Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series marking the 100th anniversary of Oregon State University Extension Service.
Alice Fairfield moved to the Willamette Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area in 1996 with a particular vision of her 17-acre farm on Lakeside Drive.
“I bought this place thinking I’d have horses galloping around,” she said.
Today, she instead runs one of the few organic u-pick strawberry farms in the state.
Fairfield credits the Oregon State University Extension Service, and most recently Extension’s Willamette Women’s Farm Network, with providing her with the skills that have helped her brave the world of farming.
“They’ve been a wealth of knowledge,” Fairfield said.
And she’s not alone. A handful of local women farmers have discovered ways to increase the profitability and success of their farms through the niche community the network provides.
Around 100 farmers – and those interested in becoming farmers – belong to the network’s listserv. Living in Benton, Linn and Lane counties and ranging in age from mid-20s to 60s, the farmers aim to meet once a month for how-to sessions.
Melissa Fery, a small farms instructor for Benton County’s Extension office, helped create the network in late 2008 with 12 women farmers in response to both a growing number of women attending Extension-sponsored agriculture workshops as well as the rise of similar women farmer organizations on the East Coast.
“The whole mission is to engage women that are farming and ranching in our area so they’re able to work together to increase their business, and provide a social network for these gals,” Fery said.
Similar networks also exist through Extension’s Small Farms Program: southern Oregon’s League of Women Farmers began in fall 2007, and the Portland Metro-area Women Farmer Network began in winter 2010.
Though Fery said the traditional farmer’s wife role meant that many women served as behind-the-scenes “invisible farmers” to their husbands, state- and nationwide trends show that in fact women are more often taking ownership roles on farms.
In a 2007 report, the National Agricultural Statistics Service found that 27 percent of Oregon’s 38,553 farms are principally operated by women. That number rose 17 percent since the statistics service’s previous census in 2002.
Likewise, the statistics service found that 30 percent of farm principal operators nationwide are women, a 19 percent increase since 2002.
But just because they own farmland doesn’t mean women farmers know what it takes to make a profit. Using needs assessments of local farmers early on, Fery found that most women surveyed weren’t confident with hand or mechanically powered tools, whether they’re familiar with farming or not.
“It hasn’t been a traditional women’s role,” Fery said.
Consequently, the monthly meetings developed workshops centered on skills the women farmers wanted to know more about. While some meetings focus on learning a practical skill – everything from building chicken coops to learning how to safely drive a tractor to understanding how farms are taxed – others are visits to each other’s farms to learn what methods others are using.
And, there’s a social aspect – all meetings include a potluck – which leads to new bits of knowledge, too.
“In the course of a conversation, so much comes up that’s so helpful,” Fairfield said, adding that she recently learned which brand of labels to use on plastic packaging for frozen strawberries from a fellow network farmer.
And though many of the farmers are selling their products, there’s no cutthroat competition between one another, said Mindi Thornton, one of the original founders of the network, who has raised blueberries and kiwis on and near her Kiger Island Road property for six years.
“The people involved feel comfortable calling up each other,” she said. “It’s truly a different environment with the women.”
Fairfield plans to continue using network farmers as a resource for future endeavors. Her current project includes turning a one-room cabin on her property into a guest house for farm stays, a growing trend in the agriculture industry nationwide that allows for visitors to be lodged on farms overnight for a taste of farm life.
Fairfield learned about the opportunity through fellow network farmer Scottie Jones, who owns Leaping Lamb Farm Stay in Alsea.
“You just find out so much stuff,” Fairfield said.
Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at email@example.com.