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Historically women have often been unseen partners on the farm—hardworking farmwives and daughters—essential but largely unacknowledged. Today, things have changed; women are stepping out of the shadows and putting a new face on American farming.
Women in agriculture are making their presence known in every state, and Florida is no exception. They’re changing the way food is grown and sold and even how it tastes. In Homestead, Teena Borek is growing heirloom tomatoes in all shapes and colors to supply Miami’s five-star restaurants and gourmet markets. In Monticello, Dr. Cynthia Connolly is producing organic muscadine wine at Florida’s only certified organic farm winery. Meanwhile, Betty O’Toole of Madison has found her niche with organic herbs, luring customers to her small farm with workshops, daylong internships, and tours of the farm’s sumptuous display gardens.
Around the country, farms run by women are on the increase. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms with women as primary operators grew 58 percent from 1975 to 1997, and it is predicted that as much as 75 percent of U.S. farmland will be owned by women by 2014.
Women come by the land—and the job of farming—in a variety of ways. Some inherit farmland when their husbands die. Others assume management of the farm when their spouse is forced to find off-farm employment. Women who grew up on farms often return after their parents die or retire.
Barbara Carlton took over the management of her family’s 17,000-acre cattle ranch in Sarasota County when her husband, Mabry, died in a plane crash in 1989.
“At that time, I had been on the ranch for 28 years, and it really surprised me that people wondered if I would stay,” she says. “Why would they think I wouldn’t have the ability or that I wouldn’t want to keep doing the same thing that I had done for all those years?”
Mabry Carlton served on the Sarasota County Commission for nine years before his death, and the job often took him away from the ranch. While he was away, Barbara Carlton was the one running things.
“I think of those nine years as my training period,” she says.
Yet despite her many years of experience, it was difficult to convince some people to take her seriously. It was tough to get them to see her as the person in charge of the sprawling ranch, the largest private land holding in Sarasota County.
“People I dealt with had their doubts about me as a rancher,” Carlton says. “Several people would say, ‘Well, could you have your foreman call me?’ Or, ‘Do you have a son?’ No, I don’t have a son.”
Carlton seems more amused than bothered by the misconceptions. Like many female farmers, she’s inclined to laugh off gender stereotypes rather than let them get in her way.
“Of course there are still biases out there,” says Dr. Marion Aller, Director of the Division of Food Safety for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Women still raise eyebrows whether they’re in the barn or the boardroom. Sometimes women may be held to a higher standard. There are bastions of the old guard. But I think women are well aware of these attitudes and they know how to handle them. They can get past them and move on.”
“Women don’t want special treatment,” says Terry Rhodes, Chief of Staff for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. “They want to be seen as farmers, not as ‘women farmers.’ They don’t want gender issues to interfere with the important work at hand: growing food, growing their businesses, keeping the farm. It’s about farming, not about being a woman.”
Indeed, many of the women interviewed for this article stressed the supportiveness of their male colleagues.
“When my husband died in 1980, I was a mother; I wasn’t a farmer,” said Teena Borek, who farms 300 acres in Homestead. “I had to learn how to farm, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of my neighbors, the farmers all around me. I never ever had a farmer be negative to me because I was a woman. Quite the opposite; they always helped me out. The farming community is so close-knit and supportive, so giving, and this is a wonderful industry to work in because of that.”
Borek says the problems she faces are the same ones all family farmers in Florida run up against: low profits, a shortage of labor, too much government regulation, unfair trade, soaring land values, and mounting pressure from developers.
“Farming isn’t hard for me because I’m a woman,” Borek insists. “It’s hard for every small or medium-sized farmer. With all the new rules and regulations, family farms simply can’t keep up. We can’t make it. There are obstacles on top of obstacles. I wouldn’t be in this business anymore if I didn’t have two sons who would like to remain in it. I don’t think farmers are appreciated.”
