Women farmers are on the rise. And at the same time the number of men who are farming is actually shrinking. That’s according to the latest agricultural census numbers, released every five years.
It’s a warm spring day and Nicole Broder is harvesting kale. Once washed and dried, this first round of greens will go to market and a local restaurant.
Broder and business partner Jes Carr are farmers. They recently opened their own sustainable operation outside Richmond called Shine Farms.
Broder grew up with a mom and grandmother who always had big gardens and grew their own food. Carr helped her mom raise animals.
"(I) grew up raising sheep. Wool ship,” Carr says. “My mom and I did that throughout my whole childhood. I showed dairy cows."
The two can’t avoid the fact that they’re young women doing this work, they’re faced with it everyday. Like when they decline offers of help during their regular trips to Lowe’s, or when people in the neighborhood swing by and ask who is married to the owner.
“Really when we walk around trying to be like ‘Yeah we’re farmers’ we’re met everywhere with people being anywhere from astounded to weird about it,” says Broder.
Young women starting a farm might seem unusual. But as it turns out, it’s not.
The Latest Census Numbers
Herman Ellison with the US Department of Agriculture sits in front of a huge and heavy book: the results of the latest agricultural census.
According to those numbers, over the past five years, there’s been a 70-percent jump nationally in the number of women who are principal operators of a farm. When you hone in on Virginia the jump is smaller but still drastic, 45-percent.
“That’s huge,” Ellison says. “And female operators account for 26-percent of the total.”
Meaning in Virginia more than a quarter of farms are now run by women.
Unfortunately the numbers can’t explain who these farmers are or why they’re now getting into it. But, Ellison says, we do know that most have small operations.
“When we look at our female principal producers, from the 2017 census, it shows that over 50-percent of these producers are operating acreage that’s less than fifty acres,” he says.
Tony Banks with the Virginia Farm Bureau says he’s noticed, anecdotally, a bunch of new farmers starting small operations like organic produce, pick your own berries, or vineyards.
“With the increase in the local food movement we’ve seen a lot of women enter agriculture or enter production agriculture specifically,” says Banks.
Back at Shine Farms in Varina, the numbers don’t surprise Broder and Carr. They both took an urban agriculture class through Tricycle Gardens in Richmond. Most of the other participants were also women.
Broder says she sees first generation female farmers throughout the agricultural community, women like her inspired by wanting to make a difference in the world.
“This makes me happy. Which is sort of the first and most important thing to me. But also I think that this really matters,” she says.
For Carr one of the biggest motivations is stewarding the land. She says there are so many things wrong in the world and that can be overwhelming.
“And one thing that farming really does is it allows you to tackle a lot of environmental issues and make a physical difference in the land and how it’s managed,” she says.
While Carr may be part of a new generation of female farmers working the land she credits previous generations, like her mother, with showing her how its done.