“I think you’ll see a lot more collaboration, perhaps childcare cooperatives for farmers. Women are confronting a lot of competing responsibilities. We work out of the house, on- and off-the-farm, but still, many women continue to juggle the bulk of childcare, house upkeep and increasingly caring for aging parents. Things are changing, but changing slowly, especially in rural America. I see a lot of farm businesses suffer as women have to take on the care of dependents.”
– Mary Peabody, University of Vermont Extension
About Mary Peabody: Mary is a Community & Economic Development Specialist with the University of Vermont Extension (UVM). She is a founding Director of the Women’s Agricultural Network, which was started within UVM Extension in 1994. Since 1988, she has worked in the areas of rural economic development and local leadership. Mary’s research interests include the sustainability of rural communities, women’s entrepreneurship and the application of information technology to community and economic development.
Editor’s Note: The University of Vermont is one of the nation’s land-grant universities, created by the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. For a history of the land-grant institutions, click here.
“Extension” refers to “Cooperative Extension” – also sometimes called “Agricultural Extension” or the “Cooperative Extension Service.” Cooperative Extension is a national network of scientists, researchers and educators affiliated with land-grant institutions who work in communities to conduct and apply research that addresses a broad range of issues across agriculture, natural resources, human nutrition and health, and youth, family and community development. Created by the Smith-Lever legislation, signed in 1914, Cooperative Extension operates programs such as 4-H, Master Gardener, Master Food Preserver and more.
In California, Cooperative Extension is operated by the University of California’s division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). Learn more about the history of Cooperative Extension.
Q: Why did you found the Women’s Ag Network? What needs did you see?
Mary: I started with the University of Vermont Extension in 1988. One of the jobs I had – as many Extension folks do – was providing workshops for farmers. I was working on diversification issues. My colleagues and I noticed that women were coming to the workshops, but they were sitting in the back of room and didn’t engage in the dialogue…until the coffee break. And at coffee break, they’d swarm us with questions and thoughtful, insightful comments. At that time, there were many more male colleagues at Extension. Those Extension agents were friends with male farmers they grew up with…they were already formed into social networks. And in some ways, women got shut out of those networks and discussions.
I thought if women felt safe, they could learn from us and from one another and ask questions and work on their own business models. I received a planning grant to explore the idea of a program for women farmers. Our team was able to interview women who had successfully gotten into farming and women who wanted to farm but could never get started. We also interviewed those involved in technical assistance, including veterinarians, lenders, Extension educators, women who’d gotten out of farming, as well as leaders in entrepreneurship education. The idea was to build a program that would contribute to the success of women farmers. What would a program like that look like? The program we developed – the Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN) – mirrors closely what we learned in those early interviews.
Following the planning grant, we received USDA funding. It was the first education project in the United States designed to provide education and technical assistance to women farmers.
Q: Has the model evolved over time?
Mary: It has evolved, but many of the basic core principles are still attached. The participants guide the topics and how we deliver the program. Now, we offer a lot of our education online. We use tools like online teaching platforms (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and other webinar platforms along with blogs and newsletters. We have conducted online focus groups, too, to help us shape content. What’s been quite interesting is that as we’ve engaged technology, our geographic boundaries have expanded.
University of Vermont Extension is a bit of an anomaly within the Cooperative Extension System since we don’t have a county-based funding mechanism. This gave us an early opportunity to build a regional program. From the beginning, WAgN has worked with people who live in other states. If we have a woman from Iowa or Wisconsin or Alaska who enrolls in our beginning farm class, we check in with our networks to let them know that someone from their region or state is taking a class. We try to connect our participants with a trusted colleague in their state that will help guide them and answer those specific questions unique to their locale.
One of the reasons we had the early success we did have with this program is that there was a woman associate dean, Lavon Bartel, at UVM who really championed our project and mentored me in how to navigate the system. Even then, there was pushback against having programs designed exclusively for women.
Women are very social and learn differently. We like to be together and share our experiences, to learn from one another and bounce ideas off one another.
Q: What do you see as the most significant barriers and obstacles to women who want to get into agriculture?
Mary: Many of the obstacles relate to the scale of business.
Women are often averse to taking on debt, but that also tends to keep their operations very small – and consequently – less profitable than they could be and need to be to be sustainable. The entrepreneurship literature affirms this around the globe…women’s agricultural operations tend to be very small and under-capitalized. And it’s hard in agriculture to be competitive if you’re very small because you just don’t have enough product to sell. The exception would be when you have a very high-profit niche that you’re supplying.
The literature on women’s entrepreneurship goes back to the 1950s and comes out of community development work being done in developing countries. Women were the ones starting the cottage businesses and home-based industries to earn money to educate their children and feed their families.
Q: What policies do you think might help women in agriculture?
