple of years you realize that's not really legal, and you have to switch that around a little bit," she says.

"People expected me to quit after a few years," Bross says. Because of her own experiences starting out, teaching women, in particular, was a foundation of Luna Circle's early years.

Her Rio farm has been important to women farmers who wanted to learn to farm from a woman, in an environment where everyone did the same work and no one was going to say she couldn't. Her interns have included Troy Community Farm's Claire Strader and Young Earth Farm's Niemann and Young.

"Tricia was a great mentor," says Strader. "I really wanted to work on a farm that was run by women, so that as a woman I could do anything, not just the more conventional women's things."

"I spent three or four years interning on different farms and had been frustrated with how women were treated," says Bross. "I actually had one farmer who said, 'Women bunch the vegetables, the men drive the equipment.'" Never mind that she knew how to drive farm equipment already.

Bross notes that women are often drawn to smaller-scale agriculture, like CSA farms, for a practical reason: Historically women haven't been the ones to inherit large-scale farms. Big farms are also expensive to start up and maintain. Most women haven't had that kind of capital or been able to get financing. And, she says, women seem to be better with the details, which is intrinsically well suited to hand-scale farming.

Bross says she enjoyed aspects of big, physical farming at points in her life, but as she is now in her 50s, she notes that "smaller-scale agriculture is a little easier on women."

She's grateful that the buy-local movement in Wisconsin has been so good to her. Indeed, both male and female farmers have been beneficiaries. She thinks the increase in support across the board is resulting in people paying less attention to gender in farming.

"I think most of us realize we have more similarities than differences," Bross says.

Farmer in the city
Claire Strader, Troy Community Farm

Claire Strader is the initiator on her farm. "These are our projects," says Strader, 41. "And I think that is different and new. Women are starting their own farms, versus women and men doing it together."

Strader started working on male-owned farms when she entered the field, and noticed a division of labor - whether intentional or not - that she wanted to move away from. She specifically sought out a woman-owned farm for that very reason in 1993 when she apprenticed at Luna Circle Farm. A year later she became a partner there and stayed through 1997. In 2001, she became farm director of Madison's Troy Community Farm.

Being a woman in the field doesn't register much with her these days. She's most sensitive about being taken seriously as a farmer because Troy Community Farm is a nonprofit.

Finding five acres of uninterrupted land in a city isn't easy. Troy feeds urbanites with its CSA program and sells its produce roadside; sprouts are grown year-round in the basement of a building at the Wisconsin Mendota Mental Health Institute. It's an experiment in feeding city dwellers and helping them feed themselves.

The farm's internship program is one of the pillars of that mission, and traditionally, it's attracted far more women than men (although this year has seen a boom in male interns, 5 of 13).

"I think a lot of that is because of the type of farming I'm involved in," Strader says. "It's a much smaller hand scale, which women have been involved in for longer."

Though she calls it "so stereotypical," she admits that "I actually don't like working with tractors. I don't like running that big equipment."

Then again, neither does the farm manager, Jake Hoeksema, who joined in 2007.

There have been some issues about how their roles are perceived, externally, when others presume that Hoeksema is the one in charge. "I don't know if people are conscious of doing that," Strader says.

Although Strader entered into farming with a can-do attitude and always felt confident, she acknowledges that sometimes women come to the farm with their own walls about what is or isn't possible.

"I think in general women feel more barriers to entering farming than men feel, and I'm happy to be a part of completely changing that on our farm."

Goat cheese pioneer
Anne Topham, Fantme Farm

The vet is at Fantme, a scenic hilltop property in the Driftless Area, buffeted by striated rocky outcroppings. The bucks' horns must be trimmed this morning so they don't injure an eye or prevent feeding.

"This day already looks different than I thought," says Fantme Farm owner and farmstead goat cheese maker Anne Topham. "Hopefully the cheese understands."

A stalwart woman with wire-frame glasses, Topham, 72, has been called "the grande dame of Wisconsin chevre" in The New York Times. I wondered if she can relate to that title. "Grande dame" sounds so white-gloved for this woman, who strikes me as more of a goat whisperer: discerning, sharp as a tack, curious, just like her goats.

Topham laughs out a bit of air. "The recognition's nice," she says. But her goal is as modest as ever: "Mostly, I just want to make a good cheese."

The farm's 16-17 goats are her soft spot.

"I don't think we ever would have done this if we didn't love the goats. The goats really were what started it."

It's spring, and all but one of the goats has had her kids. The youngest are seven days old, no bigger than a housecat. The kids are hand fed.

"People ask me if they're pets. They're not pets. They're ever so much more than that," Topham says. They're partners.

A taste of farmstead chevre from France was enough to lead Topham away from academia and straight for the hills to try to duplicate the memorable cheese.

She bought the Ridgeway property with Judy Boree in 1982. Boree remains a business partner and still milks the goats on Saturdays.

The farm was licensed in 1984 and began on a shoestring budget with one goat, two kids, and a book on farmstead goat cheese, available only in French.

