By ANGELA H. HILL
Traditionally speaking, agriculture as a profession drew more men than women due to the heavy physical labor required in managing crops, livestock and equipment. However, the most recent farm census points to a change in producer demographics among farmers, with women now making up more than one-third of producers, nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its April release of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, states that it revised census questions to better capture demographics of farmers. The census now defines a “producer” as anyone involved in making decisions on the farm.
What the census found was that as of 2017, the number of women as producers jumped nearly 27% from the last census of 2012. The number men as producers dropped by nearly 2% since 2012. More than half of farms across the county, at 54%, now report more than one producer.
Overall, the nation’s 3.4 million producers break down to 36% female and 64% male. Data collected for Virginia follows that trend, with 45,000 farms listing male producers and 26,000 listing female. However, an overwhelming majority of Virginia farms are single-producer operations.
Bringing the numbers closer to home, Franklin County shows 1,090 male producers and 586 female. Of the county’s total 1,676 producers, 486 are one-producer operations and 435 are two-producer.
The data doesn’t show whether the two-producer operations are husband-wife teams, but it does speak to the overall national trend of women either taking on, or at least reporting, an increasing role in agricultural operations and decision making.
Summer Pate, operator of New Dawn Acres on Fishburn Mountain Road, manages the farm’s herd of dairy goats plus two jersey milk cows while her husband works as a pharmacist.
Pate keeps about 20 of her goats in milk, 20 dry, and has around 15 yearlings she’ll breed for the first time this fall; plus 10 bucks. The goats and kids wander about on the 9-acre property that’s also home to a small flock of chickens, the two cows, a handful of turkeys, ducks and several ever-watchful Great Pyrenees dogs.
Pate also homeschools her children and serves as foster parent; finding that her work on the farm fits well with her work as a mother and teacher. The farm makes for ample hands-on learning opportunities and a chance for the children to know from where their food comes.
While most of the people she encounters understand that farming is work, albeit enjoyable work, she does encounter the occasional person who believes that because she’s also a stay-at-home mom that her farm is a sort of hobby.
“Mostly what I hear is ‘You get to farm because you get to stay at home’ from someone who thinks my husband does the real work and what I do is a sideline item, from people who don’t know me well and the hours I keep to keep this opportunity open for our family and our product,” Pate said. “Mostly I smile and say, ‘Come spend a day with me.’ I start at 4 a.m. and last night I got in bed at 11:15 and that’s a typical day for me.”
Pate milks once per day at 4 a.m. so that she’s finished in time to make breakfast and start the day’s lessons. Those lessons include farm chores, she added.
“My goal is to train and teach my children where their food comes from and how to take care of things,” Pate said. “It’s an opportunity for them to take responsibility. No one else milks except me, but they all have feeding and watering chores … there’s no value that can be put on responsibility.”
One of her children spurred the idea behind her raising dairy goats. The more she looked into the benefits of raw goat milk, the more she wanted to grow the business.
“It started as a bit of a hobby. We got goats to clear up the property and one of the children had a strong dairy allergy. We found out he could drink goat milk,” Pate said. Seven years and a new Grade A parlor later, she now offers a herd-share program for goat milk through which she can help the goat’s owners make products such as yogurt with their excess milk.
Raw milk sales remain illegal in Virginia, Pate explained. In a herd share, people buy “shares” of an animal that a farmer houses and cares for, but as owners, the shareholders are entitled to milk from their own animals.
After experimenting with a few different breeds, Pate converted to Lamancha goats for their creamy milk and agreeable temperament. She’s selling off her Nubians.
“They’re ugly as sin,” she joked of describing her first experience seeing Lamanchas after managing the sleek, long-eared Nubians. “That was my first reaction … but they’re mild-mannered and sweet. It’s hard to pass up personality for looks.”
As she continued operations, Pate ran into more and more health-conscious people who can’t tolerate homogenized cow’s milk. They wanted raw milk, particularly from goats raised on locally grown, quality, non-GMO feed. Local feed grower and miller Daniel Austin has even coined the signature blend she uses “Summer Pate Feed Blend.”
“People ignore it until they have a problem,” Pate said of healthy food consumption. “Healthy food is expensive. It’s expensive to produce. I’m not making money yet. We’re still trying to pay off the feed bill and get ahead, but we did build a Grade A parlor and washroom.”
She was able to take advantage of some farming initiatives that helped with construction and fencing costs.
Pate decided to forego the loan route, instead taking three years to build her new facility free and clear. It’s more comfortable, and her milk keeps much longer with the new cooling system, she said. The end result is goat milk that’s virtually indistinguishable from cow milk in taste and aroma.
