Photos from left to right: Lorig Hawkins of Farmshare Austin, Mary Lightsey of Lightsey Farms, Katie Kraemer Pitre of Tecolote Farm (photo by www.keeshi.com), "Harvest War Crops, The Women's Land Army" poster 1941-1945 (image from Wikimedia Commons).
March is Women’s History Month, and when I first realized this, I immediately wanted to highlight some of the women farmers with whom we work at SFC to hear stories of how they became farmers and get a glimpse of what their lives are like. It’s so interesting and inspiring to me (as a female who loves to work with the land and grow food) to see these ladies busting their tails season after season, through all the elements, to support themselves and their families, to bring nutritious, delicious food to their community, and to make themselves happy doing what they love to do. We want to honor the history they’re making for themselves in Central Texas as being some of the leaders that are helping to keep us healthily fed with their sustainable, diversified crops. This is also the chance to honor the women that have always been in the fields, on the tractor, managing the books, caring for the animals and otherwise working the farms that have been feeding this country for many generations. There’s so much rich history there. I encourage you to dig deeper into it (googling Women’s Land Army of America is a fun place to start).
In the meantime, please get to know some of our local women farmers a little better by reading their answers to a few of my questions:
Mary Lightsey – Lightsey Farms
Katie Kraemer Pitre – Tecolote Farm
Lorig Hawkins – Farmshare Austin
How did you get into farming?
Mary: I was born into farming. It was great growing up on the farm where fruits and vegetables are at your fingertip. I learned early on if I wanted extra things that I could work for it.
Katie: I was born into it. My dad's a citrus farmer in California, and comes from a long line of German and Spanish citrus, walnut, grain, and cattle farmers. I've always loved being in the truck, in the groves, working outside. While at school at UC Santa Cruz, figuring out what my life's work would be, I met and became enamored of a young man who was bound and determined to farm, hailing though he did from the Big D. It is a big undertaking, and a legal form of gambling, farming is. It helps to have a partner with whom to take the plunge, whether it's strictly a business partner, a life partner, or a mentor. In addition to the growing, there's the engineering, the irrigation, the refrigeration, the marketing, the selling, the accounting, payroll, the building, the fleet (tractor/trucks/etc.) management. We really farm as a partnership, and I'm running so much of the back end. I'm happiest, though, when I get out of the office and into the sun and feel that deep exhaustion at the end of the day that's as honest and good as it gets.
Lorig: In 2009 I moved back to Austin from Minneapolis. In Minneapolis I got involved in Food Not Bombs where I met some permaculture minded folk and I also started a plot in a neighborhood community garden. To help with the transition back to Austin, I signed up for a Permaculture Design course. Our class met at the building of what is now 5604 Manor and I immediately was drawn to the concepts of interconnectedness, patterns, ecologies, community and the environment. About half way through the course we went to visit two area farms and the moment I set foot on the first farm property, Anderson Farms, I felt a click in my brain and soul. Here was everything we had been studying in one place, here was where you could create an interconnected ecology with community. After graduating with my Permaculture Design Certificate, I spent my free time looking for farms close by I could volunteer with. One afternoon, Max Elliott from Urban Roots walked into the shop wearing their t-shirt. I inquired about his organization and showed up to every single volunteer day and then some, for the next 8 months. Now six years later, I started and also manage the farm for Farmshare Austin.
Do you have any women farmer’s as part of your heritage or influence on your path as a farmer, or are you blazing your own awesome trail?
Mary: Yes, my mother was a teacher and a farmer, as well, and both of my grandmothers grew up on farms.
Katie: Only my cousin Ann. She's one of the only others of my generation who followed in our fathers' footsteps and kept on farming. She grows wine grapes and makes some amazing wines. Very different from growing vegetables! In Texas, we started up when there were only two other organic farms in the area. Carol Ann at Boggy Creek Farm and Sara Rowland from Hairston Creek Farm were both supportive in welcoming me into the world. Sarah from Pure Luck Farm and Lee Dexter from White Egret Farm were both women goat farmers in the Austin area who were so smart and so committed to their herds. When I used to milk the 140 dairy goats at White Egret (back fence neighbor), and opened the door into the milking room and got my knees slammed backward by stampeding hungry does, I decided I didn't need to have a great big number of large animals; vegetables were great! I'd also say that, although they were not farmers, my German Kansas mother and maternal "Nana" taught me the skills necessary to farm. They had such strong work ethics and good humor, and knew how to live very well along frugal and sustainable guidelines.
