{field trip} The Women Farming Conference

Just over a week ago I was able to attend the Beginning Women Farming Conference presented by Holistic Management International (HMI) at UMASS Amherst.

I actually heard about the conference just days after the NOFA-NY Winter Conference. For weeks I toyed with the idea of going, but it wasn’t until I found out that the program (wrapping up its 3rd year) wasn’t sure if it would have its funding renewed that I decided I shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

The whole event kicked off with a great keynote speech and a special taped-just-for-us video from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan. They stressed the incredible growth of women farmers in America, and the importance of not simply farming, but holistically-minded farming for the future of our country.

The USDA states:

“Of the 3.3 million U.S. farm operators counted in 2007 Census, 30.2
percent — or more than 1 million — were women. The total number of
women operators increased 19 percent from 2002, significantly outpacing
the 7 percent increase in the number of farmers overall. The number of
women who were the principal operators of a farm or ranch increased by
almost 30 percent, to 306,209. Women are now the principal operators of
14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms.”

Pretty impressive, right?!

Minuteman statue at UMASS

I wasn’t too familiar with HMI before attending the conference. Many of the attendees had gone through their Holistic Management program and during my breakout sessions I learned a lot about what they teach at HMI. I really love how they view farming, and I feel like the farmers I know practice a lot of these holistic ideas, so it just felt “right.”

The basic concept is to view farming as a way to not only heal the Earth, but improve it. They focus quite a bit on pasture grazing for those who raise animals, and although I didn’t go to any specific sessions on it, I plan to go back to their materials on this when Chris and I eventually have our pigs.

What I did focus on quite a bit were the financial aspects of running a farm. There were many really interesting breakout sessions I could’ve attended but the financials and record keeping for a farm freak me out the most. Probably because there are so many things to factor in, and unlike making widgets in a factory, with farming one bad storm (I’m looking at you Irene!) can ruin everything. I also really need to wrap my brain around start-up and maintenance costs so I can start making a plan and researching grants.

The classic college posting board.

I also went to a terrific session on planning out the very basics of your farm, and most importantly, why you want to farm in the first place. The whole group got to brainstorm all the reasons we want to (or currently are) farming. People said: to feed their neighbors, boost the economy of a failing town, bring some agricultural democracy back to this country, build community through food (that was mine!), improve soils, be self-sufficient, live a more natural lifestyle, and more. You just couldn’t help but smile ear to ear listening to the responses.

I also got to network, which is truly one of the best things about conferences. I met so many interesting people doing really incredible work. I met people who raise animals I never even knew existed, like a hair sheep! I met a professional grant writer, a couple who are doing exactly what Chris and I eventually want to do, and a guy who used to practice SPIN farming in a group of backyards in an urban neighborhood. I also went to a really great class on permaculture, which rocked my world.

I cannot stress enough how great this conference was. I personally believe conferences, or any educational opportunity focusing on what you are passionate about, are so important. Once you are an adult and life gets in the way, it can be incredibly difficult to find the time for continuing education. Plus if you are working full-time you probably don’t get a lot of chances to network with people in your same field. For someone like myself who isn’t farming yet, I found being part of a vibrant community of those who are doing what I want was very reassuring.

I also came home with a notebook full of notes and handouts. I have a list a mile long of books I want to read and websites to check out. As overwhelming as that may sound I just keep reminding myself that I’ll never be able to possibly learn it all. This was evident in the fact I was in the same small groups as women who have been doing this for 20 years. Yeah, that’s humbling for ya!

I’m going to try to attend more conferences during the rest of this year, and I plan to report back. If you know of any in the area that you really loved, please let me know.

If you are ever near Amherst do yourself a favor and eat at Tabella. It's an incredible farm-to-table restuarant we ate at. This is Vermont rye crackers with local camembert cheese and honeycomb. YUM!!{If you are ever near Amherst do yourself a favor and eat at Tabellas. It’s an incredible farm-to-table restaurant we ate at. This is Vermont rye crackers with local camembert cheese and honeycomb. YUM!!}

*I should note that many men attended and presented at the conference as well, which was really great! Also, if you have kids don’t let that stop you from attending. I brought my son and absolutely cannot say enough great things about the women who entertained all the kiddos. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the program gets funding for the next three years, because I’m definitely going back!

** One last side note: During my stay in UMass Amherst, I saw their award winning permaculture garden. From their website: “The UMass Permaculture Initiative is a unique and cutting edge sustainability program that converts unproductive grass lawns on campus into ecological, socially responsible, and financially sustainable permaculture landscapes that are easy to replicate.” It won the White House’s Champions of Change Challenge and it was breathtaking! Like Tabellas, I highly recommend you stop & experience the garden too!

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for the report; I would love to do more like this, but sadly once you actually have a farm and livestock, it’s difficult…

    I think you have to strike a balance between solid planning and faith. It seems farming is just one miscalculation after another – the good thing is sometimes the bad planning works in your favor.

    Like having a kid, if you wait until all is perfect before you do, you may never.

  2. Great post! I love a good field trip. 🙂 Thank you for posting about the great programs that UMass offers.

  3. Erika T. says:

    There is definitely no good time to have a kid!

    I was really impressed how many livestock farmers were there, for the reasons you mentioned. They must have really great support back at home to be able to get away for a weekend.

    I think it really speaks highly of the program as well that so many people would make the time for it.

    Thanks for the nice comments.

  4. Pingback: 2 Months; Home |

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