These are nine women farmers in Western Massachusetts who I interviewed and photographed for my thesis at UMass. The photos were on display last June at the River Valley Market in Northampton for us to make a visual connection with some of the people who grow our food. They range from ages 21-86 and have diverse, remarkable, inspiring stories to share. Thank you, strong women, for spending time with me and modeling what I hope to aspire to someday.
Cook’s Farm, Hadley, MA
“We need to return to thinking about food as something that is healthy, nutritious, tastes good, and is grown with love, not about the packaging and costs. Do what you can- buy local eggs and at least start thinking about what food means to you and for all the people that are effected when you buy that butternut squash from the supermarket.”
Farming fulfills almost every aspect of Allyson’s life. She loves feeling productive and accomplishing a seeable goal that eventually she can eat and share with others. The fresh air and sunshine makes her happy while working outside. “It adds balance to my life,” she says. “I feel like I’m helping, even when I make mistakes. In the larger scheme of things I feel like I am helping people in need.”
Allyson’s passion for educating children about farming began when she worked at Terra Firma Farm in Southeastern Connecticut. Since then, she has worked for Fertile Ground, a gardening program at the in Williamsburg Elementary School, traveled to Italy where she “lived, breathed, and ate agriculture every day,” and now she works at Cook’s Farm in Hadley. This May she earned a degree in Eco-gastronomy and Agriculture Education from UMass Amherst.
While it can be hard to sit still in class after working outside all morning, Allyson has learned a great deal about food, farming, and eating locally from books and classes in school. The University taught her the theory, which brings meaning to her work. She thinks we should celebrate what we have in the Valley for local agriculture, but remember there is still a lot of work to be done to make healthy food accessible and affordable for everyone.
One dream she has for the food system is for farmers to be paid fair wages. With the advancement of technology, agriculture has shifted so corporations can make large profits without considering the lives of people producing food. Allyson wants people to “value local, sustainable, organic” farming that preserves soil, and limits pesticide use. “If these ideals became a priority, then purchasing food and feeding people would have to become a priority,” she says.
When Allyson finishes school she would like to focus on building skills so she can eventually have her own educational farm. She’s doing the best she can do right now and encourages other young people to “just go for it” if they want to farm. “Don’t be limited by your gender,” says Allyson. “ Don’t be afraid to get dirty and do what you think is right. Grow Food!”
Nuestras Raíces, Holyoke, MA
“It’s really satisfying to be part of something from beginning to end. There is a great community around farming, especially here in the Valley. There’s a culture here. There’s a space for it, a community where women are involved.”
Amy grew up in the suburbs of Boston so she was not around a whole lot of farming, but she always knew it was an important job. She studies English and Spanish at UMass Amherst. The University enabled her to work at Nuestras Raíces, an urban farm in Holyoke that trains Puerto Rican immigrants how to successfully farm in this area. This grassroots organization promotes environmental stewardship and empowerment through growing ones own food. They have a youth program, community gardens, festivals, and restoration projects. Amy was recently chosen to be a VISTA intern at Nuestras Raíces so she will be working full time once she graduates this May.
Learning to work with her hands and tools was a really empowering experience for Amy. She wasn’t taught practical building skills as a young woman, so it’s been really gratifying to see the work she has done and feel appreciated for it. She loves that her work has positive impacts on a community that she never would have considered belonging to, but now feels very closely connected. She feels more self-sufficient and in control as a person, and as woman since she started working at Nuestras Raíces.
Amy is setting a good example for other women and young girls. Breaking gender roles so more women feel valued for their hard work is important to Amy. She loves working in a green space that is safe, culturally appropriate, beautiful, food secure, and that gives people something to be proud about. She would like to see agriculture in the U.S. become localized so people can walk to a farm and receive food. “Gardens and farms are classrooms,” she says. “They should be more accessible so people understand this is where food is coming from, this is how I am part of it and it’s part of me.”
Town Farm, Northampton, MA
“The earth needs people to nurture it and people want to eat food that is nurturing. We have created systems in the past 100 years through industrialization of agriculture that are creating un-nurturing food and un-nurturing relationships with the earth. As a woman, and as somebody who embodies that feminine nurturing, I am reclaiming that relationship.”