They started when goat cheese was still underground and women were at the forefront of popularizing it. What's changed now is that men are doing it too, she says.

While women led the goat cheese movement nationally, Topham was the first to fill the niche in the Midwest. "We had to kind of make it up as we went along," she says. "Maybe the fresh cheese is what it is because I had to figure it out."

Topham was 40 when they began. She turned to her father, an Iowan Angus beef farmer, for advice. "Goats?!" he exclaimed. "That's what you get just before the banker comes to take the land."

Her challenges had less to do with being a woman and more with making goat cheese during a time in which she had few models and the market was still warming up to the very idea of this product.

It was a hard sell. "We pleaded with people to stop at our stand and taste the cheese," Topham says. But the interest grew. Her parents became some of her biggest supporters.

Today, L'Etoile buys her chevre as fast as she can make it. The American Cheese Society placed her Fleuri, a chevre with a blooming rind, second of its kind in 2006, and last August it named her one of eight "Pioneers of Goat Cheese" in the inaugural year of that award. She also makes fresh chevre and chevre in olive oil, and enjoys experimenting with herbs and additions.

The cheesemaking is a three-day process, and Topham is a one-woman show, working in the cheese room adjoining her living room.

Over 300 pounds of milk in a jacket kettle separates into curds and whey after the rennet does its work, with about a 13% to 20% yield.

The whey is decanted off the top, then Topham delicately hand-ladles the curd into molds.

"It's not efficient, but it produces the cheese I like to sell," she says. "“If I drop it, it will fall apart and the texture will never be the same."

Each mound of white, shiny curd quivers like a fragile sea creature as she eases it to safety.

"I find the curd beautiful every time I do this," Topham murmurs.

The clock ticks. "Do you smell that?" The sharpness of acid. The cheese is alive. She must work quickly lest the acidification go too far, her senses just as important as the chemistry at play.

"It's a recipe, but it's not a recipe," Topham smiles. "I use the pH meter, but it isn't the last word."

She works quickly but does not drop the curd: "We prefer perfect."

Shirley Young and Karol Niemann, Young Earth Farm

Young Earth Farm owners Karol Niemann, 35, and Shirley Young, 49, met in the sweet potato patch at Luna Circle Farm. That's also where Young first drove a tractor and Niemann first wielded a chainsaw. They started growing organic produce together in 2005 on their three-acre organic produce farm in Randolph.

"Everyone pees in the back of the barn," I'm told by Shirley Young on the first day of my worker share at Young Earth Farm. It's kind of how I sum up the meaning of all this in my head. Everyone pees in the back of the barn.

Their full-time employee, Brent ("Bernie") Olson, 24, works side-by-side with me most of the time. We clean and bunch vegetables as well as lift heavy loads. We use the same tools. It's the first time either one of us has worked on a farm.

I don't think about being a woman here except when I think about how this situation is kind of rare: that I don't think about it. And that's priceless.

Young doesn't flinch when she hands me a hammer and punch first thing on day two. I do. I want to do this work, but I haven't been taught.

"I've never done this before," I admit.

Her nonchalance was confidence-building. "That's okay," Young says, and shows me.

We disassemble a wooden structure. The chicks are coming in today, and it's time to make room for their relatively short stay. In just seven weeks they'll be rendered, and we will all take part.

I'm reminded of my own strength as I work.

Usually, Young and Niemann just go about their day until there's a reason to pause, and it doesn't happen often.

"When you're in a group of farmers they might not think you're the farmer. They ask who you're married to," Niemann says.

"Some people ask, 'How's your garden going?'" she adds. "It's not a garden; it's a little farm, and it's a lot of work. It's like gardening 24/7."

Young has stories, too. "The guy at the store still thinks I'm a guy. I've been buying from him for eight years. Maybe it's more comfortable for him to think I'm a guy."

"Or male farmers come up to your table and tell you how to grow your food, and it's sitting right there," Young says.

And you damn well better not pick up Niemann's buckets.

"If one of my male employees tries to pick up my buckets, I don't tolerate it," she says.

Young grew up in the "Great White North" in a different generation than Niemann. Her father was a farmer but never let her into the barn, let alone allowed her to touch the equipment.

At 38 she told her mother she wanted to farm, to which her mother replied, "Grandma always said you should be a florist!"

Niemann would tell people she wanted to be a farmer, and they'd hear "farmer's wife."

These moments linger. They remind Niemann and Young how they want to run their farm. They emphasize teaching, along with the hows and whys. They know, because of their own upbringings, that many women don't grow up learning the trades, or how to be a laborer.

"Your sex determined what you were doing in life, and now it's not even a consideration," Young reflects.

Niemann and Young raise their son, Quin, and Neimann sees the root of the gender issue in the school system and how kids are raised.

"Let's stop thinking boys and girls want to do different things," she says.

Bernie's well liked on the farm.

"Bernie never picked up your buckets," Young points out.

"He didn't!" Niemann smiles. "And I noticed it - that's so cool that he never picked up my buckets."

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