Dr. Cynthia Connolly, who owns and operates Ladybird Organics, a 50-acre organic farm in Monticello, says part of the problem is the absence of a national support program for small and medium-sized farms. During the 17 years she has been running Ladybird Organics, she has often been forced to supplement her income with off-farm jobs simply to make ends meet. “There is no government policy that buoys us,” she says. “Small farmers have no retirement or health care benefits, and food prices are so low that it’s very difficult for us to make a living. As a result, small farmers are a very endangered group.”
Betty O’Toole, owner of O’Toole’s Herb Farm, an organic herb farm in Madison, agrees that farming is a tough business.
“We couldn’t make it if my husband didn’t have a good retirement,” O’Toole says. “Farming is hard. You can work yourself to death, and any money you make goes back into the farm.”
O’Toole worked for years as an interior designer before coming back to the 1,000-acre farm her family has owned since the 1840s. Her father and grandfather grew shade tobacco on the land, but she and her husband, Jim, chose to focus on herbs, which they raise on five acres. They started out selling fresh-cut herbs to area restaurants, but today they are in the live plant business. They have two greenhouses full of organically grown potted herbs and butterfly-friendly perennials; they sell wholesale to area nurseries during the first half of the week and are open to retail customers on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“I didn’t know I was a farmer at heart until I was in my thirties,” O’Toole says. “When I was young, girls didn’t go into agriculture. It was unheard of. I became an interior designer because it was an acceptable occupation for a woman, but I think what I really wanted to be was a landscape designer.”
O’Toole’s flair for design is apparent throughout her farm. There are elaborate demonstration gardens aflutter with butterflies and birds; the lush, fragrant flow of flowers and greenery is punctuated here and there by arches and benches and birdhouses. She and Jim moved two tin-roofed Cracker houses to the property to serve as a gift shop and an art gallery; the shady porches are laden with interesting baskets, terra cotta pots, and folk art.
Jim O’Toole is quick to give his wife credit for the farm’s unique and inviting atmosphere. “Betty has such an eye for these things,” he says. “What we’re really doing now is agri-tourism, because we’ve found that people just like to be here. And why not? The farm is quaint. It’s cute. It smells good and feels good, and it makes you feel good. We have garden clubs come in and just spend the day. They work in the demonstration gardens. Sometimes they have lunch. They buy some herbs. Being at the farm makes people happy.”
Betty adds, “We’ve come up with some pretty creative ways to bring people here. We have weddings and receptions here—anything we can think of.”
Creativity is a quality that women farmers seem to possess in abundance. It’s the special something they bring to this once tradition-bound, male-dominated industry.
“This is an exciting time in agriculture,” says Melissa Joiner, president of Florida Agri-Women, a women-only non-profit that promotes agriculture in the Sunshine State. “In the past, women have taken the ‘supportive’ role in the industry. But as more women become heads of businesses—become leaders—there is a constant stream of new ideas. We bring a fresh perspective.”
Women aren’t afraid to think outside the box, Joiner says, or to challenge conventional growing methods and marketing techniques. “Maybe it’s because we’re coming from the outside,” she says.
It’s not surprising then that women are a driving force in alternative and sustainable agriculture. Studies suggest that women are more likely than men to farm organically and on small acreages; they are also more likely to farm part time and without the help of large, expensive equipment.
“I’m a child of the sixties,” Betty O’Toole says. “I always knew that if I farmed, I would farm organically. To me, it just makes sense, to nourish the soil, to live in balance with nature. It’s just a wonderful philosophy of life.”
Farming without chemicals is good for the planet and good for business. Cynthia Connolly says customers seek her out because she grows organically. “It’s a great selling point,” she says. “They don’t come to me because I grow wheatgrass—they come to me because I grow organic wheatgrass.”
In addition to wheatgrass, Connolly grows USDA-certified organic muscadine grapes, which she sells fresh and also processes into organic wines. Visitors are welcomed to the farm for wine tastings and sales and to pick their own grapes in season. Connolly also sells her wines over the internet and at special events. In addition, she produces organic eggs and broilers—and she sells worm castings for home gardeners to use as fertilizer.
