Almost Famous (Farm) Women – Homesteading

Canned tomatoes, as taught by my mom, as taught by her mom...

Canned tomatoes, as taught by my mom, as taught by her mom…

There has been a rise in the percentages of women in agriculture and women in agricultural studies which contributes strongly in the search for and finding of current relevant documentation. Dean Mary Buhr at the University of Saskatchewan tells about the School of Agriculture numbers, “Back in the early ’70s, about five per cent of the students were women. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, that had grown to about a third of the students, increasing through the years until it reached parity in the late 1990s.

Then around the turn of the millennium, women entered the majority, and over the last five years, their numbers have remained largely constant at 60 to 63 per cent.”

I find that information very exciting.  As a passionate fiber farmer, I love the notion that more women are led to studies in higher education to further their own career in agriculture.

If I could do it all over again….when I went to school, I’d wanted to be a teacher, but computer science was the path I was steered toward because “that’s where the jobs are.”  And nowadays when I am in the barn and I’m feeling someone’s hind leg all over to feel why/how they’re limping, I’m wishing I’d had more biology and less coding in college.

Women are graduating with Ag degrees and returning to the family farm or starting out and what is often stressed in the news is the time-worn challenge of finding financial support for large farms, led by either men or women. The trip to the bank is as risky as banking on the weather, and discouraging for those whose sole income is tied to their crops.

The small farm, and small farm-women, numbers are also rising. From funding agricultural education to providing grants for research to improve growing methods, many farm grants encourage women to become involved in agriculture.  The USDA’s Farm Service Agency has specific Minority & Women Farmers and Ranchers Farm Loans available under the “Socially Disadvantaged Applicants” funding source.  Staying connected, networking with state-led farm resources, and reaching out to other farmers in your region can help a person to get an introduction to the grants and loans that are there for them.

In my state, I became a member of the Vermont Sheep & Goat Association to be able to post classifieds, learn about workshops, participate in studies, market my product and take advantage of the resources to support the small farmer.  There are courses, events and community that I can tap into as well as a newsletter and calendar that take away the edge of a new farmer or whenever there are problems.  We have a listserve which you can hop on any day to post inquiries or suggestions, news, and others are listening and reply.  I can’t think of how many times I was “rescued” by the VSGA community when someone in the flock had a health emergency, I needed hints on trimming horns or hooves, or I just needed lambing advice.

In continuing the downsizing from the small farm, but by no means diminishing the importance of the role, next, is the homesteading movement. This rise in returning to roots for reasons of economy, health and concerns about uncertain future is significant. One thing I’ve discovered, though, is that the media coverage focusing on middle & upper class revival can sometimes overlook acknowledging those who have quietly preserved those skills in the first place.

When I was younger, believe-you-me I wasn’t bragging about the sauce that we had at home using our own canned tomatoes.  I yearned for the thing with a colorful label, fancy Italian-sounding name brands; the salty, pureed and bright red toppings that my friends had on their plate of pasta.  It wasn’t hip to pour fresh-from-the-summer peeled, skinned fleshy pinkish-red tomato chunks with celery & onions into the pot of 19-cent’s worth of spaghetti.  It said that you were poor.

Eggs or beans for supper meant that the more expensive meat was out of the budget or being saved for a special occasion.  Not because we were purposeful about rotating the protein portion of our meals.

It isn’t my intention to solicit attention for ‘suffering’, not at all.  Because I did not.  Nor am I dismissing that one can come to farming or homesteading for any number of reasons – there are no rules that you have to be born into it.  In fact, I embrace that everyone with interest and a little patch of something to plant in, container-gardens anyone?, can become connected to Mother Earth and show her a little love.

Homesteading is, for some, an alternative way of living, but alongside the movie tickets and museum passes, unlike the original intentions of enhancing survival.  My concern would be that we would be discouraged to just start out of fear that we’re not ‘doing it right.’ Or think we need something, more things, to scratch some seeds into the ground, get a few chickens.

