Posted 14 September 2011, by Lorraine Ash, The Daily Record (Gannett), dailyrecord.com
Atop Schooley’s Mountain, a straw-hatted Kristen Bowlin stepped into the vegetable fields on Totten Family Farm and set down two six-foot tomato cages.
In an adjacent field, two draft horses, Ozzy and Crystal, swished their tails and grazed. The summer sun blazed.
“The tomatoes smell great today!” Bowlin said. The 30-year-old farmer enjoys working the 80 acres she cultivates with her partner, Kyle Laferriere. But for her — and a rapidly growing number of women farmers — the certified naturally grown farm is both passion and business.
“We were at the local hardware store this morning buying mesh reinforcement wire to make our own cages,” she said. “A tomato cage is expensive, $6. Doesn’t sound like much, but if I buy 1,500 of them…”
She eyes rows of tomato plants, figuring it’ll take her and Laferriere three days to mulch and cage them. The two grabbed bales of rye straw mulch and got to it.
“Do you have a knife on you?” she asked. He handed her one. She cut open a bale and, on hands and knees, spread it among the tomato plants.
“The mulch will smother out any weeds,” she explained, wiping her face and leaving a soil streak across one cheek. “It’ll also retain moisture in the soil, and encourage microorganisms to travel up through the soil, eat some of the mulch and break it down. That improves soil structure.”
Bowlin is fussy about tomatoes. Growing up in Missouri, she despised them. But she fell in love with them during the first harvest she ever worked as an intern at Wildwood Farm in Saxapahaw, North Carolina.
“Farmer Kevin Meehan and I were harvesting the Cherokee purples,” she said. “They are beautiful, very large, deep red tomatoes. He sliced one for me. I tasted it. It was warm from the field. It was delicious. Maybe that experience gave me just a tiny bit more appreciation for the tomato over some of the other vegetables.”
Not that she doesn’t love the hundreds of other heirloom vegetables — and heritage breed animals — she and Laferriere grow and raise. Bowlin revels in the genetic diversity, healthfulness and beauty of what she grows.
In that way, she typifies the growing ranks of women who run farms and do everything from the manual labor to the marketing.
From 2002 to 2007, the number of women who run farms in the United States rose by 29 percent to 306,000, according to The Census of Agriculture, taken every five years. In the 20 years from 1987 to 2007, the number of American women principal farm operators, as they’re called, rose 133 percent.
While some women embrace industrial farming, most who enter the agricultural life are the primary drivers behind the local and healthy food movements, according to Leigh Adcock, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, an advocacy group.
“We women buy foods for our families. From that we discover that we want to grown our own,” Adcock said. “So we start out as gardeners. We end up really liking what we’re doing. We grow more. We go to farmers markets. We start selling to CSA customers, and then we quit our day job and do it full time on small-scale, diversified farms.”
For Bowlin, the path was similar. As a student at the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, she was disturbed that the materials she used to make art were not environmentally friendly.
“I wanted to get into more natural arts,” she said.
So a search began, leading her into the world of sustainability and farming and to Central Carolina Community College, where she earned an associate degree in sustainable agriculture. It was there she met Laferriere, of Mendham. They moved to Wolcott, Vermont, a mecca of sustainable agriculture, a place where natural growers and women farmers abound.
“Lots of friendly competition going on up there,” Bowlin said, “but here natural farming is extremely lacking.”
Additionally, demand is high, she said, and New Jerseyans are willing to pay the price a natural farmer needs to get for organic produce. Last year the couple moved to Long Valley to farm.
The rise of women farmers in the Garden State is as robust as it is nationally. From 1987 to 2007, New Jersey saw a 135 percent increase in women farmers, while Morris County saw a 73 percent increase.
The state’s compactness makes it attractive to farmers, according to Robin Brumfield, a farm economist with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. This year for the first time, she brought Annie’s Project to New Jersey; the federally sponsored education program for women farmers is now offered in 22 states. The six-session seminar was offered in Hackettstown and Cape May this past winter, and will be offered in expanded form in Somerset County this fall.
