Farming Skills Grow in Women's Farm Network

Women's Farm Network carpentry class
Women's Farm Network Carpentry/Tools class
Women's Farm Network first gathering
Women's Farm Network first gathering
Women's Farm Network Scottie Jones
Women's Farm Network Scottie Jones
Women's Farm Network trimming hooves
Women's Farm Network works together to trim sheep hooves

By Mitch Lies, GROWING Editor

This isn’t like your sister’s room with the “No Boys Allowed” sign on the door. Men, according to members of a nearly ten-year old women’s farm organization called Willamette Women’s Farm Network, often participate in group events. But members of the group prefer to turn to each other for answers to difficult farm questions.

And they are reaping benefits from their participation in Willamette Women’s Farm Network.

“People will ask, ‘How do you do this?’ or ‘How do you do that?’ and we use ourselves, use the group as a resource,” said Scottie Jones, one of the original members of Willamette Women’s Farm Network.

“We have a really good listserv,” she said.

Membership in the group, one of two such groups operating in Oregon and one of many nationwide, has grown from a dozen in 2008 to 180 today. And the network keeps adding members annually.

The network has its origins in a steering committee formed by Oregon State University Extension Small Farms Program agent Melissa Fery.

Fery, who serves small farms in Linn, Benton and Lane counties, said she originally pulled together a dozen women farmers in 2008 to find out if a network would be useful.

“They said it would,” Fery said. “From there, for the most part, it has just grown through word of mouth.”

Fery said the thought of starting the network came out of the realization that the role of women in agriculture has been changing, particularly in the increasingly prominent area of small farms.

“Farming historically has been a pretty male dominated field,” Fery said. “Women were often seen, and in some ways still are seen, as farm wives to the farmers. They are kind of underserved when it comes to educational programs. And small farms have a large population of new women farmers.

“And there is something to be said for learning from other women, instead of having a guy come in and teach you what you need to know,” Fery said. “The learning style is very collaborative, very open. They are willing to ask questions. It is a very different energy than some of the other programs I’m involved in.”

The network includes almost exclusively small farmers, with 70 percent farming on less than 30 acres, and most of them selling direct to customers, with 82 percent marketing their product consumers through farmers’ markets and similar venues.

As unique as she is, Jones is somewhat typical of the network’s membership. While many are young farmers just starting out, many, like Jones, have taken up farming later in life as part of professional and lifestyle transitions.

Jones and her husband, Greg Jones, decided to leave behind their professional positions in Phoenix, Arizona, to pursue life on a small farm at the age of 50. Other than some hobby gardening and internet research, the couple knew little about farming when they purchased what was then a 40-acre farm near Alsea, Oregon.

“It was called being naïve at 50,” Jones said. “That is what it was.”

After a year or so, Jones said it became obvious the operation, Leaping Lamb Farm, wasn’t paying for itself, so Greg took a position teaching psychology at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, a position he retired from earlier this year.

Scottie also considered getting a job in town, and actually pursued and obtained a master’s degree in business administration.

“I was thinking I was going to work off the farm,” she said, “but then it became pretty apparent that somebody really needed to be on the farm.”

Jones met Fery shortly after the couple purchased Leaping Lamb Farm through a course Fery teaches called Living on the Land. “I decided that since I didn’t know anything that I better take some classes, so I had some concept of what we should be doing.”

Jones said she realizes several benefits from Willamette Women’s Farm Network, including a tight-knit camaraderie among the members that has been sustained since the group’s very first meeting.

“When we first started, I remember thinking, oh good, I am going to be with all these older farmers and they are just going to know so much,” Jones said. “But most of who started with the group were brand new at farming. So we’ve all kind of come along and learned as we’ve gone. And I think we are really good at sharing what we’ve learned.

“And now that a lot of us have been doing it for a decade or more, I guess we’re not new farmers anymore,” she said. “But it was enjoyable getting to grow with all of these people. It has just created a great camaraderie.”

She added: “The network has helped us be better at what we do, and then having somebody like Melissa in Extension behind it all as a major resource, has been very helpful.”

Jones said she also appreciates that the network opened up a unique opportunity that she doesn’t believe would have been available without it.

“I’ve gotten to know some people pretty well, and without the network, I don’t think there would have been another opportunity for me to have gotten into a farming community as easily,” Jones said. “Because I didn’t know anything. I was brand new. It would have been harder to figure out where to go, who to meet.”

In its first few years, Willamette Women’s Farm Network would hold gatherings every other month or so, Fery said. Today the members hold workshops about three times a year.

“Now I wait to find out from women farmers what they are interested in,” Fery said. “Most recently, someone said they would be interested in learning the basics of electrician work. A class like that might mean giving them the confidence in trying to put in an outlet by themselves in their barn.

“I let the members tell me if there is an educational need or a need to gather and get together and support each other,” Fery said.

“Farmer-to-farmer networking is not a traditional Extension program, because farmers are the educators in this network, sharing information with each other. I’m just the facilitator, creating space for these women to share observations, ideas, needs and solutions,” Fery said. “With the network, I’m not trying so much to determine what they need to know, but letting them tell me.”

The network serves several purposes in addition to sharing information and building camaraderie, Fery said. “We’ve seen different things develop, from business relationships, where they are actually working with each other, as well as equipment sharing, support and networking opportunities in general,” Fery said.

The primary communication method used by members is to send an email to the group’s listserv, or email list. “We also have a Facebook page,” Fery said.

Members also use the listserv to sell items.

“I’ve found the listserv to be very useful, Jones said. “Instead of selling something on Craigslist, you can put it on the listserv.”

Jones said she also uses the listserv to alert other members about the availability of certain tools that are designed with women in mind. Because farming is a male-dominated profession, she said, often it is difficult for women to find tools that fit their needs.

“A lot of implements aren’t made for women’s hands, women’s bodies, so people on the network are a great resource,” Jones said. “They’ll say things like ‘Oh, I found these clippers that really fit my hand,’ or ‘I found these gloves where the fingers aren’t too long.’”

“This network is a way for women farmers to gain confidence,” Fery said, “but also a way to network with each other and support each other, which I think is really important.

“In the long term,” Fery said, as women become more dominant as principle operators of farms, networks like this won’t be needed.”

Still, the network might survive, but with another function.

“It might turn into more of a social opportunity,” Fery said.

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