Young female farmers are cropping
up in record numbers
Words by Erin Byers Murray | Photographs by Michael Piazza | Styles by MaryElle O’Rourke
“Have you seen a sexier tractor?” Karen Pettinelli grinned as she pulled up the corner of a dusty brown tarp to show off her 60-year-old Persian orange Allis-Chalmers cultivation tractor. The trim, olive-skinned 29-year-old is the founder of Terrosa Farm in Barre—and a member of one of the state’s fastest-growing farm demographics: female between the ages of 25 and 40. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census reported that female-operated farms in Massachusetts doubled since 2002 and, says Rick Chandler, the state’s director of agriculture business training, those numbers are still climbing.
“They’ve inherited a piece of land that no one else wanted or they’re looking for a secondary income. A large number have been career changers,” says Chandler. Many of these women are part of a couple, he says, noting, “It’s a reversal in the traditional family farm. The men are now playing a support role and the women are in charge.”
But land, income and career are only part of it. Women are flocking to the field for the lifestyle—one that allows for hard work with high emotional rewards. Each of the four farmers included in this piece downplayed the rigorous schedules and task-juggling and focused more on what they personally get out of their own farms: personal fulfillment, joy and, most of all, community.
“The community is just as important as the food that we’re growing,” says Meryl LaTronica of Powisset Farm in Dover. “We’re not just growing food. We’re growing people.”
“For me, community was a huge reason to get into it,” says Karen Pettinelli. She’s been farming in earnest since she was 19; the Sudbury native was first inspired by Sienna Farm owner Chris Kurth. “We were scheduled to go on a field trip and Chris came into the classroom saying, ‘There’s going to be a frost tomorrow, we have to pick all the eggplant right now! Who’s going to help me?’ And I thought, ‘Class or that? Count me in.’ So I went to pick eggplant with him. And that was the beginning of the end,” she laughs.
Farming was never at the front of the suburban girl’s mind, especially since her father had grown up on a farm and hated it. “It was a poor farming family so he went to college and then climbed that ladder. He didn’t want this life,” she says, adding cautiously, “and now, here’s his daughter who wants to farm.”
Ten years later, Pettinelli says her father is starting to come around. After high school, she worked at Green Meadow Farm for four years, then the Food Project for two. Last season, she reconnected with Kurth to be the assistant farm manager at Sienna; this year, she’ll work there part-time while also running her own farm.
Terrosa’s first season, 2011, was a rocky one. The original plan was for Pettinelli to farm her family’s land in Mendon, where her father grew up, but a carpet of poison ivy covered the two usable acres and completely derailed her plans.
“There it was mid summer: I’d bought a tractor, I was all prepared to do a CSA and I didn’t have any land,” she says. Her boyfriend, a 29-year-old pig farmer named Floyd Kelley, stepped in and offered her the use of a few acres of land on a neighbor’s property in Barre. Pettinelli uses it on the simple terms that she pay the owner in vegetables (the owner pays a reduced tax on the land since it’s used for commercial farming).
Kelley grew up on his family’s working farm where he now raises pigs, sold under the label Burnshirt Valley Farm. Pettinelli uses Kelley’s greenhouse for her seedlings and the two have built a root cellar in the family’s unused dairy barn. Despite last season’s rough start, Pettinelli sold most of her crop at the Wayland winter farmers market and to the restaurant Armsby Abbey in Worcester.
This summer, she’s creating a “holiday” CSA, offering boxes of greens and other produce to be timed with Memorial Day and July 4th—she’ll start a winter CSA later in the year. “I like the holiday idea because I know what’s in the ground, I know how many members to sign up, I know what they’re going to get, and I know how much to charge,” she says. The traditional summer CSA model can be stressful for a farmer just starting out, she says. “You’re going to do your best but you’re always trying to meet expectations, which are different for every single member,” she says.
Instead, she prefers to grow crops that get her excited, which right now happens to be a lot of roots and specialty greens like fennel leaf, shungiku, mizuna and tatsoi—all of which require more weed control than pest management. Which brings us back to that tractor. The $5,000 piece of equipment was her biggest investment for a reason: “I get to design my own cultivation tools,” she says with a smile.
