鈥淎 Woman鈥檚 Place鈥 is a new series spotlighting the women making bold moves in male-dominated industries.

鈥溾榊ou don鈥檛 look like a farmer,鈥欌 Katie Morich recalls being told recently by a 10-year-old girl who she met while on vacation. When Morich asked the girl what she thought farmers look like, she replied: 鈥溾楢 boy.鈥欌

Morich is a 5鈥 2鈥, 25-year-old woman. Showing us around Bowery Farming, the indoor farm in New Jersey where she works, she tells us, 鈥淪he doesn't see me as a farmer. But it felt really powerful for me to be like, 鈥楬ey, I do this. You could do it too.鈥欌欌

Morich and her 27-year-old colleague Tara O鈥橦eir are two of 35 full-time employees at Bowery Farming (14 of whom are women), a tech-savvy operation that uses a heavily-controlled environment to produce fresh greens all year-round. Tucked away inside a nondescript industrial park, the space doesn鈥檛 look like your average farm, but then again O鈥橦eir and Morich aren鈥檛 your average farmers. They aren鈥檛 spending their days under the blazing sun, dressed in overalls and operating tractors. Instead, you鈥檒l find them wearing sterilized uniforms, using electronic tablets under LEDs.

Bowery Farming employees Katie Morich (left) and Tara O鈥橦eir (right), photo by Hannah Cohen

O鈥橦eir, an agricultural scientist, is focused on boosting production and maintaining crop quality, while Morich, a modern farmer, is responsible for day-to-day farm operations.

Neither of the women grew up with dreams of becoming a farmer. Morich went to school for psychology. After graduation, she was on the hunt for a job she was passionate about and 鈥渇ell in love in love with the bigger picture of how [farmers] can help change the world and how [they] can change the food issues that we鈥檝e been having.鈥

O鈥橦eir has a similar story. She was studying to become a doctor until she stumbled upon a hydroponic greenhouse course in college and 鈥渃ompletely fell in love.鈥

Even though they both strayed from their original paths, neither seems to have any regrets about diving into a notoriously difficult industry.

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Greens at Bowery Farming in New Jersey. Photo by Hannah Cohen

鈥淚 really do love being a woman farmer. I think it鈥檚 super cool and that鈥檚 why I got into agriculture,鈥 Morich says proudly. 鈥淚 think we鈥檝e just been told for so long that we couldn鈥檛 do it that it鈥檚 ingrained in our heads. We think, 鈥業 can鈥檛 do this job because it鈥檚 labor-intensive,鈥 but that鈥檚 not the case.鈥

O鈥橦eir and Morich make a point to say how empowered and constantly encouraged they are by their all-male bosses to experiment with new farming practices, but their situation isn鈥檛 exactly reflective of the state of the agriculture industry overall.

OLD MACDONALD'S INDUSTRY


For decades, American farmers have had the reputation of being old white dudes 鈥 and in this instance, the 鈥淥ld MacDonald鈥 stereotype actually isn鈥檛 far off from the reality.


According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture (the USDA鈥檚 most recent report on the industry), more than 92 percent of the country鈥檚 2.1 million farm owners are non-Hispanic whites with an average age of 58 years old.


Women own a dismal 13 percent of the farms that make up the agriculture industry, though the exact number of women working within those farms is unknown. What we do know is that the few women-owned farms tend to be close to 50 percent smaller than male-run operations. And with lower acreage comes a smaller profit. Only five percent of farms run by women break $100,000 in sales. In fact, 91 percent of their farms make less than $50,000 in annually 聽


Most of the women we spoke to for this story weren鈥檛 even aware of the notable size difference between male and female-run farms. Some figured that gender-biased financial restrictions like who does and doesn鈥檛 get approved for loans play a role in the disparity, while others suspect it may point to a fundamental difference in the way women prefer to farm.

DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

Is there a difference in the way men and women farm? Documentarian Audra Mulkern thinks so.

For the past five years, Mulkern has been traveling around the country, interviewing and photographing female farmers as part of her Female Farmer Project. Through her work, the Washingtonian has become a narrative proxy for women in agriculture, pushing for more representation in the industry and collecting an oral history along the way.

