2009-04-16 / Local & State

Small Farms Run By Women Cropping Up Across Pennsylvania

By Arlene Martinez and Scott Kraus

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - From the time she was a little girl, helping her father in the family's backyard garden in Easton, Teena Bailey was attracted to farming.

But she could never afford to buy the expanse of land needed to turn the outdoor hobby into a financially viable job.

Three years ago, capitalizing on a rising demand for locally grown produce, Bailey, 63, launched a small vegetable farm on her 1.5-acre property in Germansville, about 15 miles northwest of Allentown.

Bailey is part of a growing community of women farmers in the state, across the nation and in the Lehigh Valley.

The number of women as principal operators of a farm increased 41 percent in Pennsylvania, and 29 percent nationally between 2002 and 2007, according to data released in February by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are now 8,550 women farmers in Pennsylvania, including 150 in the Lehigh Valley.

"A lot of women go to college with the idea they will get a job in agriculture,'' O'Neill said. "Many come back to the farm, purchase their own farm or lease a farm themselves.''

Ruth Raber, who's been farming since she was a "knee-high to a grasshopper,'' hasn't always been listed as a primary operator - a farm can list up to three primary operators, but she is now.

Raber said she's noticed more women at the annual farming practice workshops that farmers attend to keep certain certifications.

"You go to the pesticide meetings, the herbicide meetings, you see more and more,'' said Raber, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat in Orefield, about 10 miles west of Allentown.

Women are taking over family operations when their husbands or parents are unable to continue, O'Neill said.

Some are engaging in specialized agriculture such as community co-ops, organic produce or raising nontraditional farm animals such as alpacas, said Maria Bentzoni, Northampton County's farmland preservation administrator.

"Women are more adept at trying different things and not the old agricultural ways,'' said Bentzoni, using the example of a new lama farmer who turns the wool into fashions in Northampton County.

A 2005 survey of women farmers by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture showed that many saw farming as a lifestyle more than a livelihood and were likely to stay long term.

Women are increasingly drawn to farming, the survey noted, because they can involve their family, produce their own food and be part of the community, the survey said.

Sue Tantsits and Louise Schaefer opened Edge of the Woods Native Plants Nursery in Orefield for just a few weekends in 2003.

But business was good so the next year, they decided to open full time. A friend sold them a piece of her property so they now grow native plants and shrubs on 10 acres near New Tripoli, about 15 miles northwest of Allentown.

Agriculture drew them, said Schaefer, because of its importance in society, in generating locally grown food and in preserving open space.

"I've seen the loss of a lot of farmland. Anyone who drives around can see it,'' she said.

Laurie Lynch raises chickens and sells fresh eggs on her eightacre property outside Kutztown, and grows an ever-changing variety of vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes and Belgian endive.

"One of the attractions is the horticultural part of it. I love to grow things,'' said Lynch, who likes how farming allows her to, "be with my kids, raise them and provide good food for them.

"I think women are drawn to the outdoors and it's a rewarding career that you can combine with a family pretty easily.''

For others, especially younger women such as Megan Leblond, 28, of Kunkletown, farming is a moral statement.

She's planning to use the 30- to 40-acre farm she purchased with her boyfriend as their primary source of food and to sell niche crops such as berries to bring in some income.

"I find really a peacefulness in nature and I am really mesmerized by the way nature works, and so for me, it is an intimate feeling and a less commercial feeling,'' LeBlond said.

LeBlond has been working closely to map out the farm with her mentor, Heidi Secord, 39, who grows organic vegetables in Stroudsburg.

"I think women in particular have an ability to think big but do small and more sustainable operations,'' said Secord, who began farming in 1996, after returning from the Peace Corps.

Return to top