“The farm is very diversified,” Connolly says, “because there is sustainability in multiple income strains, and also because an organic farm needs diversity. The different parts of the farm support each other. The worms support the soil, which supports plant life, which in turn supports animal life and ultimately human life. Plant waste and chicken manure get composted and go back into the soil.”
By constantly diversifying her income stream, Connolly has been able to keep her farm going. It’s a story often told by farmers—and by small farmers in general. Flexibility and creativity are mandatory if you want to stay afloat.
Teena Borek’s farm was once just one of many in Homestead, but now it is surrounded on all sides by upscale housing. Borek is one of the last of her kind in the Homestead area—a family farmer. She’s been able to keep the farm viable by adjusting both its size and the kinds of crops she grows.
We were growing tomatoes, and NAFTA crippled our farm,” Borek says. “We couldn’t compete with the cheap imports, so we had to find a niche, a specialty crop we could produce and sell without so much competition. That’s why I started growing heirloom tomatoes.”
Borek takes special pride in her heirlooms, which she grows on five acres. She calls them her “babies.”
“Heirloom tomatoes are your old-style tomatoes,” Borek explains. “Your Brandywines and your Cherokee Purples. They were brought to this country by the various ethnic groups who immigrated here, so every variety is different and special. Heirloom tomatoes are very perishable, but they are really tasty. They come in all different colors and shapes and flavors, and their presentation is absolutely awesome. They’re beautiful even just sliced and put on a plate. You look at them and you want to eat them.”
But growing a delicious high-quality product isn’t enough. To succeed in small-scale farming these days you have to be a good marketer. Many small farmers are involved in some form of direct marketing; they sell their produce at farmers’ markets, for example, or they offer produce shares. In such cases, the farmer’s success ultimately hinges on her ability to build personal, trusting relationships with her customers.
“With the growing concern over food safety, more and more Floridians are looking for a way to reconnect with their food source,” says Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. “People want to know where their food comes from and how it was grown, and small farmers can provide this kind of information. They can establish a personal bond of trust with their customers, and that is something that is much in demand these days.”
But establishing this bond—building these personal relationships—takes time and effort. It takes work. The O’Tooles spend countless hours preparing for the workshops, festivals, and other educational events they hold at their farm, and the fees they charge barely cover their expenses.
While Betty O’Toole stresses the satisfaction she takes in community outreach, she admits that keeping the farm afloat—keeping it in the public eye—is difficult and time-consuming. “I don’t think a wimp could do it,” she says.
So, given the difficulties, why would anyone choose to be involved in this profession?
Sandi Dutton, who produces cut flowers on three acres near Havana, just outside Tallahassee, says she relishes the independence her work affords her. She grows zinnias, gladiolas, and sunflowers, along with some herbs, sugarcane, and a small plot of vegetables. She sells her flowers at local farmers’ markets and wholesale to a few florists; the vegetables are for her own use. “I’m my own boss,” she says. “I walk out my door and I’m at work.”
Another of farming’s appeals is the “quality of life” benefits it offers. It is embraced as an opportunity to live quietly and peacefully in nature and to engage in work that is truly meaningful.
“I always say I’m growing smiles and food for the soul,” Dutton says. “When I’m at the farmers’ markets, I really enjoy visiting with the customers. Even if they don’t buy anything, they walk away with a smile on their face. It’s very rewarding. Every day I’m surrounded by color. I’m surrounded by flowers.”
It’s the intangible benefits that draw many women to the farm—and keep them there.
“When I began thinking about starting up this business, I was looking for a way to reinvigorate my family’s old farm, and I also wanted to do something that would give my husband and me a good life,” Betty O’Toole says. “And what we’ve done fulfills both goals. We have fun here. We love what we do.”
And what advice would she offer to young women interested in a career in farming?
“Do your research,” O’Toole says. “Talk to people who are doing what you want to do. People in the agriculture industry are so giving. Take advantage of that. Learn from others. And be prepared to work really hard.”
Since 1985, Florida has recognized women who have made outstanding contributions to the state’s agricultural community through its Woman of the Year in Agriculture Award. Sponsored by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida State Fair Authority, the award is presented during the opening-day luncheon of the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
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