Women’s Agricultural Network—WAgN

Wellspring Farm apprentice Jillian Abraham
Wellspring Farm apprentice Jillian Abraham

Written By

Elizabeth Ferry

Written on

September 01 , 2009

We all know that the number of farmers in America is declining and their age is increasing. Given that farming is often associated with men, we may interpret this to mean that fewer men are going into farming.

But the word farmer isn’t gender specific. The number of women in agriculture is actually growing, according to experts in the field. And you can see it for yourself. Shop at a farmers’ market, sign up for a CSA membership, or see who is delivering farm-fresh produce to a local restaurant, and increasingly, chances are the farmer is a woman.

Yet women, even today, are underserved by federal agricultural programs. This often puts women farmers at a disadvantage when it comes to their male counterparts and deprives them of services that could add to the health and stability not only of their businesses, but their rural communities.

Since 1995, Women’s Agricultural Network—WAgN—has been providing educational and networking opportunities to women who are, or want to be, farmers. A project of the University of Vermont’s Cooperative Extension, WAgN seeks to increase the number of women owning and operating profitable farms and ag-related businesses. It also works to increase women’s profile in the agricultural sectors of business, government, and community.

But why do women need an organization directed at them? Why draw attention to gender rather than just blending in with the guys? Looking to hear answers to these questions, I spoke with the leaders of WAgN and with a farmer who has benefited from, and now contributes to, their programs.

Growing Out of an Earlier Dairy Crisis

Mary Peabody began working for UVM Extension in 1988. Her familiarity with farming in Vermont comes through in the way she explains that time 21 years ago. “That was the last major dairy crisis,” she says, then adds with poignant humor, “or maybe it’s all been one big dairy crisis.”

Peabody had experience farming in Vermont and New Hampshire. When she arrived at UVM Extension, she began running workshops for farmers who were mired in the difficult dairy situation. But at her workshops, she noticed a split along gender lines. Men would tend to be active in the forum discussion, while “the women, in general, would be quiet—until break time, and then would rush to talk to other women,” she recalls.

She found that a gender gap also existed in agricultural leadership. Men tended to be officers of farm-related associations, wrote regulations, and went out to farms to do inspections. Women’s ideas and businesses weren’t always respected. Then there were the women who lacked exposure to crucial skills such as carpentry or equipment repair. How many girls growing up on farms get invited out to the barn to help sharpen the mower blade or reshingle the roof? How could women who didn’t grow up on farms be expected to know such things?

Peabody found that these elements, taken together, created unintended disadvantages for females in farming. “A lot of farming is about connections and women just weren’t as connected,” she says. “You can spend months chasing leads that don’t work out if you don’t know where to start, or people don’t know you.”

This was the fertile ground in which WAgN was conceived. UVM Extension applied for a planning grant from USDA, received funding, and WAgN came into the world in 1994. Today, its services are in high demand.

“While most of our participants are from Vermont (about 75 percent) we’ve always provided resources and referrals to people from other states,” says Beth Holtzman, WAgN’s community outreach coordinator. “Our current participant list of about 2,000 people includes individuals from 36 states and 4 Canadian provinces.”

A Different Approach to Learning

For 15 years, WAgN has worked with established, beginning, and aspiring farmers. In a phrase, it creates opportunity for farmers to explore options and to be informed.

“We don’t make any judgment about how people ought to farm,” Peabody says. “By hand, animal power, or with a tractor—these are all personal decisions. Each has value and every choice has its own consequences. Farmers need to think in advance, before they are locked in.”

The programs come in a variety of formats: classes, workshops, and learning circles. They take place in seminar rooms, on farms, and online. Recent listings on the website were as varied as a lunchtime meeting on optimizing your website’s search engine, a workshop on cultivating your winter customers, and a webinar on goats and sheep.

But how WAgN approaches the learning process is distinct. “Education for women has to be interactive,” Peabody says. Her conviction is apparent in all of WAgN’s publications, from the website to newsletter publications and even surveys. All convey a distinctively warm, open, and trusting style.

“We’ve had discussions that you would never find in a traditional ag workshop—like the best age for potty training a child or how to deal with a difficult teenager,” Peabody adds. “We’re willing to look at whatever it is that’s getting in the way of their achieving their business goals.”

But how do they keep such an open circle from bordering on a support group?

“We’re really tough on the subjects of clarifying values and business planning,” Peabody explains. WAgN’s philosophy is that in order to be successful, you need to know why you are doing it and how the finances are going to work.

Although WAgN’s programs are designed for women, they are open to interested people of either gender. Men who participate in WAgN programs are generally partnered with a woman who is taking the class, or “they desperately want the education that WAgN offers,” Peabody observes. “Any man who is willing to call an organization called the Women in Agriculture Network is probably going to fit into the class just fine.”

