When I tell people I’m a farmer, I’m often met with puzzled looks. I didn’t grow up on a farm. I’m not a grizzled white man in his 60s with a John Deere hat. I’m a woman in her 20s with a naturally soft voice and a slim build.
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, running around on the soccer field and reading books late into the night. I spent hours outside catching crayfish in streams and looking for salamanders under logs, and I whipped up three-layer cakes and batches of salsa in the kitchen.
I was always interested in food and the outdoors, but I never really thought of agriculture as a viable career option. Even amidst a rural landscape, teachers and mentors pushed me to pursue my interests by studying pharmacology, food science and ecology. So I applied to Penn State, where I planned to major in biochemistry ― which I then quickly changed to food science.
I never doubted my choice to study science, and I excelled at chemistry and biology courses in my first year. Outside class, I became involved with a group of people I never found in my hometown: those interested in cultivating relationships by roughing it together outdoors.
“I was always interested in food and the outdoors, but I never really thought of agriculture as a viable career option.”
With the support of these new friends, I spent the summer after my freshman year sleeping in a tent, cooking bread over a camp stove and building hiking trails with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. When I returned to college that fall, I knew I wanted to spend my life outside, working with the natural world. Still, it took me another year to push aside the expectations of a more stable and typical career and change my major to agroecology.
Once I began studying plant diseases in the classroom, calculating soil nutrients in a lab and identifying insect pests in the field, I knew I’d made the right choice. I still didn’t want to be a farmer; I wanted to help farmers as an extension agent or researcher. But I felt I couldn’t tell farmers what they should be doing if I didn’t have some real understanding of what it was like to be them. So a few days after graduating, I went to live and work on a vegetable farm in Northern Virginia.
As I harvested thousands of pounds of tomatoes, planted hundreds of baby vegetable plants and educated customers in Washington, D.C., I felt rooted while many of my college friends floundered in the job market.
Two years later, after a few more moves around, I returned to that Virginia farm, where I spent the next two growing seasons. I did sometimes yearn for a job that came with health insurance and a 9-to-5 schedule, but these were just temporary and occasional thoughts.
“I don’t feel the need to prove that I’m a farmer to others, because I’ve already proven it to myself. It’s how I pay the bills and it’s what I wake up to and love to do every single day.”
Finally, I finally accepted that farming was something I wanted to do long term. So I began to look for a place I could call home for more than a few years. Earlier this year, I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I’m currently working at a farm while starting my own farm business.
Now, I’m comfortable saying, “I am a farmer.” But it wasn’t always this way.
Frequently, farming is seen as either a short escape into an idyllic, romantic world or a hard grind for those incapable of pursuing anything else. Add being a millennial female into the mix, and maybe it’s not surprising that I’m often met with skepticism or condescension.
At age 26 and five years into farming, I’m used to this. Sure, it’s frustrating, but I don’t feel the need to prove that I’m a farmer to others, because I’ve already proven it to myself. It’s how I pay the bills and it’s what I wake up to and love to do every single day.
While it may seem like my life is just dirt under my fingernails, tomatoes in my passenger seat and fields glistening with morning dew, it’s all that and much more. Over the past few years, I’ve seen how growing vegetables in a way that sustains the earth ― and the eater and the grower ― requires diversified skills.
I’ve acted as an ecologist, thinking about how a field of flowering buckwheat will attract pollinators and predatory insects. I’ve been a chemist as I figure out how the addition of nutrients will affect soil pH. I’ve ventured into business management as I balance inventory, sales and loss. Oh, and don’t forget all the marketing that occurs when it comes time to sell the literal fruits of my labor to customers. I’m always learning, and this is one of the aspects I enjoy most about farming.
“While it may seem like my life is just dirt under my fingernails, tomatoes in my passenger seat and fields glistening with morning dew, it’s all that and much more.”
Through all this learning and doing, my confidence has soared. I’ve come to value both my body and my mind, and let go of any worries about how I look. All that matters out here is whether I can get the work done, not my size, age or gender.
One day I showed up at a dairy farm, run by a guy in his 60s, to load some hay onto a truck. I was sweating as I wondered if he would laugh at my appearance. He didn’t. He directed me to the barn and left me there. She showed up to do this so let her do it, he seemed to say.
The men on the farm where I work have been surprisingly supportive too. After those first few days of checking to see if I was capable of performing the tasks that needed doing, my male ― as well as female ― superiors have trusted me to plant the food families will eat, wash hundreds of pounds of muddy root crops, and drive a tractor and box truck. Maybe this is because the world needs more farmers, no matter who they are.
I understand why not many people want to farm. Working outside every day means I get chilled by November rains and risk heat exhaustion in August. It’s rare that some part of my body isn’t aching, and my hands and arms are often covered with scratches and rashes. I’ve worked many weekends and holidays while my friends and family camp, travel or nap.
My close friends and family have supported me by asking about what’s growing and by listening when I go off on frustrated tangents about poor lettuce seed germination. Even strangers are usually interested when I say I’m a vegetable farmer. If they probe what I do, I usually give some kind of response about planting, harvesting, washing and selling vegetables.
“A few people still ooze skepticism. Sometimes they ask if I own the farm. ... This has always confused me, as people don’t expect a pharmacist to own the pharmacy or a teacher to own the school.”
A few people still ooze skepticism. Sometimes they ask if I own the farm, and when I say no, they offer some condescending iteration of “Ohhh.” This has always confused me, as people don’t expect a pharmacist to own the pharmacy or a teacher to own the school.
The kind of disbelief that has shocked me the most has come from customers. At the farmers market, I can tell people if our tomatoes were grown under a high tunnel or in the field. I can answer when they ask when carrots will be at the market. I can tell them the best way to store their bunch of basil. Still, a few always want to know if they can talk to the farmer (aka the older male at the stand).
Despite these tales of doubt, being a young female farmer is overall an empowering and fulfilling experience. I see the tangible benefits from my work and receive gratitude from customers. I can do traditionally men’s work such as moving animal fencing, operating heavy equipment and buying bags of concrete mix. And I can do it while also embracing the dress-wearing, poetry-writing parts of me.
I may not work in an air-conditioned office or have a 401K or company-provided health insurance, but I don’t regret my career choice. Farming connects me to both humans and the natural world, gives me an appreciation for labor and rest, and provides an avenue for continuous learning. I’m a farmer, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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