“Every county in New Jersey is considered a metropolitan area,” Brumfield said. “That’s a competitive advantage. Farmers are located next to their consumers so the thing to do is direct market and it just seems women are good at that.”
People who operate small New Jersey farms, she said, don’t have the expense of hauling their foods too far.
For Bowlin and Laferriere, who have formed a partnership with the landowners of the Totten Family Farm, the trip from Long Valley to the Mendham Farmers Market is 15 miles. Like many of the women farmers Brumfield has met, Bowlin works hard at marketing. Her duties as vendor coordinator for the new Mendham market included research, creating vendor applications, writing market bylaws and creating publicity fliers.
Additionally, the two farmers make CSA deliveries to South Orange, Montclair, Morristown and Short Hills and, when there are live-in interns, open the stand at the farm’s Naughright Road address.
It’s a mistake to think women began producing fresh, natural foods and selling them locally only in recent decades.
In a paper entitled “The Contemporary American Farm Woman: 1860 to Present,” Stephanie Fisher, a NYU Gallatin School graduate, writes women were involved with growing foods naturally until the post-World War II era of large-scale animal feeding operations and factory farming.
Fisher, who plans to open a farm, said she will raise chickens in deference to the women farmers who came before her.
“Since homesteading chicken farming was the only thing women did for which they were paid actual wages, called ‘pin money,’” Fisher said. “Women lost control of chicken farming when industry caught on that chickens could be a profitable industry. That move took a lot of power away from women, who were previously selling eggs to their neighbors through rural social networks.”
For Bowlin, the chicken issue epitomizes why she devotes herself to retaining the genetic diversity of vegetables and animals instead of offering only a few hybrid genetic variations.
“The Cornish Cross chicken is the commercial breed of chicken you find in the grocery store,” she said. “It’s bred to have larger breasts because people like the breasts.”
But those chickens have a hard life, she explained. Their legs break when they try to walk under the weight of their unnaturally heavy breasts.
“They can’t reproduce a lot of times,” she said, “and they will have heart attacks. They can’t forage very well, either, so a farmer has to purchase more feed for them.”
Instead, she and Laferriere glory in raising rare-breed pastured animals — grass-fed Khatadin lamb, Large Black pigs and Belted Galloway cows — and rotating their pastures.
Similarly, Bowlin prefers hundreds of kinds of tomatoes to the thick-skinned hybrid supermarket tomato engineered to ship well and have a long shelf life.
Like many women farmers, she lives her goal every day when she produces healthy food for her family and the community. For the moment, she does not experience many of the factors that stress some women farmers, such as social isolation, lack of acknowledgment, farm loan discrimination or role overload.
“Thank goodness I don’t have a family of children now because I don’t know how I would manage that,” she said.
Eventually, Bowlin wants to offer workshops in the potato barn about natural arts and home arts — exactly what she sought when she left art school. Only after she attains stability and owns her own land will she have a child, she said.
In the meantime, she lives outside daily in a world of baby doll sheep and sungold tomatoes she plucks off the vine and pops into her mouth. A world of heirloom vegetables and flowers give her joy, including arugula; cantaloupe; yellow, purple, red, and orange carrots; cilantro; pumpkins; green, golden, and eight ball zucchini; Georgia collards, frisée, escarole, and much more.
Indulging Laferriere’s interest in medicinal and edible herbs, the couple also grows calendula, chamomile, comfrey, elecampane, wormword, sweet marjoram, and much more. They use the herbs to make tinctures and salves that they sell.
The bounty makes for long days filled with manual labor. A typical workday for Bowlin and Laferriere lasts 16 hours. Recently, she planted lettuce in a lightning storm, staying as close to the ground as she could.
“The lettuce needed to be planted,” she said. “Constantly, there’s something that needs to be done. If you miss one thing throughout your day, it’s going to be difficult to fit it in some other time because our days are always full.”
Sometimes even after the sun sets, Bowlin still hasn’t had enough of nature. She sinks into a hot bath in a $75 outdoor vintage clawfoot tub and, surrounded by pots of her own flowers, looks up at the stars.