Farming may have long been a male-dominated industry, but that is changing—especially in Vermont. USDA data on farming shows that Vermont has one of the highest percentages of women farmers in the country. Thirty-nine percent of Vermont farmers are women—that’s nearly 5,000 female farmers, and more than 22 percent of those women are the principal operators of their farm. And these numbers are steadily growing.
Corie Pierce has co-owned and managed Bread and Butter Farm in Shelburne with her business partner Adam Wilson for almost six years, and will soon transition into the role of singular owner as Wilson moves on from the farm. Bread and Butter is a highly diversified small-scale farm with grass-fed beef, vegetables, an on-farm bakery, and more. The farm also hosts educational programs, summer camps and community events. “We try to find ways to bring people here to engage with the farm,” Pierce said.
Pierce has been farming since she was a teenager, and said she didn’t know many women who were in leadership roles on a farm when she first started out. “I saw a few women-run or women-owned farms, but most farms were run by men,” she said. “But now I know a bunch of farms that are women-run or co-run by women. We’re kind of in a bubble here in Vermont and it’s super inspiring to see the interest.”
UVM junior Ariel Ayers grew up on a family farm and now works at Maille Dairy Farm in Shelburne. Ayers has also noticed the rise of female farmers in Vermont. “There are a lot of people at school interested in cows and farming,” she said. “I think it’s great that there are so many females interested.”
Ayers is still figuring out exactly what her future in farming will look like, but she knows a few things for certain. “I do have a farm to go back to,” she said. “My family farm will become mine. No matter what I do, I know I want to work with cows.”
Young people like Ayers are in a large way responsible for the influx of new farmers, especially women. Mary Peabody of the UVM Extension and Founding Program Director of the Women’s Agricultural Network says there are three situations that tend to pull women into farming. “One is young women finishing college and realizing they want to farm,” Peabody said. “Another is career changers—women in education and healthcare seem particularly drawn to agriculture.”
The third situation is that women tend to live longer and often end up inheriting the family farm.
The Women’s Agricultural Network offers education and technical assistance to women in all ages of their farm business development. “There are 1600 women farmers involved, and quite a few of those are Vermonters,” Peabody said. “Our numbers have been pretty steadily creasing since the early to mid-90s.”
There’s no sign of the growth in female farmers slowing down, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles to be faced. “I have a lot of confidence in my physical ability and like to think I’m as strong as anyone, but I have to be realistic,” said Pierce. “When wrangling full-grown pigs or cattle, sometimes you just want a strong dude around. But farming is using your body in a smart way as much as it is being strong.”
Another issue besides the physicality and traditional gender roles of farming is land access. “Land access is probably the biggest obstacle,” Pierce said. “It’s not the only obstacle, but it’s the first major obstacle. We’re really lucky to have the Vermont Land Trust. Vermont is a really supportive place for farmers and new farmers.”
So what attracts so many new farmers and women farmers to the Green Mountain State? “A lot of people here are interested in where their food is coming from and in knowing their farmers,” Pierce said. “That model—direct contact between farmer and customer—is really appealing to a lot of women I know who are interested in agriculture. I think in general Vermont is a place that is ahead of the curve in a bigger way than other places.”