The Changing Face of FarmingMy 10-year-old daughter wants to be a farmer. When I hear my kids talk about what they want to be when they grow up, I put on my supportive face and say, “If that’s what you want, I’m sure you’ll make the best one ever,” … knowing they will change their minds many times before they really have to take a direction in life. By then, reality will set in, and society will make its mark on my kids’ barometers of what is possible and what is not.
My daughter’s desire to be a farmer may not seem extraordinary to most people, but to someone who grew up in a farming community where almost every man I knew was a farmer, and every farmer’s wife’s job was to support her husband, it’s extraordinary. Among my girlfriends – from elementary school, high school, even college – I never heard one of them utter those words. Every mother’s words of advice to her daughter was, “Never marry a farmer.” We never heard, “Never become a farmer.” It wasn’t even on our radars. And why would it be? Sitting around the television at night, we were inundated with commercials for seed corn and pickup trucks where rugged men in plaid shirts lifted heavy bags or stood in a field of crops; women were nowhere to be seen. We watched our fathers come home, long after dark, with dried blood on their hands from fixing a barbed wire fence or the smell of pigs covering their clothes. Then, we listened from the top of the stairs while our parents had a heated conversation over an 11 p.m. dinner of cold leftovers about how next month’s bills were going to be paid.
Even though our mothers’ warnings were said with a chuckle, we could see the sincerity on their worn faces. The lines around their eyes were a testament to the endless job of supporting someone who is a slave to the weather, who doesn’t ever get a day off, and who is always on call.
When I was young, the constant question for farming families was which son would take over the farm, yet times have changed. Even though the amount of farms has decreased nationwide, the number of women-operated farms has doubled between 1982 and 2007. In fact, women currently make up about 30 percent of U.S. farmers. In these portraits, I explore what motivates five female farmers. While their reasons vary as much as the farmers themselves, I’ve witnessed some common denominators: toughness, gentleness, commitment to the people who support them, and commitment to the creatures and the land.
Binder’s Hilltop Apple and Berry Farm and Mid Missouri Alpacas
In 1993, I read this article about this retired couple in Texas who put in a dwarf apple orchard. And I thought, I’ll try it. We put in 900 trees, and it took us three years. I didn’t start farming until I retired, and now I work harder than I ever have.
We’ve been on this property for 26 years. My husband passed away July 1. It gets hectic at times, but it’s good for a person to work. I grew up on a farm in Illinois, and we learned to work as kids. My dad also had a full-time job, and he never missed work. Even if he was sick.
The alpacas ... it’s nice to see a healthy baby born and running around the first day. They jump and kick their legs. Sometimes the older ones start loping. All four of their feet come up, and they follow one another, and there’s this sort of procession. Somebody runs and takes off and the other ones just follow. And you stop, and you’ve got to watch because they’re loping! They’re having such a good time. You just have to watch them.
Binder’s Hilltop Apple and Berry Farm and Mid Missouri Alpacas: Blackberries, peaches, pick-your-own apples, alpaca and farm tours, farm store, 24688 Audrain Road 820, Mexico, Mo., 573.721.1415, applesandalpacas.com
Find Binder’s goods at Columbia Farmers Market and Mexico Farmers Market.
Kuhs Estate & Farm
My great-grandfather bought the land in 1915. Without telling his wife or his two kids, he bought the land, designed it, built the house, decorated and furnished it, then drove them up one weekend to surprise them. When he passed away, he bequeathed different shares of stock to the family. When my mom passed away, I was 57 percent stockholder.
One of the things my mom said to me as she was sort of saying goodbye and getting ready was, “You won’t be able to take this on. This is gonna take a huge life shift for you.” I was director of City Museum for three years and sales and marketing for Alive [Magazine] and living a very fast-paced life – very much a city girl. And when she died, everything in me just shifted. This is a legacy, and there is an implied sense of stewardship. This is what I want to do; this is what I have to do. This is my anchor, my home.
I want to make it a sustainable farm again. I want it to be a place of happiness and refuge and a sanctuary where people can come to rediscover their souls in the quiet time between cell phones and texting – to just go sit under a big tree in complete quiet or look at the confluence and let it speak to you. And it has become that.
It’s been a struggle. I think of it sort of like empire-building. I don’t expect it to be complete overnight, but it has a magic and a magnetism that draws people to it who share the same love and appreciation. I have friends who will come out and spend the night, so they can get up and be on a horse at dawn. Or people that drive from St. Louis to get fresh eggs, and then in the break rooms at work, they try to convert their co-workers by breaking open a store-bought egg versus a farm-fresh egg. That it means something to other people it’s not even convenient for – it’s really empowering and validating.
Anything worth having is hard, but it’s wonderful. And I’ve never been happier. My high heels are in a closet, and I’m in here with a pig.
Kuhs Estate & Farm: Duck and chicken eggs, produce, licensed animal rescue, weddings and events, 13061 Spanish Pond Road, Spanish Lake, Mo., 314.226.0709, kuhsfarm.com
Happy Hollow Farm
I was in graduate school at Cornell when I joined a CSA [community-supported agriculture]. I loved helping on the farm, and I didn’t know people did that for a living. I had no idea. I was so highly intrigued.