It is not by chance that Laura has been farming ever since she graduated from Hampshire College. One reason she farms is to make connections in her life since people have become so separated from their actions on the world and each other. Growing food is one of the most fundamental things people can do to stay connected to their community, the Earth, animals, co-workers, and have transparent relationships with their the people you are feeding, she believes. “Farming has become a vehicle for creating the world I want to live in.”
Laura grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia so she was not exposed to much agriculture before going to college. When she first went to a farmer’s market, she immediately knew it was a good thing because it was much more intimate than the grocery store. While studying sustainable agriculture and food systems, Laura began working at different farms to gain experience. She traveled to an eco-village in India, gardened at an intentional community in Oregon, lived at a homestead in the Berkshires, apprenticed at the Food Bank Farm in Hadley, and is now working at an urban homestead and CSA in Northampton, Town Farm. Each place has used ecological principles. Although none were certified organic, they did not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Town Farm was started by a young couple. One of them wanted to farm and the other wanted to live in town, so they started a 75 member CSA in Northampton. They incorporate many components of sustainability into their farm such as transporting produce to a new farmer’s market by bicycle, heating their house and water with wood, supplying electricity from solar panels, and irrigating their crops with a rainwater catchment system. Laura is thrilled to be working for them this season because she values the diverse ways in which they are striving to live holistic lifestyles in an urban setting.
“My belief is that ideally we’re growing food everywhere and we’re growing it on a number of different scales,” says Laura. “The smaller we get, even though it takes more person labor, the healthier the people and the Earth.” She is also interested in how perennial production functions in agriculture because when we plant something that will grow back year after year, it shows we are invested in the future.
Old Friends Farm, Amherst, MA
“I enjoy working outside. It’s humbling to be at the mercy of the environment. You never know what’s going to happen, you have to be adaptable. It’s a good reminder because I like to have things all lined up and dotted and crossed. The weather reminds me it can all blow away in a second. The connection with food feels good. Eating salad everyday, every meal, I love that.”
On top of a hill that overlooks the Holyoke Mountain Range, Missy operates Old Friends Farm in Amherst with her business partner Casey. For six years they have been growing flowers, salad greens, chickens, eggs, vegetables, and ginger for the Boston and Amherst farmer’s markets, wholesale, restaurants, weddings, and florists. Her parents always had large gardens and they were teachers, so she wanted to teach biology after college. At the University of Vermont she designed her own major of environmental education, natural Sciences, with an art minor. This plopped her right into farming. While working for a woman who inspired her to just do it, Missy decided to start her own business.
She believes more women are farming because the farms are smaller in the northeast and women like the connection between work and home. Watching other women farm has inspired her to believe she can do it, so having strong role models contributes. “It’s really different in our generation that women have the opportunity to choose to farm and they have peers around them,” says Missy. “It’s pretty neat to be a woman farmer.” There are people who sometimes talk only to Casey, a man, at the farmer’s markets because they don’t regard a woman as a farmer. On the farm, Missy and Casey work the same number of hours and consult each other with everything, although Casey tends do most of the equipment maintenance and Missy is in charge of preparing the flowers for weddings.
When asked what is her vision for agriculture in the future, Missy responded with more small farms and a stronger women mentality. She would like to see women having a larger part in agriculture, especially when connecting people to their food and feeding kids healthy options in schools. She raised the point that we can grow food all year in hoop houses if we design them energy efficiently. In mid February we stepped into her unheated hoop house packed with rows of greens, and we were overheating immediately. It was over 70 degrees in there with no heat source other than the sun.
Chase Hill Farm, Warwick, MA
“The education in the Valley is great. People go to these farms and see that it’s a possibility and it’s also really liberating. Women produce food! We gather food and we harvest food- it’s like an extension of your garden. It’s nice to be outside and in charge of your own little piece of land.”