Mary: When I think big, I think about the USDA. And it would be really nice if there were an Office of Women’s Affairs at the USDA. We’ve been trying to build interest in this idea for the last four Farm Bills. Women face issues that are not faced by men. If we’re going to provide adequate support for women farmers and ranchers, we need to deal with some of these issues. In her tenure, Krysta Harden [Harden was deputy secretary at the USDA; she left the agency in February 2016] created more visibility and opportunities for women and that is something I hope will continue in the future.
The Small Business Administration has an office of women’s affairs because they recognize that women’s businesses are a little different. In USDA women are included with socially-disadvantaged groups which is not always a good fit.
Q: What about cottage food legislation?
Mary: There’s not a lot of that type of legislation going on here right now. We’ve had a robust cottage food industry since the 1960s. Our specialty food association has been really strong for decades. We also have a huge artisanal presence here: cheese makers, bakers, craft beers and spirits associations. We try to add value to the agricultural products we have.
But in response to increasing regulations around food production and handling I would say of course we have to recognize food safety as critical; but we can’t treat everyone the same. A small $50,000 cottage food producer cannot have the same requirements as a large multi-national corporation.
Q: What’s inspiring and encouraging you?
Mary: The number of young women coming into agriculture. I’m thrilled to see that happening. For a lot of years, I saw career changers entering the field and they are still doing so. Many of these women were from health and education backgrounds; they were taking early retirement and turning to agriculture in their 40s-50s. Some came to WAgN because the death of a spouse left them as the primary decision-maker for the property. To see women in their 20s and 30s entering agriculture is exciting.
In Vermont, we have a great support system for new farmers…probably one of strongest in the country. We’re a small state, we’re a rural state and we have a strong history of agriculture. We’re a state that capitalizes on our natural resources and part of that is the working landscape, forests and tourism. It’s the perfect environment for small-scale agriculture to thrive. The downside? We only have about 600,000 residents…and there is only so much butter, cheese and beef we can eat, so we need strong exports and to develop markets outside of Vermont. That’s one reason we have to scale these farms up to a more profitable size. Vermont also has very high land prices and a high cost of living. Keeping our farms profitable and sustainable is an ongoing challenge.
Q: What’s concerning you?
Mary: Land access…not just here, but across the globe. It’s one of those things we have to wrestle with. There are tensions here in the Northeast…there’s a strong cultural bias towards owning the land you farm on. In the Midwest, leasing land is more common.
People have to be creative about land tenure, we have to develop more creative ways to access land and that doesn’t always have to mean buying land. Buying land and fitting it out can lead to very high debt and mortgage, especially if you’re young and don’t have a lot of experience. There are good reasons why you’d want to own your own land. But our land base is finite and we can’t change it so we have to find ways to get farmers onto the land without going broke in the process.
Q: If you could change one thing in how women approach business, what would it be?
Mary: I’d offer this key piece of advice: Really pay attention to your finances. Women are naturally caretakers, nurturers and we want communities to have access to safe, healthy food. But the best way to insure you’re going to be a success in your community and for your community is to build a scalable and profitable operation. Take care of yourself first, then you’ll have the reserves to care for others.
Q: As times change and we get more women into farm ownership, how might the food system change?
Mary: We might see more integration of various systems. Women are providing much of the energy behind models like farm-to-school, farm-to-institution. And I think we might see more models that integrate farming with the rest of eating and living. Certainly more people want food sheds to serve communities they live in as opposed to exporting food.
I think you’ll see a lot more collaboration, perhaps childcare cooperatives for farmers. Women are confronting a lot of competing responsibilities. We work out of the house, on- and off-the-farm, but still, many women continue to juggle the bulk of childcare, house upkeep and increasingly caring for aging parents. Things are changing, but changing slowly, especially in rural America. I see a lot of farm businesses suffer as women have to take on the care of dependents.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Mary: I’d like to share some information about our new initiative. We’ve received a four-year USDA grant to build a national Women in Agriculture learning network. This network will help institutionalize a lot of the existing models of those who do agriculture education and technical assistance for beginning women farmers and ranchers. And we’ll be providing the training and support for educators that would like start new programs. I would love to encourage others to contact us.
Also, we are scouring the landscape, picking programs that are out there that currently do a good job of serving women farmers and ranchers. We’ve formed an advisory board with content teams that are focusing on issues such as land access and tenure; farm safety, ergonomics and mechanization; scale and profitability; management and leadership. We’re trying to identify what’s out there, how well it serves the needs of women and where the gaps are. We are ready and eager to partner with others that have programs to share with us. We’re building directories, evaluation materials and curricula that we hope will be easy to use with a wide variety of audiences.
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Editor’s Note: Do you want to learn more about women working in sustainable agriculture? The 5th National Conference for Women in Sustainable Agriculture (WISA) will be held November 30th-December 2nd, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The gathering will convene a range of people working across the food systems, including farmers, educators, technical assistance providers and activists. The keynote speaker will be Natasha Bowens, author of “The Color of Food.”