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At PA Farm Show (And Beyond), Women Cut Their Own Paths Into Agriculture

(Harrisburg) -- Spend much time at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, and you might get a feeling that tradition rules the place.

Families tend their animals together. Men in ten-gallon hats still dominate the buyers in the audience at livestock sales. Many of the handmade goods wouldn't have looked out of place a century or more ago.

But farming is constantly changing.

One way that's happening? Women are finding their own, nontraditional routes into the business.

Patty Neiner and her wife run a small farm in Centre County where they raise pigs, chickens, and turkeys. They sell at local farmer's markets and at a buying club.

She's is at the Farm Show this week, though, for her second job with the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network at Penn State. The program began after researchers found many women weren't attending conventional agriculture events, often because they felt unwelcome or condescended to.

Neiner said the factors that make farming hard for women go beyond interpersonal issues, down to basic equipment.

"Even the standard shovel is designed for the way a man shovels," she said. "Women actually shovel differently. Now, the most reaction we get from men is, we use it wrong--which isn't correct."

Women lag men significantly in the farming industry. The 2012 census showed 30 percent of farmers were women and just 14 percent of farms were primarily run by women.

But Neiner said despite the stats, the potential for condescension, and the ill-fitting shovels, many women truly do want to farm--just in a different way.

The Women's Agricultural Network holds a lot of training sessions and conferences for women farmers, and Neiner said when she talks to them, she generally finds they're more interested in sustainable, environmentally-conscious farming than large-scale factory operations.

"It's not that they look down on large-scale farming, it's just that they don't see that as a sustainable and healthy way for farming," she said, adding that "small farms don't have to feed the world. They just have to feed their neighborhood."

That approach is just fine with proponents of green farming. Hannah Smith-Brubaker, for one, said she is "all about bringing as diverse a group of people into farming as possible."

Smith-Brubaker is executive director for PASA, or Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture. She also served as the commonwealth's deputy agriculture secretary for two years.

"If we look at what is going to make farming survive, it's the oldest insurance policy in the world, and that's called diversity," she said. "I think it's why sustainable agriculture practices are growing, because we have a diversity of crops, a diversity of approaches. We're looking at everything from stewardship of the land and water to innovative marketing practices."

Of course, Neiner said, in a market where even huge farms are struggling to stay financially viable, it can be hard to make a living farming small.

Many women work long hours farming as a second job. Neiner does it herself, and said it often means 80 to 100-hour weeks.

But she said at the end of the day, that's ok.

"They're dedicated," she said. "So, they keep working on it."