And while the concept of women in farming is super-hot right now (the Gap even started selling farm dresses and women's overalls this spring), the revolution that's taking place across the country—the feminine approach to farming—might be enough to save the future of food, according to Temra Costa, author of the new book, Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat (Gibbs Smith, 2010).
"The future of farming is going to be based on relationships," Costa told a group of aspiring farmers (via Skype) at a Rodale Institute workshop last week, where aspiring and seasoned farmers (mostly women) from Connecticut to Alabama traveled to learn more about organic-farming techniques like integrating cover crops and boosting beneficial microorganism levels to build soil fertility. (The Rodale Institute, located in eastern Pennsylvania, has been a leader in organic research since 1947.) In a feminine approach to farming—and you don't necessarily have to be a female to do it—Costa says growers favor relationships, community, and thinking long-term about how decisions will impact future generations. It's about nurturing, she says, not domination, and working with your community.
THE DETAILS: According to the ActionAid report, less than 1 percent of the agriculture budget is targeted at women in some of the most impoverished countries in the world, even though these women grow a vast majority of the food with little or no training. "One billion people going hungry must be a wake-up call that there’s something very wrong with our farming," says Tennyson Williams, ActionAid's acting regional director for West and Central Africa. The report concluded that by scaling up support to small, sustainable farmers to at least $40 billion per year globally (instead of funding biotech, chemical farming methods that don't work), there would be a 50 percent reduction in hunger and poverty by 2015.
WHAT IT MEANS: Women in farming is a red-hot trend. Gap fashion aside, women's growing interest in sustainable, small-scale farming is leading to farmer's markets full of healthier food for communities. And while the ActionAid report looked at women in agriculture in other parts of the world, rest assured, it's a phenomenon that's bringing food that's healthier food for people and the planet here in the United States, too. The last United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) most recent U.S. Ag Census showed that women small-scale farm owners are the fastest-growing demographic surveyed.
Ready to eat or grow healthy food? Here's how to support—or become—a woman in agriculture:
• Make it part-time. Don't have a traditional farm at your disposal? No problem. There are creative ways to make growing sustainable food a reliable source of income without going into major debt or cleaning out your life savings. You can grow hundreds of—if not 1,000-plus—pounds of produce in your own small backyard. John Tullock's book, Pay Dirt: How to Make 10,000 a Year from Your Backyard Garden (Adams Media, 2010), lays out a business plan, but you can get started by learning about organic growing methods for free at OrganicGardening.com.
• Connect with a retiring farmer. FarmLink.org helps new farmers connect with retiring farmers to keep the land in agriculture instead of selling it off to a developer. Leases give retirees an income and new farmers the opportunity to farm land they might not otherwise be able to afford to farm. (Plus, you might learn some great tips from the leasing farmer…networking is among the best ways to learn about sustainable-farming practices!) "You can be relationship-rich but not land-rich," explains Costa.
• Find a market. If you'd rather support a sustainable farmer rather than become one yourself, visit LocalHarvest.org to find a farm or farmer's market in your area. Be sure to ask about their growing methods, and choose organic growers whenever possible.