For those of us who had the good fortune of being raised in the company of farmers or homesteaders, putting your own food on the table wasn’t about the inspiration of a glossy mag cover photo or a viral chicken-farming expose’, but instead the old ‘necessity as the motherhood of invention.’ If you wanted fresh vegetables, you grew them, not because it was hip, but because it made sense.  The windowsills became lined with cottage cheese containers and egg trays full of seedlings, starting in March, until the ground warmed enough in May to plant.

My grandmother taught my mother, my mother taught me.  I taught my children.  Of course, now I recognize how fortunate I was to have been taught canning and gardening, sewing and embroidery, cooking and home maintenance as part of my upbringing vs. enrolling in classes or watching tutorials to discover the subtle nuances of getting the air bubbles out of the hot-pack of tomatoes, skimming the foam off the jam, more…  If there wasn’t any mayonnaise in the fridge, you cracked open an egg, added a little oil & lemon juice, s & p, blended it to a white creamy consistency, and then you made your sandwich.  I never attended a cooking class but left the nest with all of the skills to put a fresh meal on the plate, and I took it for granted.  It’s so lovely how everything old becomes new again.  (Look, ma! I’m trendy!)

I enjoyed discovering this New York Times’ Sunday Review “Back to the Land, Reluctantly” in October of 2011, by author of “In Spite of Everything: A Memoir”, Susan Gregory Thomas.   Susan shares about how she broke down the tasks to feed her family for less and how it translated into learning, growing, and harvesting their own food in a small space in Brooklyn, NY. It’s a simply written detail of how it really goes, without the trippings and trappings of any type of paraphernalia and hype. I especially appreciate the following:

“It is no big deal.

You can tell yourself anything is too difficult, or you can just do it.

And you do not need to reconstruct your worldview or take issue with others.

You just need to be hungry.”

Read her words, here, to take the mystery, the hype out of growing your own food.

In Megan Mayhew Bergman’s ‘Cover story’ of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in her upcoming collection of “Almost Famous Women“*, she re-writes the classic with “a matriarchal lineage in mind, and the idea that we pay for the mistakes our forebears make.”  The message of survival has no gilded edges, in my opinion there are no silver linings to be found and Megan preceeds the writing with Shirley Jackson’s quote regarding The Lottery:  “Everything that makes the world like it is now will be gone.”

I challenge you to read that one and not commit yourself to what and how you can lighten your carbon footprint, support women & minorities in agriculture, grow your own spaghetti sauce.


*This is 3rd in a series of 13 posts for “Almost Famous (Farm) Women” which shares a snippet of the upcoming release (Jan. 6, Scribner) of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Almost Famous Women” alongside an informational or anecdotal post about women in agriculture.  If you would like to pre-order Megan’s book from Battenkill Bookstore in Cambridge, NY, you can include the Promo Code “ALMOSTFAMOUSFARMWOMEN” to be included in a raffle for a free book, author visit(up to 2 hours or via Skype) & a dozen Almost Famous Women Biscotti made in our home bakery.







6 responses to “Almost Famous (Farm) Women – Homesteading

    • Thank you, Lauren! I know you are well on your way – you guys have the skills, mad skills, and I love meeting up with you and hearing about what you’ve been up to!

    • Awww, thanks Bob! And very, very kind! Megan is the queen of words, though, so I would be learning from the best!

  1. This was such an inspiring post to read! As someone who was raised solely on processed, pre-made, boxed food – homesteading and farming is very new to me. Sometimes I worry about being shuffled into the category of many people who are turned onto it now because it is perceived as hip, but it’s been such a learning experience to return to the land and start homesteading where I’m at. I dream of the day I own land and can start my own farm, but you’re so right — there’s no excuse not to start now. It’s been an eye opening experience to learn the ways of my great grandparents who lived off the land and never knew of such a thing as processed food or being disconnected from nature. Thank you for touching upon an important little niche of agriculture and for writing about it so beautifully!

    • Way to go Caitlin! You have all it takes – the interest, the passion. It’s such a beautiful thing to discover, to, and to share. I think it’s great that there’s so much good information out there to help people learn how to can, how to put up your goods, how to find out what’s in season – farmers’ markets, cooperatives to share and learn skills. So enjoy the ride, it will always be so rewarding and you will never be sorry for it!

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