PACIFIC GROVE — Even in the 21st century, the image of the modern-day farmer often centers on overalls, pitchforks and a man steering the tractor. While the image remains reality to an extent, agriculture is fast extending into a new generation of women growers and innovators, who are carving a path in ag tech, science and research while others are running their own enterprise.
As a journalist, who specializes in telling stories about women leaders in farming, I am delighted that this year’s EcoFarm Conference features a wide range of women-focused events, and many more feature female panelists and keynote speakers. There is also a plethora of amazing women spotlighted on the “Equity, Food Justice, Sovereignty” track.
The “Women in Food & Ag Mixer” that traditionally bookends the conference also returns. And one of this year’s keynote speakers on the final conference day is Nikki Silvestri, founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, which works to create systems change toward economic development and ecosystem restoration. Silvestri’s impressive background also includes being co-founder of Live Real and former executive director of People's Grocery and Green for All that focus on food justice.
In the past year, discussion over food and farming has also morphed into the intersection of environment, agriculture and climate change. Case in point is regenerative agriculture, loosely defined as using a variety of farming techniques and land practices to improve soil health and improve water cycles.
For the second year in a row there is an entire day devoted to “Women in Regenerative Agriculture Field Day” at Paicines Ranch in San Benito County, where attendees will have a chance to connect with female farmers, ranchers, scientists, physicians and advocates, bookended with a wine tasting.
The uptick in women panelists and speakers can only be positive since it directly touches the critical area of land equity; how many farms are owned and operated by underserved communities whether that be women or people of color? A workshop on Jan. 23 is devoted to discussion surrounding the importance and ways to increase diversity on farms and in the food system and “address root causes of inequity, and explore strategies for moving forward in healthy relationships with one another and the land,” according to the program description.
The opportunities and potential surrounding ownership are immense for women, especially as more farms struggle to stay afloat. Many farms across the country are being squeezed by severe labor shortage, limited water and land supply, skyrocketing costs of doing business, the ongoing trade wars, and the reality that the next generation might not be interested in farming. The upshot is a growing number of women are managing farms in the capacity of owner or operator; I recently had the pleasure of spending a morning with Jacky Vasquez, one of the few if not only female farm operators in Monterey County. On any given day you’ll find Jacky in the vast landscape of berries on the farm where she runs, walking through the fields and reviewing the berry quality, on a tractor, or directing field crews. She is proud to be boots on the ground. She has a passion for agriculture that transcends gender and demographics.
“I like the mix of it. Yesterday I was in heels and speaking in a conference and today I am about to walk the fields and check strawberries for their qualities. It’s from eating gourmet catered meals to tacos from a truck,” Jacky shared.
My personal hope is that down the road I will find more women like Jacky and female farm operators will no longer be an anomaly.
This appears possible as a silver lining emerges with the current landscape; an estimated 1 million women are now farm operators and over a half-million own and lease land to farmers, and a third of farmland in the U.S. is farmed or co-farmed by women, and women own 87 million acres.
Finally, last but not least there is a powerhouse panel of women, Malaika Bishop, co-director of Sierra Harvest, Denisa Livingston of Diné Community Advocacy Alliance and Karen Washington, co-founder of Black Urban Growers (BUGS), who will take a deep dive in “Engaging & Empowering our Communities to Transform the Food System.”
Having documented and profiled some amazing women leaders in farming, I am excited to participate in the discussion and dialogue at EcoFarm 2019. My hope is that in years to come women will no longer be spotlighted, but will simply be a part of the landscape of discussion of agriculture.
To learn more and register for EcoFarm Conference 2019, visit eco-farm.org/conference.
Amy Wu is the founder and chief content director of “From Farms to Incubators,” a resident company inside the WG Center for Innovation and Technology. She previously reported on agriculture for the Salinas Californian. She considers herself bicoastal and splits her time between New York and California.