For the past three years, I have had the privilege to coordinate the Whole Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers course at UVM Extension. This unique course offers women farmers training in holistic management, a farm business planning strategy based on personal values and respect for the triple bottom line— financial, environmental and community sustainability. But beyond the valuable training, the opportunity for women farmers to gather—sharing their knowledge challenges, questions and concerns—has
proved one of the most lasting benefits of this course. Consistently, women in the course share the struggle of balancing family and farming, creating a viable business with being true to their values, and honoring themselves while nurturing the life they are responsible for all around them.
Many beginning women farmers are drawn to farming because they want to create a lifestyle for their family that fosters a connection to the earth, allows them to work from home and with their children, and gives them the ultimate control over their schedules and lives. But often, this vision is complicated by the demands of farming itself. One farmer shared the story of being in the barn at night, feeding livestock with one arm, while nursing her infant daughter in the other arm. She remembered thinking, “What am I doing? This is crazy!” Other women shared apprehension about starting families, wondering how they would continue growing their new farm businesses while pregnant or with an infant. Some were juggling parenting, farming and off-farm employment needed to keep the farm financially afloat, and wondering how long they could manage. Many participants were pursuing farming as a second career with adult children, and shared their struggles both from their previous careers and from bringing multiple generations into the farm business.
Through the discussions and commiserating, no easy answers arose and all admitted that the juggle was a challenge. But we know this is not unique to farming. A recent article, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, in the Atlantic Monthly by Anne-Marie Slaughter lays out the myths about pursuing a corporate career while being a mother. She also points a critical finger at the prevailing culture that still values commitment to work over commitment to family, and supports only a linear progression from the start of a career up the ladder of success, with pauses or lateral moves putting career success in jeopardy.
In reflecting on the article, I recognized the paradigms held by many farmers. That they need to work 80 hours a week to have a successful business. Bigger is better. That all other priorities come second to the success of the farm. Slaughter presents a pathway to a new definition of family-work balance. However, women farmers in Vermont are clearing a path by example, shaping their farm businesses to complement their commitment to their families. Julie Rubaud, mentor for the Whole Farm Planning course participants in 2010, is the owner of Red Wagon Plants. She transitioned from produce farming to a plant business in part to allow her more flexibility to be with her children. Penny Hewitt, mentor
in 2012, focuses on intense direct marketing of her farm products while homeschooling her children—using the farm as their year-round classroom. Mentor Kristan Doolan, works with her husband full-time on their goat dairy and cheese making business. They focus on thoughtful growth that keeps what they love, their family and managing their land and animals, at the heart of their life.
Holistic Management shows how using personal values to guide and shape the development of a farm will build a successful business as well as a fulfilling life. While there are no easy answers, the management strategy allows women farmers to value their commitment to their families alongside their commitment to their farm businesses, visioning for themselves what it means to be a successful farmer. And as the number of women farming in Vermont grows, the networks they are creating mean that no woman has to struggle with these issues alone.
We are now accepting applications for the next Whole Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers course. Geared toward women farmers with 2-10 years experience managing a farm business, the course is open to 15 women farmers in VT. Whole Farm Planning courses are also being offered in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Texas. If you have additional questions, contact Jessie Schmidt.