by Kristen M. Castrataro
The biennial Rhode Island Women in Agriculture Conference (WIAC) took place March 6 at the Crowne Plaza, Warwick, RI. Scores of women, and a few brave men, gathered to network, hear about innovative farming practices, learn about funding opportunities and gain fresh perspectives on the vital roles women play in agriculture.
“My farm gives me a powerful voice”
Keynote speaker, Caroline Pam, shared how she and her husband grew their farm from one acre to 50 in Pioneer Valley, MA. Kitchen Garden Farm exclusively sells items made with products grown on their farm.
Pam graduated from college with a degree in English and was making a career writing. She began feeling a “vague but strong pull” to do something worth writing about and realized that “something” was farming. Despite the fact that she “basically knew nothing about running a farm business,” their one-acre farm broke even the first year.
The next year they increased to seven acres and brought on apprentices to help with the work. Pam recalled, “We were struggling to teach apprentices how to do things we really weren’t very good at.” Then they got hit by a double whammy: Irene and Katrina. It could have been the perfect excuse to quit. For Pam, “It was time to double down.”
The couple took out some big loans, paired them with grants, and built a solar-powered wash and pack facility. The risk paid off. They now employ up to 15 people at peak. Over one-third of them are women, and many of which are being groomed for management.
Pam believes a significant factor in their success is their willingness to take risks that others might not take. After stretching themselves year after year, she noted, “Being out of our comfort zone is our comfort zone.”
The payoffs extend beyond award-winning products. It gives her a platform to share her values and new foods. Pam said, “My farm gives me a powerful voice.”
“Life at a root level”
Women’s ability to find their voice in farming was a running theme at this year’s conference. In a session devoted to the application of Joel Salatin’s principles, the three panelists shared the ways in which his approach to farming gave them freedom to live and farm according to their consciences.
Katie Steere of Deep Roots Farm spent several months in Virginia apprenticing with Salatin. Her journey started, however, after an abortive attempt at a vegan lifestyle. She developed an eating disorder and severe nutrient deficiencies that forced her to return to eating meat. Her convictions pressed her to study food systems, and she concluded most people “weren’t really experiencing life at a root level.”
During her apprenticeship, Steere told her father she wanted to come home and farm. His answer was no. She didn’t give up, however. For two years, she worked on him until he acquiesced. She recalled, “I worked on a farm for four months and started running my own farm.”
“The most invasive species in the world is us”
Martha Neale grew up on a dairy farm. She joined Salatin for a two-day seminar and was sold on his methods.
Neale remarked, “Everything was grass-based. Everything was low-tech. Everything was holistic.” She believes non-industrial, transparent methods are well-suited to New England and could become prevalent across the country. These principles support the development of local food sheds and communities that are united around food.
On Windmist Farm, Neale strives to implement a grass-based system, allowing animals and plants to live their lives according to natural patterns. She maintains that the plant life, even the presence of invasive weeds, can teach us about the quality of our systems.
Theory and practice can clash, however. She would like to have her animals on pasture all the time, but to preserve the grass she sometimes needs to keep them confined. Building and preserving soil quality is as much a priority as putting animals on pasture.
“The most invasive species in the world is us,” she said. Her goal is to implement a mobile, modular, labor-intensive system that helps heal the land.
“I didn’t get successful by doing it right the first time”
Wendy Knowlton of Timberdoodle Farm may not know much about Salatin, but she intuitively lives by his principles. She uses the “Three E’s” to describe her farming philosophy: Ease of the farmer, Economics of the farm, and Environment.
Knowlton married into a farm family. “My husband’s the cow-whisperer,” she said. Early in their marriage, Knowlton would offer suggestions on alternatives to their current practices. Her husband responded, “If you don’t like it, do it yourself.”
She took the challenge.
The first thing she did was incorporate Lowline cattle into their Hereford stock to make them smaller and more-suited to their land and facilities. Then she moved into layer hens. Her neighbor agreed to hatch out her first birds in exchange for some of the chicks. She gave him five dozen eggs. He returned with 30 birds…all roosters.
Having learned a valuable lesson about bartering services, Knowlton took the birds to auction, hoping to break even. To her amazement, a bidding war broke out. She made four times her expenses.
It turns out she hit the auction at the time of a Chinese celebration that included two virgin roosters. She had found her niche. The next year she raised 100 birds, only to have 30 percent of them eaten by coyotes. She needed a better system for raising her birds.
Knowlton took some crates her brother-in-law had used for growing giant pumpkins and converted them into mobile coops. The next year she put the pen onto a platform so she had room to walk in them. She now has a fleet of 6′ x 12′ covered mobile pens, all for the price of $300.
