Outstanding in Her Field
Photo by Michael Piazza
“I like taking care of the animals. I love coming out and talking to them and spending time with them. They treat me like I’m one of the herd,” Joanie Walker tells me as she gives me a tour of her 470-acre farm and introduces me to a few of her 65 cows.
Joanie is one of over 2,500 women farmers in Massachusetts, where 32% of the state’s farmers are women, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To find out what motivates women farmers and what sustains them, I talked with four women farmers: Joanie Walker of Walker Farm on Whortleberry Hill, Maria Moreiro of World Farmers and Flats Mentor Farm, Heidi Cooper (formerly of Cooper’s Hilltop Dairy Farm) and Jennifer Hashley of Codman Community Farms and New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. All four are resourceful and hardworking farmers, passionate about what they do, and all are mothers.
Joanie bought her first cows 10 years ago, driven by her need and desire to eat clean food and get healthy. Good-quality eggs were easy to find, but high-quality grass-fed beef was more difficult, and Joanie loves beef. “I just decided that I wanted good-quality food and thought there had to be other people like me,” she says. Joanie and her husband, Randy, already lived on the farm which he’d inherited in 2003. So, she said, “What if I got a cow?”
Originally a city girl from Worcester having worked 34 years a respiratory therapist, Joanie had never taken care of any livestock—but she never doubted she could do it. Raised by parents who lived during the Depression, “I never once heard, ‘If you’re a girl you can’t do it,’” Joanie says. “They didn’t have expectations of what I had to be.” But, she laughs, “When a cow gets to be 100 pounds, I know my physical limitations.”
Joanie began raising cows and giving them a stress-free life before harvest, which, she says, results in better-tasting meat. She’s lost 90 pounds since eating more healthily and sells her grass-fed beef to local restaurants and to customers who want to eat clean meat.
“The cows will go to my daughter,” Joanie says, and with a cow-loving granddaughter as well, Joanie is hopeful there will be three generations of women farmers in her family. “I didn’t expect to fall in love with cows, but I did.”
Maria Moreiro grew up with cows. She was born in the Azores, where her parents were subsistence farmers, “We traded cheese for fish with the fishermen,” she says. Maria’s family moved to the U.S. when she was 12; now Maria is head of World Farmers, a nonprofit organization that empowers immigrants to farm their own plot of land on Flats Mentor Farm in Lancaster.
Though Maria might not have bought a cow on her own, she fell in love with a farmer and the two started their own dairy farm, raising four children along with 200 cows. To make extra money, Maria used her mother’s cheese recipe and milk from the farm to create her own cheese business, designing the label herself and doing all her own marketing. “I always tend to make the best of what I’m dealt,” Maria says.
In 1983, a Vietnam War refugee—a Laotian Hmong farmer—asked Maria’s husband for permission to grow vegetables on land between their barns, and he said yes. The next year, the Hmong woman asked if her family could farm on more land, and by the late 1990s, 190 Hmong farmers were growing on the 70-acre parcel of land that is now Flats Mentor Farm. Maria co-founded World Farmers in 2010, and this past year 307 farmers from Southeast Asia, Africa and South America grew over 40 crops, according to Maria; 70% of them were women.
“Most [of the people who come to World Farmers] already know how to grow,” she says, but the organization gives people the space to grow food for their families and communities or even to sell their harvest at farmers markets in the Greater Boston area under the name Flats Mentor Farm. An immigrant and farmer herself, Maria can relate to these people, she says. “The name of the farm fits exactly what we do. They actually learn from each other just by being here.”
Seeing people’s passion about producing food is what motivates her. “They keep on doing it and coming back to do it season after season, no matter the hardship,” Maria says. “To be a farmer takes a special type of person. You can’t make a farmer. A farmer has to have the passion to be a farmer.”
When Heidi Cooper moved from Minnesota to Boston on a whim, all she knew about agriculture was from spending summers on her grandfather’s farm in Iowa. Now, 10 years later, Heidi has experience in vegetable, dairy and livestock farming from her work at Springdell Farm in Littleton and Cooper’s Hilltop Dairy Farm in Rochdale and acts as chair of Young Farmers and Ranchers for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. The mother of three children (all under 5) says her key motivation is really just doing something that makes her happy. Her kids know, “When Mommy’s working she’s happy.”
Heidi met her husband, Jimmy Cooper, while working for the Farm Bureau and helped him create a profile for himself for a farmers’ dating website. “I had some interest in him so I pretended I was going to help him,” she says. “Do you want to come milk cows with me and then go have a beer with me?” he asked. Now the couple is working toward a long-term goal of their family being solely supported by agriculture. They left Cooper’s Hilltop Dairy Farm this past summer, and Jimmy is working as farm manager for Lilac Hedge Farm in Holden, whose owner shares a similar vision and values for an agricultural operation.
“We both know long term that hands-in-the-dirt type of involved is what we want to be doing,” Heidi says, emphasizing that it is very rare for a husband and wife to both be able to work solely on the farm.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to basics: feeding and watering hogs. I really enjoy taking care of egg layers as well,” Heidi says, but for now she is choosing work where she can involve the kids or work from home, whether its sorting squash at Kettle Brook Farm or doing administrative work for Lettuce Be Local, the Central MA food hub. Swapping child care with friends allows her to continue working for the Farm Bureau and to be a voice for those farmers who can’t afford the time to advocate for themselves. “I have a real true interest in making sure that there is a good labor source for agriculture, specifically in New England but also in America,” she says.
“[Farming is] a wonderful industry to be involved in if you are flexible and interested in doing different things,” Heidi says, and adds, “Something about being alone with no other humans around and just being with animals makes me intrinsically happy.”
“Trying to bring it back to the basics, that’s what motivates me,” Jennifer Hashley tells me as we sit at a picnic table on her farm in Lincoln. “Growing food as a farmer and knowing all the food that I eat and where it comes from and valuing that for myself and my family, but also providing that opportunity for other people in the community to know where their food comes from and to have a relationship with the people that grew it.”
Jen, her husband, Pete Lowy, and their son live on Codman Community Farms in Lincoln. While Pete manages the farm, Jen works full time as director for New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, a Tufts University initiative that works to strengthen local food systems by supporting new farmers.
Originally from Indiana, Jen didn’t grow up on a farm but worked as an environmental consultant before joining the Peace Corps and training rural subsistence farmers in sustainable agricultural practices in Honduras. After studying agroecology at UC Santa Cruz (where she met Pete), Jen began working for New Entry, eventually becoming its director.
Pete and Jen started their own business, Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, when Pete was working as assistant farm manager at Verrill Farm in Concord. Now they’re raising and harvesting livestock, vegetables and fruit on 180 acres in Lincoln. “My professional life is so well integrated into farming and my passion. It all bleeds one into the other so I can work 60 to 80 hours a week, and it doesn’t feel like work,” Jen says. “That’s why I love what we do: producing the highest-quality product that we can and helping people appreciate and connect and think about these other systems and how they’re related.”
She adds, “We need to really value farmers and land and food production and the knowledge that it takes to put a seed in the ground and bring it to the table.”
This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue.