The Women in Agriculture (WIA) conference last Saturday was designed “to empower women in agriculture to achieve goals and manage risk through education, networking and technology.”
Susan Curtis got exactly those results from last year’s WIA conference. She operates Hope Mountain Farm, offering a community supported agricultural program for fresh produce out of Leavenworth. Besides the learning and action plans, the most beneficial result was networking with Jose Limon, from the Farm Services Agency who spoke last year and this year.
“I contacted him and he helped me get a loan for production this year,” she said.
Conference attendance has exploded from one Wenatchee location in 2005 to 24 locations in three states with 555 enrollees and a telecast from a national speaker.
They are part of the one million women farmers according to the USDA, more than double the number forty years ago. More women are farming on all sizes of farms, making up three of every ten farmers.
They are changing the characteristics of farming. They specialize in small farms with produce stands and direct sales to local consumers, a rapidly growing market in the U.S. Half the principal women operators are raising livestock. Younger women are starting farming faster than older women are leaving.
People I met at Wenatchee’s location matched those characteristics.
“We were asked to operate fields by retiring local farmers who didn’t want to sell their land,” she said. “They were multigenerational farmers.”
She said they’d been increasing harvests mostly by themselves and by “trial and error.” They hire a part-time tractor driver and a wheat truck driver at harvest.
“I keep the books, drive a tractor and a wheat truck, fix the meals, move my husband around and do what he asks,” she said.
She has two children, Miles 14, and Meredith 10, so she usually spends Saturdays with them, recently on Waterville’s ski hill.
Andi Brosi, an attendee from Rock Island, is an entomologist who joined the WSU Agricultural Research Center in Wenatchee three years ago. She and her husband finally found an affordable 15-acre farm, and even though she’s pregnant with their first child, they plan to produce pork for local markets, because none is available.
Another local panelist was Katie Smithson, 25, who returned three years ago to the Smithson Ranch in Peshastin and Bridgeport as a fourth generation farmer. She’s passionate about her jobs as fulltime career counselor at Cascade High School and as “a helping hand at the ranch.”
She does the books, harvests every crop from June to October, backs up the pickup at local markets to sell fruits and vegetables and does the inventory.
“I’ll continue with it, mostly because of history, involvement and my passion for it,” she said. “I’m a two-passion person.”
She’s career advising her younger brother to take over the farm, which he plans to do so far.
Margaret Viebrock, the WIA Conference Coordinator, Washington State University faculty member and Douglas County WSU Extension Director, saw the need for this type of conference as she had been training growing numbers of women in food safety, nutrition and food preservation.
She had read USDA reports about women feeling unwelcome attended mostly men, lack of networking with other women, the need of off-farm income as small farm operators, and farming nights and weekends while raising children.
“And,” Viebrock added, “because women learn differently than men.”
The WIA Conference centered out of Waterville’s WSU extension service is serving women farmers well.