In those coops she raises 200 broilers and 40-50 layers. Looking back on the route she took, she said, “I didn’t get successful by doing it right the first time.”
“Go big or go home”
Tom and Angie Geary of Bedrock Tree Farms were the Spotlight farmers for this year’s conference. The Gearys got into land-based agriculture after two oil spills effectively ended his 10-year lobstering career.
Plan B? Christmas trees.
They stumped their property and, in 2003, their first crop of Christmas trees were ready for sale. Since they didn’t have a market, they used the trees as a fundraiser for North Kingstown Little League. They must have done something right, because they now host 800 families a year during the four-week tree season.
The Gearys faced two big issues: deer and weeds. In one winter, deer destroyed 2,000 trees. It could have been the end of the farm. An EQUIP grant through NRCS allowed them to put up deer fencing and save their fledgling business.
As for the weeds, Tom had been spraying to keep them under control, but he suspected there was a milder alternative. He ended up planting hard fescue grasses between the rows. They mature at a low height, require minimal mowing and help suppress weed growth. Dutch white clover became his solution within the rows, outcompeting weeds and providing a nitrogen boost at the same time.
The Christmas trees were just the beginning. On a trip to Myrtle Beach, the Gearys were introduced to old fishermen’s recipes for removing smells from their hands. At home, Angie experimented with mixing needles from the trees with salt and oil. It neutralized even pernicious smells like garlic and fish.
Angie wondered if her concoction could be turned into a soap. She soon learned. Tom loved the soap, but disliked the fact that the heavenly aroma of her soap was overwhelmed by the smell of his shampoo. Could she make shampoo, too? Of course she could.
When Tom suggested she learn how to make candles, she eventually gave in. She made 50 fir-based candles to sell off the table during the Christmas season. They sold out.
Their house was their factory, and the space was being overwhelmed. The bathroom was the only room not dedicated to soap or candle production. Tom recalled they “started winning awards, and that was great,” but it was time to upgrade the facility. They invested $4,000 in a shredder to convert second-hand cardboard into packing material and constructed a new facility with a footprint of 1,000 square feet, two stoves and 13 employees, mostly young moms who make every day “an adventure.”
It isn’t enough space: the soap is still being made in their son’s bedroom.
” Cornerstone of America’s agricultural heritage “
Katina Hanson, acting director of the Office of External Affairs for the Farm Service Agency and chair of the FSA’s Women in Ag Chapter, was the event’s guest speaker. Her agricultural background began when she was a child visiting her uncle’s cows and growing potatoes, green beans and tomatoes with her grandfather.
In her freshman year of college, Hanson experienced a personal trauma. She said, “I fell back on the things that comforted me.” Those things included agriculture, specifically forestry, range management, and soil science. “Getting your hands in the dirt can be a truly therapeutic experience,” she said.
After a stint with AmeriCorps, Hanson took a job with NRCS. For the past 11 years, she has been in Washington, D.C. with FSA. Hanson believes that “women can often go unrecognized for the role that they play” even though they “have long been the cornerstone of America’s agricultural heritage.”
Nearly one-third of American farmers are women, generating $12.9 billion in annual sales. It is important that women’s roles in leadership reflect their value to the industry.
Hanson is an advocate for women’s participation in all aspects of agriculture. In the next five years, there will be an estimated 50,000 jobs opening in the areas of agriculture, renewable energy and conservation. Hanson expects women to fill a significant number of those positions.
“Those funding opportunities really up-scaled my project”
Rhode Island is one of the largest destination wedding locations and fuels a thriving floral design industry. The majority of the flowers for those designers are imported from long distances and heavily sprayed before entering the U.S. “The industry is not very environmentally-friendly,” said Anna Jane Kocon, owner of the Little State Flower Company.
Kocon envisioned a different kind of floral company. She wanted to supply wedding and event designers with 100 percent Rhode-Island-grown flowers. Her first year, she started growing on one acre of rented land with a rototiller and a long commute. She sold $59,000 of product.
The following year she successfully applied for a Local Agriculture and Seafood (LASA) grant to hire an employee. She paired it with an FSA loan for a tractor and purchased a double-axle trailer and a mower. That year she sold $109,000 of product. Kocon said, “Those funding opportunities really up-scaled my project.”
A second LASA grant funded sheds and a cooler purchased from local vendors. Kocon’s business is now in its fourth season. She has moved to a rental property with three acres and a house on-site. Kocon regularly supplies 120 wholesale clients with flowers grown in Rhode Island.