Jeannette and her husband Mark operate Chase Hill Farm where they produce raw cheese and milk. Their roles compliment each other: Mark does most of the farm work and Jeannette processes cheese, sells at farmer’s markets, bookkeeping, and marketing. They work as a team together since they transferred the farm from conventional dairy to a more holistic model. Mark’s parents bought the farm from his grandmother in the 1950s and he sold it to Jeannette and Mark in 1992. Now, there are about 30 cows grazing on pasture and spreading their own manure. “The cows do the work for us,” says Jeannette. They save time, energy, and labor when the cows are on a concentrated rotational grazing schedule.
Changing their farm’s entire structure meant taking on new challenges that would eventually create a more healthy system for their family, community and the environment. When Jeannette lost her job teaching, she started to run a day care. But when her kids grew up, she did not want to take care of other people’s kids anymore, so she decided to become more involved in the farm. They went to the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) conference, took business classes, and researched ideas from the Department of Agriculture to learn about more sustainable methods of farming. In 2001 they decided to try making cheese and it was really successful. They still sell milk to Our Family Farms Cooperative, and their cheese can be found at local stores, the Greenfield and Amherst farmer’s markets, and CSAs.
The reason they are successful is because of several techniques: value added, direct marketing, seasonal, sustainable. When asked if they are “organic,” Jeannette responded:
For us, organic is not just about being organic certified by the federal government, it’s about the whole picture, the whole farm works together. It’s a big cycle, it’s about using solar energy and the resources you have here. We have enough water and land base. We harvest that and turn it into food.
Jeannette encourages young people to farm because there is a growing opportunity as more people are realizing that the industrial model doesn’t work. She urges them to visit farms, learn from other people, make connections and build relationships, and take advantage of all the resources supporting sustainable agriculture.
Wilder Hill Gardens, Conway, MA
“I like the idea of women farmers being in a powerful position to create what they intend in terms of feeding people and making a good life for themselves. Women tend to be better in general at observing the larger picture. We take that analytical thought and combine it with that ability to look at the whole picture, not just your garden, your farm, but how it fits into the larger community.”
Lilian has woven together many different pieces for her business at Wilder Hill Gardens. She combines landscaping, small fruit production, herbaceous perennials, annuals, flowers for weddings, design consultation services, and apprenticeship programs. Her six acres of property screams diversity and sustainable agriculture. Only two acres are under cultivation, which “demonstrates that if you treat land in a certain way you can be productive and you don’t need acres and acres,” she says. Practicing no-till means she uses lots of mulch and hay to control weeds and build the soil.
Her love for gardening originated from spending time outside in the woods, playing imaginary games, and visiting her grandfather’s garden, which she refers to as a “palace.” Lilian grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut where she studied horticulture and greenhouse management at the University of Connecticut. She’s currently a student at Smith College and will be going to Yale University in the fall to study ancient Christianity and religion. She loves being a hard-working woman farmer who straddles the world.
With the increase of women farmers, Lilian hopes farms will remain smaller and use less fossil fuel. She knows she’s generalizing, but she thinks men tend to quickly grab for a machine to get the job done, while women figure out how to do the same job more peacefully and less destructively to the soil. One reason she thinks the numbers of women farmers are increasing is that more women are self-reporting as farmers. She has farmed for 30 years, but didn’t consider herself a farmer until seven years ago when it appeared on her taxes.
Lilian would like the entire country to mimic what is happening in Western Mass with local agriculture. She wants “nothing less than a total revolution one small plot at a time!” The movement is growing and there’s hope, she believes. “I found my way back to the field, which is where I’m happy taking care of the land. Growing plants is kind of incidental to taking care of the soil and having a relationship to a piece of land. The land supports me,” she says. Lilian encourages people to look at the big picture. She thinks we can work together to create a world that supports our farmers, builds strong local economies, and cares for the environment.
Atherton Farms, Buckland, MA
“Farming is a confidence builder. Once you try something and you find that you can do it you are more confident. I grew up on the farm with the belief that I could do anything I set my mind to and I think I got that from the farm. While I’m not confident speaking in front of lots of people I can work hard and be successful. I learned that from farming.”
