Audrey Gay Rodgers has been running the Hameau Farm in Mifflin County's Big Valley for about 25 years. Not only does she raise Scottish Highland and Ayrshire cows, Jacob sheep, and Alpine goats, but she also runs a summer camp for girls on the farm. Until recently, however, Rodgers had felt isolated in her enterprise. But, thanks to the Pennsylvania Women's Agriculture Network (PA-WAgN), Rodgers says she "no longer feels alone."
Rodgers explains that being a woman farmer has its challenges; sometimes, for example, she feels as though she is not taken seriously, or given credibility when she is at a financial institution. She says that now, as a member of PA-WAgN, she appreciates "hearing about and learning from other women's trials, tribulations and successes."
Encouraging such camaraderie is one of the main goals of PA-WAgN, which was created in 2003 as part of a study conducted by Penn State postdoctoral researcher Dr. Amy Trauger. Trauger had discovered a growing group of women eager to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated industry. With the support of Penn State Cooperative Extension, WAgN aims to meet the needs of women farmers across the state by facilitating activities such as monthly field days and workshops.
The rapid growth of WAgN--membership jumped from 120 to 500 in the past year--reflects an upward trend of women in farm management, both nationally and in Pennsylvania. According to Census of Agriculture statistics, the United States saw an 86 percent increase in women-operated farms between 1980 and 2002.
Pennsylvania is a state at the forefront of this phenomenon. Though the Commonwealth lost 2,000 farms between 1997 and 2002, the number of women identified as primary operators on farms climbed by more than 1,000 in that same period.
"There is an increase in demand for a kind of green, environmentally friendly agricultural product," explained Trauger. "Farms that produce that kind of product tend to be smaller-scale, less capital intensive, more urban and more community oriented. These kinds of farms seem to attract women like magnets."
PA-WAgN founding member Dr. Carolyn Sachs, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology and Trauger's academic adviser, added: "Conventional farmers are having a hard time making it without some form of off-farm employment." Sachs said that, unlike many of their male counterparts, many women farmers have had other, nonfarming job experiences that enable them to more quickly embrace new ideas for making struggling farms profitable. For example, women are increasingly taking the lead in developing expanding markets, such as Community Supported Agriculture (weekly shares of a local farm's vegetables, meat and eggs, or other produce), and the value-added production of foods, such as cheese and yogurt, made right on the farm.
Trauger said that while conducting her graduate research in geography and women's studies, she found that most of the women she interviewed did not know of each other's farming activities. "I wanted to change that," she said.
When she and Sachs met the director of the Maine Women's Agricultural Network at a conference, they had what they call a "lightbulb moment." The two organized a meeting of about 20 women farmers, activists and academics at the Equinox Café in Milheim to decide if it was worth organizing a similar group in Pennsylvania. "The answer was an overwhelming 'yes, of course, we need this,'" said Trauger.
Trauger and Sachs started making connections and took guidance from key groups, including the existing WAgNs in Maine and in Vermont, and in October 2003, a steering committee was formed during a retreat at a Belleville farm. Two and a half years later, PA-WAgN has grown to include outreach programs throughout the Commonwealth.
Pennsylvania WAgN puts a stronger emphasis on research than its counterparts in other states, noted Sachs, allowing it to immediately respond to the needs expressed by women farmers themselves.
"What we're asking is: 'In what areas do women really want education? What kind of skills do they want to improve? What kinds of topics?'" said Dr. Nancy Ellen Kiernan, who conducts PA-WAgN's research.
"There really is a broad range of topics that people want to know about," said Program Director Linda Moist, who operates a farm herself. Women who have joined PA-WAgN include farmers working with dairy, fiber, meat goats, pastured poultry and more, she said. But there are areas of interest that overlap, such as business planning, direct marketing, growing organically and using sustainable practices, which apply to all kinds of women farmers. Moist and other PA-WAgN team members hold workshops on such topics throughout the state.
WAgN also helps its members learn about these and other topics through its e-mail listserv and Web site and by facilitating monthly field days at members' farms. "Women farmers want to go to other women's farms and see what they're doing," explained Moist. This hands-on, personal approach allows women farmers who are taking risks and trying new things to learn firsthand from peers what works and what doesn't.
PA-WAgN member Sandra Kay Miller of Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, Pa., believes that such outreach is important for women farmers. "After working on offshore oil rigs for 10 years as a petroleum geologist, I overcame a lot of sexism and discrimination," she said. "It's frustrating sometimes because as a farmer I'm up against the 'good ol' boys club' again, and in some ways, it's worse." Through PA-WAgN, Miller said, "I've found a network of women that I can go to for both technical advice and inspiration."
As new members sign up every week through the Web (http://wagn.cas.psu.edu), PA-WAgN continues to grow. And its goals are growing, too.
"We are trying to get a discussion board or something similar online so that women can talk and share their information," said Moist. She also hopes to create some online tools for business planning and marketing.
In addition, PA-WAgN is now offering leadership training throughout six regions that span the state to help women farmers plan and organize their own local events, where they can meet and learn from one another even more.
Additional images and video related to this story are available at http://live.psu.edu/outreach.