For 31-year-old Caitlin Kenney, family has been the single most valuable asset to her Plough In The Stars Farm in Ipswich. Her parents raised her on a horse farm, the Ascot Riding Center, where her father also tended a large family garden—which eventually became the first plot for Kenney’s farm.
“We spent morning till night outside. I grew up riding, bird watching and just working really hard,” says Kenney. She studied international development with a focus on agriculture at UMass Amherst while working various odd jobs in the food world. “I was surrounded by people who said: To do what you really want to do, you have to do it on your own. You have to be brave enough to take that step,” she says.
Kenney had several opportunities to travel during her college years and came back understanding that for her, sensory experiences were key. “I wasn’t someone who could go to work, then come home and have home be the place where I found joy. I needed it from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep,” she says. After school, Kenney worked on a few different farms including Seeds of Solidarity and Brookfield Farm, where she says she, “learned how to balance a farming life with strength, perseverance, patience and joy.”
Spending two seasons at First Light Farm in Hamilton gave her the confidence to go back and start a farm at home. The challenge then became convincing her father. “He had seen the land around us be developed or mismanaged for any number of reasons,” she says. He also had concerns about making a farm profitable but she was able to negotiate with him, agreeing to stay within his original 60-by-40 foot garden plot for her first season in 2010, which provided enough produce to supply a 12-person CSA. “I had to show him there was consistency and that I really wanted to do it. From that, he could see I was dedicated,” she says.
Now in its third year, Kenney’s farm will serve about 60 members—she’s expanded to two acres of land, growing enough vegetables, flowers, fruit and herbs for her members as well as for a few restaurants, including The Market Restaurant in Annisquam. Her CSA has two levels, with the option of a deluxe add-on that might include honey, syrup or local cheese. Because her membership is small, she knows many of her customers personally and often tailors shares to what they want (such as arugula over kohlrabi or tatsoi). “My farm is really personal to me and I want everyone who is involved in it to enjoy it and to choose to be there,” she says. Most of her members have come through word of mouth—many of them through the riding center itself.
As for profitability, Kenney says the first few years have been flat—she lives rent free as the caretaker of another farm and has made enough through the CSA and weekly trips to the Newburyport Farmers Market to pay off the irrigation equipment, greenhouse costs, seed, fertilizer and market supplies that she uses each season. Last year, she brought on an apprentice/partner who now runs her market operation, plus she’s enlisted work-share volunteers and a few high school students as interns. She’s still a few seasons away from bringing in a salary, she says, but her quality of life is what really matters. “Having my own farm, there’s just so much purpose. It’s completely reshaped how I think about my life,” she says. “It’s challenging but there is a lot of joy in it.”
“I really didn’t expect to be a farmer at all,” says 33-year-old Christy Kantlehner of Wrentham’s White Barn Farm. “I thought I had a black thumb.”
It turned out, all Kantlehner really needed was a little confidence. After studying sustainable development at UMass Amherst, she took an internship on a farm out in Oregon where she also worked at a sustainable restaurant and started her first garden. She returned home to Wrentham where her grandparents lived on five acres—land that had been in the family for generations. There was an old horse barn and a back field that had been used for hay, but otherwise the property sat unused.
Kantlehner knew she wanted to do something with the land but took her time gaining the skills to turn it into a full-fledged farm. While waiting tables at Al Forno in Providence, she revived the family garden by growing a small selection of crops and flowers. But she needed more hands-on experience. She took 10 months to travel through Europe with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a program that connects volunteers with organic farms around the world. Working her way through Switzerland, France and Italy, she picked up Old-World farming techniques while, along the way, a mental picture of her own farming life began to take shape. She spent the trip taking notes, drawing up crop plans and mapping out the best uses for her family’s land.
Back at home, Kantlehner took a class through the Department of Agricultural Resources called Tilling the Soil of Opportunity. The course helped her lay out a business plan and a name for the farm—both of which she presented to her family to make a case for her start-up. With their approval, she planted a quarter of an acre in 2008 and made plans to clear and plant an additional three acres by the following year. That first season, she farmed in the mornings, made it to markets on the weekends and waited tables at night. She also lived in her grandmother’s house rent-free.