Mulkern describes women farmers she鈥檚 met as 鈥渋ncredible problem solvers鈥 who 鈥渢end to cooperate with nature as opposed to figuring out how to grow something where it isn鈥檛 meant to be growing.鈥 She recalls one woman farmer from her home state of Washington who purchased farmland with the intention of raising sheep for wool and meat. But as she started up her operation, she went through hell trying to maintain the meadow-like environment sheep need in a place that鈥檚 naturally more of a forest.

Mulkern says, 鈥淪he realized at some point that she was fighting nature to have sheep where they don鈥檛 belong.鈥 Rather than attempting to beat Mother Nature into submission, the farmer decided to shift her initial plan to accommodate what would work best with the land in question. She sold the sheep and instead invested in pigs, which thrive in the forest.

鈥淚t鈥檚 an interesting relationship that women have with nature,鈥 Mulkern tells us, which she says informs women鈥檚 approach to agriculture.

Photo via Getty Images

Despite women鈥檚 intuitive relationship with nature, Mulkern believes there are a handful of reasons why women remain underrepresented in farming. Echoing Katie Morich鈥檚 interaction with the 10-year-old, Mulkern says, 鈥淲hen there are no pictures or stories of women who have done [farming], you don鈥檛 know that you can. I really felt that if I could flood Google Images with photos of female farmers, then women would believe that they could farm.鈥

Mulkern started The Female Farmer Project after a trip to the farmers' market, where she noticed there was a woman behind almost every stall. 鈥溾榃hy did I have a preconceived idea that men are farmers?鈥欌 she remembers asking herself. After that, she left her job in tech, had a friend teach her how to use a camera, and got to work. 聽

As the project evolved, her mission grew beyond just establishing visibility. 鈥淸Now] the whole goal is to get stakeholders and people in policy to pay attention and see what was going on, because for the most part, women have been left out of consideration when policy is written.鈥

鈥淲hen there are no pictures or stories of women who have done [farming], you don鈥檛 know that you can."

Interestingly, for a lot of the women she meets, farming is an encore career. 鈥淭hese are often highly educated professional women who are now farming because they have a desire to feed their community,鈥 she explains 鈥 a trajectory that almost exactly describes the journeys of Bowery鈥檚 Morich and O鈥橦eir.

鈥淭hese are first-generation farmers. They鈥檙e not inheriting these huge pieces of land and farm operations,鈥 she adds. 鈥淭hey鈥檙e starting from scratch.鈥 And so 鈥撀爌erhaps for financial reasons 鈥撀爐hey typically tend to lease land as opposed to buying it outright.

鈥淔or a long time there were no loans available for that kind of [first-generation] farming,鈥 Mulkern says.鈥淭hey鈥檙e leasing the land and they need a loan to get processing facilities or an affordable refrigerator 鈥撀爏omething they can take if they end a lease and move to a new piece of land.鈥

Slowly but surely, Mulkern is noticing incremental, progressive shifts in the industry. Loan policies are beginning to reflect this kind of practice. She also notes that the upcoming 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture (not yet published) even changed some of the language to be more inclusive toward the ways women are farming.

Previous censuses only recorded a farm鈥檚 primary operator, which was (and is) typically a man. This time around, the questionnaires have opened up to include as many as six different primary operators. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 how women are farming today. They鈥檙e creating partnerships,鈥 Mulkern says.

A SEAT AT THE (COMMUNAL) TABLE

Whether because of systemic setbacks or fundamental differences, the smaller size of female-owned farms often results in a close connection between farmers and their local communities, since most end up interacting directly with their clients. Their produce is likely to be found in the neighborhood co-op, in nearby restaurants, or at the local farmers' market.

That鈥檚 exactly where you鈥檒l find Jenny Hauf on weekends. The eastern Massachusetts-based farmer runs Muddy River Herbals, a one-acre patch of land where botanicals are transformed into tinctures, oils, and dried blends.

Jenny Hauf on her farm in Massachusetts, photo by Zoe Jeka

For Hauf, building community and a connection to her land are both vital to the way she farms and a leading reason why she got into farming in the first place.