Harrison Liebowitz, owner of Snow Farm Vineyard and Winery in South Hero, was among the first students in WAgN’s popular course Growing Places when the class began in 1995. Today, 20 to 25 percent of Growing Places participants are men.

Women are “much more animated when they know they own the learning space,” Holtzman notes. But men typically introduce a dynamic of ”thinking big” into a class setting. This can be beneficial. Men, for example, are less afraid of risk and debt than women; women are more conservative in the ways that they capitalize their business. Too often they take from their own savings “or, even worse, from their credit cards,” Peabody notes.

Which brings the conversation back to the importance of a business plan and knowing your values and how they play into a farm’s success. That knowledge is power, and it is apparent in the workings of Wellspring Farm CSA.

The Woman Behind Wellspring Farm CSA

Wellspring Farm CSA is a vibrant, woman-operated, community-oriented, sustainably run vegetable farm in Marshfield. It’s owned by 37-year-old Mimi (pronounced Mih-mee) Arnstein. Arnstein’s approach to her farm business reflects, in many ways, trends that WAgN sees among women in agriculture. 
For one, women have been instrumental in building the CSA movement, and Arnstein’s choice to run a CSA farm is part of that ongoing trend. Women also want safe food for their communities, tend to be great at direct sales, and take good care of their customers. All of this is apparent on a visit to Arnstein’s farm on CSA pick-up day. All of her energy—stored in a wiry 5-foot body ready to spring into action—is focused on the upcoming two-hour event.

“Well, Vivian!” Arnstein calls to a customer as she walks from her car to the pick-up shed. “I’ve been thinking about you. I haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it going?”

Half of Arnstein’s 140 CSA customers come on this day, while the others come later in the week. There are young couples, pregnant women, children, single people, and elders. No one waits long in line. Supplies of vegetables are quickly replenished when quantities run low. Everyone is in a good mood.

“I want this flower, okay?” an 8 year-old boy calls unselfconsciously from the nearby pick-your-own flower patch. Eight stems of flowers—food for the soul—are included in this week’s subscription.

Arnstein grew up on the suburban side of the Garden State, New Jersey. She was in her late 20s and working in Boston when she thought it would be fun to volunteer on an organic farm. She soon realized that she wanted to be a farmer.

“I had this dream, but it seemed preposterous!” she recalls. “I couldn’t even say it out loud.” She and her husband, Parker, moved to Burlington so that Arnstein could apprentice at the Intervale. Parker had grown up on a tree farm in Pomfret and knew from experience that farming is hard work—yet possible. “He encouraged me to start talking about ‘my farm, my farm, my farm.’ I just kept repeating it.”

Arnstein furthered her education “largely through the school of hard knocks.” This included apprenticeships on a variety of farms. She also spent six months training with the Northern New England Tradeswomen Association, a partner organization to WAgN that helps women become proficient in carpentry.

Like many who enter agriculture from a non-farming background, Arnstein was challenged to be creative in finding land that she could afford. She saw an ad for land conserved by the Vermont Land Trust, and ended up being one of the three families that now own the land cooperatively. “It made it financially possible for us,” she says. “We don’t have a quarter-million-dollar mortgage hanging over our heads.”

Five years ago, Arnstein got a small grant from WAgN that she used to redesign her CSA brochure. Now, she periodically shares her farm experience with WAgN’s Growing Places classes. Her skill in growing vegetables—and community—is bountifully apparent, and even in a short conversation, her business acumen shows.

“It’s a farm,” she reflects, “and it is also a business. It starts as a dream and it can end as just a dream. But without a good business plan, the dream can turn into a nightmare.”

Her dedication to farming shows in the relationship she shares with Jillian Abraham, 25, an apprentice who plans to start a farm in the Mad River Valley in time for the next growing season. Abraham describes Arnstein as a role model, and talks about the one-on-one time that Arnstein spends with her, helping her to feel comfortable with everything from QuickBooks to reading a tractor catalog. Just as Arnstein once needed to learn from others, Abraham now learns from her.

Farms. We need more of them. And with women as mentors, role models, networkers, and leaders, more and more women will have the skills to get on the farm WAgN.

Photo by Elizabeth Ferry: Wellspring Farm apprentice Jillian Abraham

About the Author

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry

Elizabeth Ferry is a writer and photographer in South Royalton who values local and sustainable agriculture. Her photographs and articles can be viewed on her website. The Food Works root cellar is named in honor of her parents, Ronald and the late Sylvia Ferry, for their support of the organization over many years.

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