PORTLAND — A national conference of Women in Sustainable Agriculture wasn’t the place to go looking for traditional farm wives. Try farm operators, owners and ag researchers, brokers, marketers and educators instead.
The conference, to be held Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Portland, attracted 400 women from across the country, and two dozen speakers and panelists. The event, held this year for the first time on the West Coast, provided extensive networking and education opportunities, said Maud Powell, a small farms specialist with Oregon State University Extension in Jackson and Josephine counties.
“Women are increasingly important in agriculture across the country,” Powell said. Once marginalized as farm wives, she said, women can now be found in every agricultural sector.
Oregon saw the early formation of two women farmers networks, one in Southern Oregon and one in the Willamette Valley, Powell said. Similar organizations developed in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Vermont and elsewhere, and the national organization of Women in Sustainable Agriculture grew from there.
Within the organization, “sustainable” means farm operations that support long-term success in economic, environmental and social aspects, Powell said. That includes supporting the local community and local businesses, she said.
“For me it’s always fascinating to see how the issues of sustainable agriculture are similar, with local flavor,” she said.
The conference began with tours of farms in the Columbia River Gorge, Willamette Valley and the Portland area.
Other events included a “Trailblazers Panel” in which three women who assumed leading roles in ag early on described their experiences.
Among the scheduled panel speakers was Jeanne Carver, who with her husband, Dan, operates the historic Imperial Stock Ranch in North Central Oregon. Wool produced by the ranch took the spotlight when the Ralph Lauren clothing line found them while looking for American yarn with which to make USA uniforms for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
Other speakers were to be Diane Green of Greentree Naturals, a small acreage and CSA farm near Sandpoint, Idaho; and Joan Thorndike of Le Mera Gardens, a fresh-cut flowers operation in Southern Oregon’s Rogue River Valley.
Thirty percent of U.S. farmers are women, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, but the number has been in flux. The census counted 969,672 women farmers in 2012, a 2 percent decrease from 2007. The reason for that is unclear, but some in ag speculate that the deep recession that hit in 2009 forced some new farmers out of the profession.
Women made up 14 percent of principal operators in the 2012 census, but they tend to be older than principal operators overall. Only 4 percent of women principal operators were under 35, according to census.