Sue grew up on the dairy farm until she was 19 years old that her parents bought in 1945. When her father’s rheumatory arthritis got too bad, he sold the cows and started haying the fields to sell to farmers. In 1992 Sue’s second husband, “the dreamer”, she calls him for wanting to live on the farm, and her decided to start growing pumpkins on the property. When her father died in 1998, her family helped her inherit the land and she began growing vegetables on less than an acre. In 2001 they built a greenhouse, farm stand, and cooler so they could sell the produce from their farm. Her husband died of cancer in 2004, but with the help of her brother and his wife, they have kept the farm alive.
Sue sells vegetables at the Ashfield farmer’s market and from the farm stand. There are eggs, maple syrup, and honey for sale as well. Closer to the holidays she has a Christmas wreath sale. Only a very small percentage of her produce goes to restaurants and wholesale. Sue practices mostly organic methods, but is not certified.
She does everything on the farm and does not want to increase the size of the operation too much because she wants to continue working outside. She enjoys giving back to her supportive community. Not only is she keeping the land beautiful and open, she’s growing food that nurtures her neighbors. Sue encourages women to farm because it is a great way to raise a family and give back to your community. She finds balance working with the land.
This a great place to learn to farm with all the educational resources like CISA, UMass Extension, Harvest New England, and the all people who are willing to teach young farmers. She is willing to answer questions and give advice to other gardeners, but experience is the best way to learn. Sue would like to see more people growing their own food on small farms, but not everyone has to be completely self-sufficient. “We can all work together,” she says, “Some people can grow their own food and others can buy from me.”
Rawson Brook Farm, Monterey, MA
“We are heading in a good direction now with this movement of small and local. Our country is too huge for this big national and international food system to work well. It just doesn’t work.”
After many different ventures with agriculture such as homesteading and market gardening in northern New York, Susan moved back to her family’s property in 1979 to start a goat farm. She has been self-employed since a very young age when she dropped out of college the semester before graduating. She learned to grow food and take care of animals through books and experience. Her ex-husband and her would raise almost all of their own food while homesteading, but soon realized they would need jobs to continue that lifestyle.
Susan’s interest in small business and farming opened the doors to raising goats for cheese, which she sells in the Berkshires, Boston, New York, and Hadley. With the supportive market around here, she started the business from scratch and has decided to keep the farm the same size with about 50 goats. She doesn’t feel much pressure to grow in size because then she would need bigger buildings and equipment. Small farms are more appropriate in the Northeast, Susan believes, and many women are finding their niches here and can be very successful.
This movement of local agriculture is a going in a good direction, she says. Increasing food security, respect for farming, and connecting consumers with their food is very important to Susan. She appreciates her family for raising her to believe she can just go ahead and do it. Her father taught her to build things and have big dreams.
Homesteader, Deerfield, MA
“We’re the richest country in the world, but some people don’t have enough food to eat. There’s enough people to grow food that we all need, enough people to build the simple houses we need. I think we have to care for each other a lot more.”
If anyone knows how to live by her values, fight for her dreams, and make real social change, it is Juanita. She is a pacifist, war tax resister, activist, writer, and homesteader. Growing up in Ohio during racial segregation, Juanita looked to her mother’s strong ideologies of social justice. She was taught to never accept things as they are and to take action. “I fume where there’s discrimination against people,” she says. “I don’t think in terms of gender and race. I am an individual. I am not black, I am not a woman, I am Juanita.”
Watching plants grow for the first time in her garden was like a miracle. Growing her own food with her husband, Wally, who passed away a few years ago, is a political act. Cultivating large gardens, preserving food for the winter, and living off the grid means they rely less on a food system that exploits people and the planet. Being self-sufficient gave them more control over their impacts on the world. “Living simply solves a lot of problems,” Juanita says.
Juanita helped to start the Greenfield farmer’s market. She is still active with CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) and helped organize the largest winter farmer’s market in the Valley last February. Although she doesn’t garden as much anymore, she still lives in the original home she built with Wally in Deerfield. Local farmer friends give her produce in abundance so she never goes hungry. “You can put your arms around things here- it’s a very supportive community,” she says.