After graduating from Cornell University with an ecology degree, Jess Niederer ditched the research lab in favor of a new workspace: New Jersey farmland.
“I wanted to do something that had an instantaneous connection to people,” she said, “and feeding them seemed like a straight line.”
And, she said, she missed the family farm she grew up on in Pennington.
That was 2006. Now, as the head of Chickadee Creek Farm, she grows organic produce and flowers on land her family has tilled for generations.
Carol Sorge, who operates an orchard in Basking Ridge along with her husband, didn’t plan on getting involved in agriculture. Aside from her full-time job as an administrator, she now keeps the books at the orchard, called Ripple Hill Farm. She took on that work in 1996 after marrying her husband and moving to New Jersey.
“I have come to love it and I would not want any other life,” Sorge said. “But it is not something I would’ve picked out and chosen.”
The number of women who are farming is on the rise in the Garden State. Niederer and Sorge each represent different groups contributing to that number.
Recent college graduates like Niederer make up the newest group, taking up the tractor to cultivate mainly organic crops. Another large group of women who are farming are those who have passed middle age. They operate farms while working an office job or after retiring from one. A third group is taking ownership of the family farm after the death of a spouse who previously operated the farm.
Some statistics on women and farming:
One in five New Jersey farms listed a woman as its principal operator as of 2007. That’s a 15 per cent increase from 2002.
New Jersey’s rate of female farmers hovers about 6 per cent higher than the national average.
In New Jersey, the market value of crops produced by those farms is about $ 5 million – about 5 per cent of the state total.
Farms operated by women encompass 66,586 acres—9 per cent of New Jersey’s total farmland.
That’s according to the most recent census data from 2007.
That increase in women who are farming in New Jersey represents a big step forward, said Robin Brumfield, an expert on farm management at Rutgers University.
“It was always thought of as sort of a male profession,” she said.
Brumfield, a handful of other Rutgers professors and a network of New Jersey farmers are working to change that perception. Over the past two winters, they have hosted a series of business courses and workshops geared toward female farmers. The program, called Annie’s Project, which began in the Midwest as a way to support female farmers and encourage young people to work in agriculture.
When the economy tanked in 2008, Brumfield held a series of focus groups with farmers. Through those sessions, she learned that the economic crisis had left New Jersey growers confused about how to cope with less income and less demand for their crops.
Brumfield teamed up with Barbara O’Neill, an expert on financial planning at Rutgers and the co-author of “Money Talk: A Financial Guide for Women.” O’Neill set to work on a business class curriculum aimed at those farmers.
“It’s a class focused around various risks” associated with farming, O’Neill said. “They make their income in drips and drabs,” she said of farmers. “They have the feast months and the famine months.”
O’Neill coaches farmers on finding their net worth, analyzing cash flow and looking at options for health insurance.
“What we’ve picked up, too,” she said, “is that farmers don’t see themselves retiring.”
Preparing to hand the farm down, she said, can be a sensitive subject for farmers whose children do not wish to take over the family business.
Nationwide, the average age of farm operators is about 59. In New Jersey, it is 55. For New Jersey to maintain its farms and reinvigorate its aging workforce, Brumfield said, farmers need to establish concrete goals as part of a long-term business plan. They also need to formulate marketing plans, she said, including the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to consumers.
Jess Niederer, the 28-year-old organic farmer, said those business lessons came in handy in Spring 2012, when her farm yielded more vegetables than she knew how to sell. Her reaction: find a new farmer’s market to sell her crops. But she didn’t have enough staff for that. And it wasn’t part of the business plan she had laid out earlier that winter, a friend pointed out. She solved the problem by bringing the extra produce to the stalls where she was already selling her vegetables.
“Having that clarity of mission and that clarity of a time frame” that a business plan provides, she said, “it’s just important so you don’t quit when you get burnt out—when you’re working 100 hours a week and you’re not thinking clearly.” The business plan kept Niederer from taking on trying to sell her produce at another farm market, which would've been more than she could handle, she said. It tethered her to a manageable set of goals and prevented her from making a rash decision when she was overwhelmed.
Social media have proven to be a key marketing tool for New Jersey farmers in recent years, said Nick Polanin, a Rutgers agriculture professor who helps run the Annie’s Project workshops. That’s because the state’s dense population means there are plenty of consumers per local cornfield. Farmers who “tweet” on Twitter and post on Facebook are likely to draw consumers out to fields and farm stands, Polanin said.
“We are sandwiched between two major metropolitan areas,” Polanin said, “which is a great thing if you’re talking about fresh produce. You have all kinds of markets, all kinds of opportunities” including farmers’ markets and box-share programs.
On family farms, women are more likely to be responsible for the farm’s marketing strategy, Polanin said. Catherine Sorge, the operator at Ripple Hill Farm, operates the orchard’s web site and Facebook page.
“I’m the marketing person,” she said. “I’m the one who sells the product.”
The farm’s Facebook page features weekly posts with photos of the orchard and dishes made with its freshly picked peaches.
Those lessons in digital networking proved beneficial, Sorge said. But the most beneficial piece of the Annie’s Project courses, she said, came from the chance to network with other women farmers.
“Farming is a rather isolating experience,” she said, “because you don't run into other farmers.” But the chance to trade advice on managing laborers, commiserate about bad weather and bring home fresh eggs from fellow farmers helped relieve that feeling of isolation, she said.
Robin Brumfield, the Rutgers farm management expert, has plans to expand the program for the coming winter.
“There’s all kinds of agriculture in New Jersey,” including livestock farms, corn mazes and other related businesses, she said, adding, “And we are still the Garden State.”
NJ Spotlight is an online news service providing insight and information on issues critical to New Jersey, with the aim of informing and engaging the state’s communities and businesses. Read more From New Jersey Spotlight.