Lorig: My closest connection to farming was my grandfather and it was only after I had started farming consistently that my mother divulged he had operated a small farm on the side for years. But he sold it before I was born to help pay for school for my mom’s siblings. I remember him having a small greenhouse in their backyard that I would hide in for hours pretending to fix things. Next to the greenhouse he grew grapes and strawberries along one wall of their fence. I would sit underneath the grapevines and eat, what to me, were the sweetest grapes in the world. Along with the grapes, he and I would go watermelon hunting together— going to the store. After the search we would sit outside on the porch swing in the El Paso summer heat and eat it with a spoon. My grandfather also knew how to fix everything. I would sit in his basement shop wishing I could stay in that world forever, but my foray into farming and fixing things ended when we left my grandparent’s to go back to Houston at the end of the summer. Farming never crossed my mind as a way of living or path in life. I struggled a lot to find a vocation that I loved and I am so thankful and amazed that I was able to find it. I guess you could say I am blazing my own awesome trail!
What is your favorite thing about farming?
Mary: The freedom to watch the crops grow and breathe the fresh air every day.
Katie: Working for myself. Working outside. Getting to know a place over decades, its contours and trees, the wildlife and bird migration patterns. Deep connections with the people we grow for, work that is useful, meaningful, and good. Sharing cooking ideas with our farmers’ market friends, the joy our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) brings into people's kitchens and lives.
Lorig: It’s really hard to describe my favorite thing about farming. For me it brings together so many things— ecologies, communities, engineering, history, citizenship, social justice, nature and being present. And it is humbling because at the end you are not in control of the weather or patterns of the earth and instead learn to live within life’s cycles. But I also like the work. I like figuring things out, engaging in my community, and being alone in the fields. I like hearing the birds around me when I work and learning the patterns of Texas seasons. I like living simply and talking to people about farming and showing people how food is grown. I like solving problems, addressing issues of food security and food justice, growing things, fixing things, eating and making food. I like the types of people who farm and the community it builds with people outside farming. I like how farming shows you how diverse and different life is and that I am constantly learning and will never stop. I like it all.
What is your experience as a female farmer in an area of work that is traditionally occupied by more men than women?
Mary: There have been hurdles that we have had to jump through but what doesn't break us makes us stronger.
Katie: It's a partnership. David and I run this farm together. We each have our roles, and neither can imagine making this machine run alone.
Lorig: There have definitely been times where I have walked into shops or stores and felt the uncertain stare from employees or shopkeepers. The moment you lock eye contact with someone you can tell if they are going to respect you, take you seriously, or give you grief and not be helpful. Though some people warm up, every so often you just get a very unhelpful and snarky guy. But there are always plenty of people around who have been helpful, honest and kind. I have felt very supported on my path.
Any words of wisdom or encouragement to other women that are considering becoming farmers?
Mary: Do as your heart desires; there are ups and downs with any occupation but as a farmer always expect the unexpected storm, for example, and don't let it get you down if you lose a crop - just plant another one and keep going.
Katie: Get dirty. You'll have so much fun. There's nothing more satisfying. Find your niche.
Lorig: Start anywhere you can. Find some way you can get involved that works for you and start exploring the things you like to do. You can read all you want but nothing beats getting outside and getting your hands dirty, failing and learning. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid for something to not work. I messed something up just today! Don’t worry about not knowing enough because we are all along the same spectrum of learning and we all had to start somewhere. Talk to everyone and listen. Always offer to help in any way you can. There are so many awesome women farmers out there who are helpful and willing and waiting to fold more people into farming. Get out there and farm on!