“I didn’t pay myself at all and only had volunteer labor but was able to pay back all of my expenses that first year,” she says. With her earnings, she bought herself a disc harrow and a manure spreader—both of which she needed to open up the additional field—and spent that winter planning for her first CSA. She also started attending meetings of CRAFT, an Eastern Massachusetts collaborative alliance for farmer training, where she met another young farmer named Chris.
“One thing that was always terrifying for me was that I would be doing this alone,” admits Kantlehner. Her vision of a fulfilling farm life included meeting a farm husband—and Chris turned out to be the one. Once Kantlehner shared her farm vision, Chris immediately volunteered to partner up and the two started the CSA in 2009. They were married last year—and are expecting their first child in October.
Today, White Barn Farm has about 75 CSA members and a farm stand, which sells vegetables, flower bouquets and other local products like honey, seafood and coffee. Kantlehner is hoping to use the farm in other ways over the coming years, both as a venue for events (her own wedding took place on the farm last year) and a community gathering place for her CSA members—they sometimes project movies on the side of the barn and invite members to bring a picnic. For Kantlehner, the vision of the farming life and the reality are still very much aligned. “It’s amazing how it all worked out,” she says.
Like Karen Pettinelli at Terrosa Farm, Meryl LaTronica is totally into tractors. As farm manager of Powisset Farm in Dover, a property owned by the Trustees of Reservations, she’s in the fortunate position of having a few of them—as well as a barn to house them and a mechanic when she needs one. In 2006, the Trustees turned the Powisset land trust into a working CSA, something they’d also done with one of their properties in Ipswich. They hired LaTronica, who had apprenticed at Blue Heron Farm and Waltham Fields Community Farm, to be their farm manager.
“It wasn’t as if the money would be mine—it all goes back to the Trustees—but as a young person there was no possible way I could buy my own farm and make this all happen,” she says. “It was the best of both worlds.”
LaTronica grew up in Holliston and came to farming in her early 20s. About a year after finishing college at Simmons, when she was working at Veggie Planet in Harvard Square, she attended a protest against the war in Afghanistan and recognized one of the picketers—Ellery Kimball of Blue Heron Farm, a supplier for Veggie Planet—who held a “Farmers For Peace” sign. “I had been mulling over this idea of farming so I ran over and told her I what I was interested in. A week later I was working for her,” says LaTronica.
Her apprentice position with Blue Heron, and later at Waltham, gave her a solid foundation but when LaTronica arrived at Powisset, she was faced with the daunting task of starting a farm almost completely from scratch. There was a large cow barn, which she and her team cleared out and turned into a CSA pickup space, as well as eight acres of fields, which had been plowed but had no other infrastructure in place.
“I got here and they told me, ‘OK, you have 90 members signed up.’ It was a total whirlwind,” she says. Membership has since grown to about 340 members and they’ve plowed three additional acres. LaTronica now manages the farm with an assistant manager, three apprentices and a number of work-share volunteers; she and two of the apprentices have housing on the property.
Unlike Kenney, Kantlehner and Pettinelli, who are all self-employed, LaTronica is tasked with satisfying a much larger body of overseers. A 100-page document, written by the founders of the farm and managed by the Trustees, guides LaTronica’s vision for expansion, further farm development and CSA program growth. This year, in an effort to create more urban partnerships, Powisset will supply vegetables to the ReVision Urban Farm in Dorchester to help fill their CSA shares.
For LaTronica, filling a need in the community is one of the greatest rewards. “Farms have this way of gathering people—they’re drawn in by food and the energy,” she says, echoing a sentiment that Pettinelli, Kenney and Kantlehner also conveyed.
As the women gear up for another summer, they each expressed hope for a successful season and excitement for getting back in touch with their customers. Though there will be an unknown set of challenges facing them after this abnormally mild winter, they all understand that farming is their own choice and no matter how they came to it as a career, they’re grateful to be able to do it. Their motivations, after all—working outdoors, preserving and managing a piece of land, lifestyle, sensory experiences, tractors—are secondary to what is fundamentally a job that feeds and nourishes people in their community. LaTronica sums it up perfectly: “To be in the dirt and be outside and see the world happening… I have the best job in the world.”
Erin Byers Murray is a Boston-area freelance writer who focuses on food and sustainability. Her memoir, Shucked, about the year-and-a-half she spent working on the flats with the team at Island Creek Oysters, was released in October. Erin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.