“The biggest thing I found is no one wants to try it,” she said. “It has a stigma, what we call ‘goaty,’ which is in the store-bought milk when it’s not handled properly. That’s the norm. I can pour my goat’s milk and cow’s milk side by side, and people can’t tell the difference.”
She said the more positive reactions she had, the more she focused on quality.
“How is this better and different and how to market it — if you don’t really know how your product is different, you can’t make a pitch,” she said.
Looking toward the future, Pate said she hopes to increase agritourism ventures at New Dawn. She currently hosts field trips and group outings as well as an annual community day, and would like to offer a few weeks of summer camp through which children can learn about farming and gardening. She’d especially like to offer a grandparent-grandchild week in which the older generations can discuss their own childhood farming experience with their grandchildren.
“People are finding it to be so abnormal now to live in the country on a farm, and they’re willing to pay to go back to that – but I want people to see their roots and where they came from,” she said. “We didn’t start out as an industrial society.”
Across the county in Ferrum, Dana Lydon co-owns and manages a herd of Dexter cattle and Katahdin sheep at Lazy Pigg Farm on Cooks Knob Road. The 45-acre farm is home to 21 head of Dexter, which includes six or seven brood cows at any given time; and 15-20 sheep. The cattle are “cradle-to-grave,” Lydon explained, staying 2 to 3 years before slaughter and sale.
Lydon’s twins are now 24, and her 16-year-old is a rising junior at Franklin County High School. She’s operated the farm for seven years this month, and said she’s received a welcome reception as a woman farmer.
“Most of the people I know, most of the people I’m friends with are German Baptist and have been very accepting of me as a farmer,” Lydon said. “I have had no problem talking to them about farm issues or asking them for help with the cows.”
Lydon first got the idea for raising Dexters from a husband-wife team who raised them near her former home in Texas about 20 years ago. Her twins started kindergarten. She had been a stay-at-home mom and wanted to return to work, but to work that allowed her to be there for them when they got off the bus without the hassle of child care.
“We started out getting some chickens,” she said. “I didn’t know much about farming, but we got a couple of sheep and we didn’t kill them, so we moved up to cows,” she added.
The family went on to spend three years in Europe, where Lydon saw a wide range of farming techniques. She later met Polyface Farms’ owner Joel Salatin and was instantly inspired.
“We decided that was what we wanted to do,” Lydon added.
Dexter is a small breed of Irish cattle, with cows weighing about 600 pounds and bulls approximately 1,000 pounds. They’re dual-purpose cattle, but Lydon raises them for their meat, which she sells in quarters and halves, bulk retail, off the farm along with lamb. Her Dexters are registered with the American Dexter Cattle Association and the Purebred Dexter Association.
“When we first got into Dexters in Texas, we were researching breeds and the twins were little – 6 or 7 – so one of the requirements was for something even-tempered. Looking through the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, Dexters were in danger of becoming extinct. There were less than 5,000 left in the world. It never occurred to me that domestic animals could become extinct,” Lydon shared.
“We fell in love with the breed. They’re super easy to handle; a dual-purpose breed good for milk and meat,” she said. She said the meat portions may be smaller, but the quality is excellent. Plus, the cuts from smaller cattle are more in-line with dietary guidelines for healthy meat consumption at 7-9 ounces per steak versus 20.
Lydon said she starts working with the cows early to beat the summer heat, but is usually finished by lunchtime. She practices management intensive grazing, so she rotates the cows’ pastures every other day. The smaller size of her cattle mean they’re easier on the land itself, and the rotational grazing allows her to have more animals on the farm.
The part that takes up more time than she’d like is paperwork, bookkeeping, planning and marketing. She spends a good deal of time increasing her audience on Facebook, the farm website and the customer newsletter.
“[Marketing is] the biggest hurdle to any small farm that wants to sell direct to customers,” she said. Her customer base includes contacts the couple made when her husband worked at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. He now works in Charlottesville.
All in all, she added that she loves the operation and appreciates that her children received the invaluable lesson of knowing from where their food comes.
“Absolutely; it’s a great experience,” Lydon said. “I love working with the animals. Having baby animals on the farm is constantly amusing. They’re too much fun.”
Lydon said sometimes people will ask her how she can eat an animal that’s lived on her farm for three years. She said she’s at peace knowing that until the cow was slaughtered, it was fed well, kept healthy, and “lived in the lap of luxury.”
“I appreciate what the animal is giving to me,” she said.