鈥淚 strongly believe that a large part of the reason women make such great farmers is because we tend to be such good nurturers,鈥 she says. 鈥淚 prefer [to farm small] because of how deeply intimate it is. It is so fulfilling to know individual plants and to get my hands deep in soil on a daily basis.鈥

Hauf鈥檚 business partner is also her life partner, so her farming community is quite literally her family. But even the workers she鈥檚 not married to are considered more than colleagues.

鈥淥n our farm, it really does feel like a little bit of a family,鈥 she says. 鈥淚 really craved having relationships with people that loved our herbs. I wanted them to be a part of it in a really natural way.鈥

At Bowery鈥檚 farm, when we ask Tara O'Heir what she values most about the profession, she echoed a similar sentiment. 鈥淚 like thinking about how [our greens] are going to end up on someone鈥檚 table and how someone鈥檚 going to love it. We鈥檙e touching the community. We鈥檙e bettering someone or a family鈥檚 life. I find that really powerful.鈥

THE FUTURE OF FARMING

Two hundred miles from Hauf鈥檚 slice of botanical paradise, Liz Dowd tends to crops at Brooklyn Grange Farm on the roof of an office building in New York鈥檚 Long Island City. With her 10-month-old, Jude, strapped to her chest, Dowd gives us a tour of a balmy greenhouse where most of the farm鈥檚 plants are enjoying a cushy start to life.

In a few weeks, all that鈥檚 in here will be planted outdoors. It鈥檚 her favorite and most challenging time of year. 鈥淭omatoes are the divas,鈥 she says with a smile. Then she points to the budding tray of greens and tells me those are the most likely to thrive when they鈥檙e moved into an open-air environment.

Dowd is the farm manager at Brooklyn Grange Farm, New York City鈥檚 largest, soil-based rooftop farm. From the moment we meet, it鈥檚 clear that Dowd is at home on this one-acre oasis above Long Island City. But as comfortable as she is farming in part of the country鈥檚 largest city, her occupation is still a bit of a foreign concept to the rest of New York.

Liz Dowd and her son Jude at Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm, photo by Cortney Clift

鈥淸People鈥檚] initial reaction is that [they鈥檙e] confused [by my job]. People are perplexed about what it means. They think I work in a community garden or plant flowers. And then I think it鈥檚 a lot of excitement. People have a lot of questions and want to see pictures and their minds are a little blown that we鈥檙e up on a roof.鈥

Maybe they鈥檙e confused, but surely in a progressive city like New York they鈥檙e supportive of her profession, right? 鈥淵ou鈥檇 think that,鈥 she says. 鈥淚鈥檓 always surprised at how that鈥檚 not the case. There are a lot of preconceptions and microaggressions.鈥

She explains that before she began managing the farm, a man held her position. Dowd says that nowadays, she鈥檒l walk through the office building of which the farm sits atop, and some of the neighbors will stop to tell her that 鈥撀爓hile she鈥檚 doing a great job 鈥撀爃er predecessor cultivated more produce.

鈥淭hey鈥檙e not quite realizing what they鈥檙e saying,鈥 Dowd says. 鈥淏ut the undertone is 鈥榊ou鈥檙e doing a great job, but that guy, he was growing tons more.鈥 When, statistically, the yields of this farm have increased over 25 percent [since he left].鈥

漏 Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

The general public may still be slow on the draw, but Dowd only sings praises about her colleagues at the farm. 鈥淚 have not forgotten that it鈥檚 a very unique experience to be working with another male who will give me the power drill and asks me to do the carpentry job or load the heavier things. We as women are really treated as equals here.鈥

Sitting with Dowd in her rustic, wooden office (okay, it鈥檚 really more of a shack with wifi), looking out over the Manhattan skyline, it feels like we鈥檙e witnessing the future of farming. Dowd鈥檚 baby is nestled in her arms, sipping on a bottle, while we talk about how to get more women involved in the industry.

Close the wage gap. Adapt old policies to modern practices. Eliminate tired gender stigmas. But then Dowd looks down at her son and offers up the purest suggestion there is: 鈥淩eally, we just need to raise feminist men.鈥

Written by: Cortney Clift