There is a very well-known woman, Elizabeth Henderson, in the CSA movement. She came to speak at Cornell, and she encouraged me to go to a farming conference. She told me to not even think about buying a farm because I probably wouldn’t make it. You have to learn a career in farming like you have to learn any other career. I mean, you can’t just decide you’re going to start farming and start farming. She was so right. I was pretty headstrong.
You need lots of common sense. How do you get common sense? By experience. Everybody at the conference was saying to at least take a season and be an intern on a farm. So, OK, did that, then moved back here to be closer to my family, and I managed a farm for a year. And that was when I realized that yes, I really did want to farm. I worked at a nursery for 5½ years, bought the farm, kept working at the nursery for two years, then I started farming full time.
I am very driven. My grandfather raised me that way. I have a very direct brain connection between how hard I work and my personal worth. It’s physically difficult; it’s mentally challenging; it’s stressful. I do it because it’s fun and I love it, but I’m also trying to make a living.
I love my CSA members. It’s that community of people that have been so supportive of me and the farm – and knowing how much they appreciate the fact that they’re eating fabulous food. Doing a CSA is a lot of pressure because I take very personally the quality of the product I’m putting out there, and I take very seriously that my members have paid me in advance. I want to make sure that I over-exceed their expectations every week in the vegetables I send out.
Happy Hollow Farm: Community-supported agriculture, produce, chicken eggs
17199 Happy Hollow Road, Jamestown, Mo., 660.849.2430, happyhollowfarm-mo.com
Find Happy Hollow Farm’s produce at Columbia Farmers Market.
Sassafras Valley Farm
I’ve been here eight years. [My mom] needed help here at the farm, and she kept getting pneumonia. She was really tough, but she couldn’t keep doing all the work herself. She loved this farm. She wanted to die here. So I put everything in storage and came down.
I had an organic landscaping company in Chicago. I was there 30 years. I came down thinking it was going to be maybe a year, and, instead, all hell broke loose. The economy collapsed, and I had to close the business up there.
My mom ... they gave her six to eight months, but she had no intention of going anywhere. They diagnosed her with lung cancer, and she lasted five years. She just kept getting healthier. So when I was caring for my mom, I started applying for grants. People [who] want to go into agriculture ... well, don’t go into it without a couple hundred thousand dollars in your pocket. To try to start from scratch – it’s impossible. If you don’t know how to repair things, and you’re not sure about equipment ... the fact that I can’t repair my tractor annoys me to death.
It’s been a baptism by fire, but I love it. This is what you have every day when you walk outside: wind chimes and sweet animals who depend on you. It’s beautiful. When there are hundreds of geese in the field and the Pyrenees are out, it’s very idyllic. Especially after 30 years in Chicago. That’s a long time to be in a concrete jungle.
Sassafras Valley Farm: Free-range geese, bed and breakfast coming soon
1590 Highway N, Morrison, Mo., 866.684.2188, sassafrasvalleyfarm.com
Find Sassafras Valley Farm’s geese at Local Harvest Grocery and Maude’s Market.
Blue Bell Farm
My husband’s grandmother, who was living at the farm, passed away in 2009. I think he always had it in the back of his mind to do something with the farm because his mother was an only child, and he was an only child, and he knew that it would be up to him at some point. So we started thinking about what it could be. We started a garden in the backyard in Glendale, and it grew and grew. I just loved being able to go out and pick fresh vegetables and herbs for dinner. It suddenly clicked that that made me really happy.
I started an apprenticeship at EarthDance in 2010. It was really validating that yes, I do want to do this and I can do this ... to go from a backyard gardener to thinking about things in terms of crops. We decided that I would move up first and get things going. [My husband] Derek was still working in St. Louis, and he would come up on the weekends. The whole kitchen had grow lights hanging down with tables throughout. That’s how we started our seeds that first year because we didn’t have any knowledge of growing outside at that point. It drove Derek crazy because there was dirt on the floors. Thankfully, he wasn’t living here then because I think he would have really lost it.
I want to be in the dirt, growing and harvesting things. It’s not something that I see as labor or a chore. It brings me peace, and it’s meditative. I think it would have been really hard if we hadn’t found a group of young farmers that are like-minded in the area when we moved because it can be kind of lonely at times. In Chicago and St. Louis, I went out a lot. This is sort of an alternative life to that. I never would have imagined it, but I’m glad it happened. I have to remind myself of the beauty of it. When I was first here, I was in awe. I think you get in a routine where you lose that ability to stop and be in the moment for a little bit. Ultimately, raising a family here ... in the air and just the freshness of everything ... that’s what keeps me going.
Blue Bell Farm: Produce, weddings, events
3030 Highway 240, Fayette, Mo., 314.220.7120, bluebellfarm.org
Find Blue Bell Farm’s produce at Fayette Farmers Market and Columbia Farmers Market.