More women make farming their family business
Hike in female farmers reflects national trend
CAPITAL REGION Stephanie Gray has a master’s degree in business administration but spends her days digging in the dirt with her husband.
The Oppenheim couple started Gray’s Garden and Greenhouse five years ago and now live and work solely on their 30-acre farm.
Gray is part of a growing number of female farm owners throughout the nation, a demographic that is also represented in the Capital Region.
More than 30 percent of U.S. farm operators are women, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture. That figure increased 19 percent from 2002, while the number of farms overall increased 7 percent. Women are also the principal operators of 14 percent of the nation’s farms, an increase of 24 percent from 2002.
Klaus Busch, a field adviser with the New York Farm Bureau who covers seven counties, said he sees more women either operating farms or taking larger roles in their family farms. More women are also joining their county farm bureau, getting information and taking on leadership roles within their agriculture communities, he said.
“The stereotype of the female staying at home is gone,” he said. “They are involved in the day-to-day crucial part of making it work. No one can afford to hire anyone anymore, so these farms are truly turning into a family business.”
Gray got into farming when her husband, Eric, wanted to start a garden and flower business. The business sells perennials, annuals and fresh produce in the summer and Christmas trees and wreaths during the holidays. Stephanie, who has a bachelor’s in business from the Rochester Institute of Technology and a master’s from SUNY Institute of Technology, is in charge of the business side of things, while her husband focuses on the products.
Being in a home-based business is appealing, Gray said, and all the more so since the couple is expecting their first baby in a few weeks.
Gray said she likes the feeling of growing her own produce and knowing where her food comes from. She does a lot of freezing and canning, something she also had to learn.
Erika Marczak, 32, is chairwoman of the young farmer and rancher committee at the Schenectady County Farm Bureau. Originally from Glenville, Marczak began in farming as a child, growing vegetables on her family’s land — about an acre of vegetables and around 60 chickens.
She now lives and works full time at the Cornell Farm in Hoosick Falls, owned by her boyfriend’s family.
“I always thought farming was important and something I wanted to be involved in,” she said.
She has an associate degree in equine science and a bachelor’s in animal science. While she was getting her degree, she lived and worked on various farms throughout the Capital District and New England and developed a love for growing vegetables. She helps tend eight acres of vegetables as well as about 2,500 hens, 40 cows and a couple hundred acres of hay at the Cornell Farm.
What does she like about farming? Getting dirty, and being her own boss.
“We do what we think is right,” she said, “Most of the vegetables are no-spray, so we have to work a little harder to get that.”
She has an outside job, which provides for her necessities, but she and her boyfriend, Dale Cornell, are trying to get to the point where the farm supports them both.
John Betts, of Betts Farm Supply in Valley Falls, said he has noticed more women getting involved with farming, whether running a hobby farm or taking a larger role in a family farm.
Betts said the women tend to be good at marketing the farm and the product. “You’re seeing a lot of women who like the opportunity to show off their talents.”
Betts said anyone in the farm supply business knows that if you want to sell a farmer something you have to first sell it to his wife. Women traditionally have done a lot of the bookkeeping and office work at a farm, so they know how much things cost, what the farm brings in and what it pays out.
“Learn the wife’s name because she has the pocketbook,” he said. “Seldom do you get something by the husband without the wife’s approval, and every dealer knows that.”
Laurie Griffen, who owns Saratoga Sod Farm with her husband, Steve, does the inside work — paying bills, customer service, scheduling and sales — while her husband focuses on production. Saratoga Sod Farm owns 700 acres stretched over five counties, Griffen said. The farm grows turf grass to sell to places like Hewitt’s, Home Depot and other local garden centers.
Griffen said she knows a lot of women who are involved with their farming operations. She’s the oldest of five girls, and all her sisters are involved in farming in one way or another.
“Some of it is by choice and some is by necessity,” she said.
home for llamas
Teri Conroy is a farmer by choice. She said she is blessed that her husband works outside the home and provides enough financial support for the family that she doesn’t have to make money on her farming endeavors.
She owns a llama rescue farm in Altamont, called Wunsapana Farm. She has 16 llamas and three babies on the way. She started her farm with a few goats, mini horses and donkeys and then fell in love with llamas. Conroy offers free access to her llama farm, hosting weekly llama hikes through her property, which she said is fun for the adults and good for the llamas.
She also does a lot of work with special needs children and adults.
Conroy said the farm keeps her active from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. with daily tasks including cleaning stalls, grooming, feeding and exercising the llamas.
“I’ve got big muscles.”