“When I was little I was going to be a printer or farmer,” says Shirley Young, who grew up to do both. Fifteen years ago she left her path as a printer, sold her house, and started an organic farming internship. Today, she and her partner Karol Niemann operate Young Earth Farm, a certified organic farm that is one of 42 farms endorsed by the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC).
They are one of a few lesbian-owned farms, and among several other women-owned farms in the coalition that are working to tighten the connections between consumers, the food they eat, and the farms and farmers who produce it. Customers can sign up for a weekly CSA share, and that money goes directly to the farmers.
“Not only does buying local help the environment and support local farmers, but it encourages community among growers,” says Kiera Mulvey, MACSAC director.
Several health nsurance providers even offer rebates.
“[Having a CSA share creates] a connection with a particular farm, a particular farmer, a particular community that is unparalleled by buying food at a farmers’ market or local grocery store,” says Claire Strader, owner of Troy Community Farm.
Women as Farm Producers
More women are taking a lead in starting their own farms, as Small Family CSA Farm owner Jillian Jacquinot observes.
J&M Garden Farm owner Michelle Root pointed out that 50 years ago, farming was a partnership: the husband was the farmer and the wife was the wife. “The women have probably always done work on farms,” she says, “but they are now starting to get credit as producers.”
“More women are finding, ‘You know what? I can do this,’ and are pursuing it,” Root says.
Long Days, Big Rewards
Time hasn’t changed the fact that the work is grueling. Year-round planning goes into raising a wide variety of crops, but it’s nothing short of a passion for these farmers.
“What I like best is having a job I absolutely love. It’s still a lot of hard work, but whenever those hard days start to get me down I think about the office—18 years in the office or 18 months on the factory line…I just feel really fortunate,” Root says.
It’s February and the Niemann-Young living room is doubling as a germination chamber and sign-ups for CSA memberships are underway. Plans for seeds, plantings, and harvests were already done in December. Come the peak of the growing season, the workday will start at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. and end at dark.
“There’s no pastoral paradise out here. It’s a lot of hard work and you give it your all. The rewards are huge,” Young says.
Growing Passion for Food and Community
Niemann complements her green thumb with her passion for the value of food and food community. It’s the faces of her customers that keep her going, and knowing that their food is being appreciated.
Tracing her vegetarian devotion back 14 years to the last mention of a hot dog in her diary, she puts good food at the core of her well-being.
“From a young age, I was conscious of my food. As I grew older and started having control over what I was eating on a daily basis, I started to notice how much better I felt when I was eating good food,” she says.
Farming internships were a natural progression for her and many others who wanted to get hands-on experience in the field.
Strader’s interest in farming evolved from an academic background in philosophy and women’s studies in which she questioned how to meet her own basic needs. Interning in a women-exclusive setting at Luna Circle made a big difference in her learning experience, especially in terms of operating machinery.
Strader recalls being asked by a male farmer on a different farm, “Well, are you sure you can run the roto-tiller?” “After that experience I craved being in a women-only setting,” she said.
Today on her own farm, Strader feels a very strong connection to the communities that she’s a part of as a lesbian and a vegetable farmer.
Young Earth Farm started with just two shares that went out to friends. A lot of their customers are queer, Young says, and a lot of their customers are friends. “We do such a great job with our people because they’re our people,” she said.
What Local Means in Madison
Strader appreciates her community in Madison, having traveled with her partner to Florida. “I guess I didn’t realize how incredibly conservative Florida is in terms of food and farming and the LGBT community,” Strader says.
They had gone to an outdoor farmers’ market in Florida, excited at the prospect of fresh citrus, but were surprised to find that the market was stocked with produce grown from around the world. Being out also seemed more strained.
“We’re lucky here both in terms of access to good food and the progressive community we’re able to be a part of,” she says.
Through Thick and Thin
Many farmers experienced hardships during 2008 with floods, the tornado, and blight. But come rain or shine, the CSA boxes are filled.
Niemann says it’s the guaranteed income from their CSA shares that saved them that year.
“Really open your heart to try to be supportive to that farmer. Yes, hold your gardener to a standard, but realize that gardener doesn’t control the weather,” Root says. “We need your support whether everything is growing great or we’re having some difficulties.”
Jacquinot and others notice that only a small percentage of their members actually visit the farm, but she would like to see those numbers increase as people start to take a more local approach to their consumer habits.
“It’s about getting people in the cities reconnected to where their food comes from,” she says, adding that the farmers’ market is the next best thing.
Young Earth Farm and many other CSA are recruiting interns; visit www.macsac.org for contact information.