The number of women in farming is on the rise.

The 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, which has been surveying the gender, race and ethnic origin of principal farm operators since 2007, reported more than 36% of American farmers are women. Twenty-nine percent are principal operators, and 78% of all female producers are involved in daily decisions.

In Virginia, female farmers are involved with 23,575 farms, and they are principal operators of 16,456 of them.

Joanne Jones, who manages Dark Leaf Farm in Appomattox County, is one of them.

“I feel like women always have played more of a role than what’s been recognized,” she said.

At her husband’s family’s third-generation tobacco farm, Jones plants and harvests dark leaf tobacco, soybeans and wheat, and oversees the operation’s varied agritourism and pick-your-own activities. She also handles the farm’s paperwork.

“If you’re the one doing that, you know what’s making money and what’s not — what’s losing, what’s gaining.”

Jones, who also works as a full-time Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Charlotte County, admits it was difficult getting people to take her seriously in the early days, but six years as president of Appomattox County Farm Bureau helped her build respect.

A Place for Everyone in Ag

Third-generation farmer Sarah Morton believes there’s a place for everybody within the “culture” of agriculture.

She became principal operator of Cattle Run Farm in Greene County in 2011. Her father previously operated the beef cattle farm but when he scaled down operations, Morton and her brother, Ralph, who is a military veteran, took over.

“After my brother transitioned back, we began a phase approach to diversify our operation, taking it beyond a hobby,” she said. They connected with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Small Farm Outreach Program at Virginia State University, where they were introduced to blackberry production.

“Today we have thornless blackberries, raised-bed vegetable production, and currently utilize grow towers for indoor lettuce and Swiss chard production,” Morton said.

Last year they expanded into pasture-raised pork, and they plan to build a high tunnel to extend their produce-growing season in the fall. This spring, Morton will launch an on-site agribusiness — rental accommodations called the Sarah-James Inn, named in memory of her parents.

Beyond managing the farm’s strategic initiatives, Morton assists with planting and harvesting. She also owns a small berry farm in Albemarle County called Five Oaks Farm, where she plans to expand into viticulture.

Rockbridge County farmer Jennifer Leech also manages the bulk of the work relating to her family’s dairy farm.

She serves as the herdsman for Ingleside Dairy Farm, a role she inherited two months after graduating with a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech in 2006. Since then, the third-generation farmer manages the farm’s 340 dairy cows.

Leech makes decisions on when the animals are vaccinated and how health abnormalities are addressed. She also handles breeding responsibilities and facilitates group changes within the herd.

Ingleside has been equipped with robotic milking machines since 2012, technology which Leech noted has lessened the dairy industry’s emphasis on brawn.

“You don’t need to have broad shoulders to do the work anymore,” she said.

Encouraged by the growing number of women who are choosing careers in production agriculture, Leech said the trend makes sense.

“In general, women tend to be nurturing and caring,” she said. “When you think about a farm, that’s exactly what you need. You need someone who’s patient, nurturing and caring with the animals or crops, and it just makes sense that women are drawn to these kinds of careers.”


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