The Plain Dealer
By Debbi Snook
Mardy Townsend waited an hour for the hay man, and when he didn’t show, she turned to her 90 creatures of habit, now mooing with attitude.
Mardy Townsend of Windsor walks out to her cattle on Friday, August 16, 2013. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Honestly, you’d think cattle had wristwatches.
Townsend unhooked the electric fence at her Ashtabula County farm and stepped over the bottom wire. That was the signal for the black and white Hereford Angus herd – each animal 1,000 pounds at maturity – to close in on her fast.
She walked a few hundred feet to open the gate to a fresh field of grass. They swirled past her, like in a cowboy movie, some kicking their heels in the air.
“Those are the young ones,” she said of the unnamed group.
“I just call them all Sweetie Pie.”
Mardy Townsend of Windsor guides her cattle to a fresh pasture on Friday, August 16, 2013, checking for health issues as they pass. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Maybe a male farmer wouldn’t call them Sweetie Pie, maybe they would. But Townsend, with her smooth, toast-colored complexion shaded by a baseball cap, is clearly doing a job long associated with a man.
Despite one broken finger and a lot of bruises, it suits her fine.
Just as it suits a growing number of women.
Statistics extrapolated this spring by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2007 census figures showed a startling change: There are nearly three times as many women farmers as there were 30 years ago.
In three decades, women have gone from 5 percent of all farmers to 14 percent. The numbers from that census also shows Ohio in the top 10 among all 50 states with 29,060 women farm operators and 9,127 principal farm operators.
Women have always been integral to agriculture, but they have not always been counted. Up until 1978, U.S. census forms only had room for the name of one operator, and that usually went to – surprise – the male head of household.
Now that the government is counting all chief farm operators, the growth of the female ranks is evident. Some even call it a movement.
“I fully expect that results of the 2012 census [due out in 2014] will show even stronger data for women,” said Sharon Sachs, who helps run Central Ohio’s Women Farm, a consulting and support group. “One, I think it’s true. And, two, I think women are getting better at reporting into the census.”
Sachs, among many others, cites the growth of the local food movement as a job engine for all small farmers, especially women.
“You can farm on a smaller scale and be successful in a business,” she said. “You can have a small plot, a half acre or an acre, and make a contribution to the local food market.”
Success is not guaranteed, of course, and it won’t make up for the loss of millions of farmers since the 1930s who were absorbed by larger, industrial farms. But it is one of those rare upticks in agricultural numbers.
The USDA study showed that today’s female farmers may not yet have as much land or income as their male counterparts, but large percentages of them are grabbing a head start by making a beeline into higher profit forms of farming such as livestock and specialty crops. These women are older and more educated than male farmers, and more of them are coming into the business than going out.
They are now a million strong.
We talked to three of them working the land in Northeast Ohio, each with her own success story: Townsend at Marshy Meadows Farm in Windsor, Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm near Wooster, and Diane Morgan of Maggie’s Farm on the West Side of Cleveland.
Mardy Townsend, Marshy Meadows Farm, Windsor
While she has a master’s degree in agronomy from Ohio State University, it’s not like Townsend craved a life with beef animals. But she discovered her 226-acre property along the Grand River was suited to it. In spring, floods often cover a large section of the east side, and storms had a way of washing the topsoil off the higher sloping land to the west. If nothing else, the grass grew well.
“It’s the best way to cheat the environment,” she said, explaining that she can make a living off the land without damaging it.
And it’s not like Townsend comes from a long line of farmers. Her late father, Norman, ran Judson Manor, the deluxe retirement home in Cleveland. Townsend describes her mom, Marge, as one of the original “back-to-the-land hippies.” Marge bought the property in 1972, raising crops, chickens and hogs, eventually moving there from Shaker Heights. Townsend, 57, and Marge, now 85, live in a white frame ranch on the property and rent out an older home across the street.
“I’m not your typical farmer,” said Townsend, noting that farmland is traditionally transferred to sons. Both her brothers followed careers out of state.
After all the time she spends with cattle — calving, castrating, spreading manure, making hay, eradicating invasive multiflora roses and performing the routine of field rotations — Townsend can describe the animals well.
“They’re always hopeful and curious,” she said. “They could watch chickens for hours.”
The life looked good to her after two tours of duty as a relief worker in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“I vowed I’d never do it again,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, especially when people are so poor.”
Farming isn’t as hard, but it isn’t easy, either. She’s grown her herd on her own, starting with 12 animals in 2002. Last year’s drought raised the price of hay, forcing her to sell off about a quarter of her stock. Her farm is certified organic, but the cattle are not, because she can’t afford the higher price of organic feed.
In the past few years she’s been leading an anti-fracking campaign in her neighborhood. Five injection wells have been operating in Windsor Township, taking in wastewater from Pennsylvania fracking operations. She worries about the toxicity of the chemicals used in that water and its effect on the only ground water she has for her animals.
Things are brightening, though. Fracking has slowed with the lower price of natural gas. She has a contract with Heinen’s supermarkets to sell her grass-fed beef. She will start supplying the Chardon and Bainbridge stores within the next two weeks.
It will relieve her of the job of going to a farmers market, for which she says she doesn’t have the time.
“But they’re going to put my picture up in the store,” she said with a groan.
Because she doesn’t pay a mortgage, she was able to spend money to erect a hoop barn for young cattle.
She said she’s happy producing for customers who want a product considered leaner, therefore healthier, that comes from a more humane operation than a muddy feedlot and helps put money back into the local economy — all elements more closely associated with local, rather than conventional, agriculture.
“I’m thinking about starting a marketing cooperative for grass-fed beef farmers in Ohio,” she said. She’s already taken a workshop at Kent State University and is now in touch with a consultant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“A cooperative would give us more leverage with buyers,” she said. “And we could work toward having a year-round supply of consistent product.”
Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm, Wooster
Three years ago, when Wooster opened Local Roots Market & Cafe, Ohio’s first all-local food store, farmer Monica Bongue had a chance to pay $50 and become a member. She ponied up $1,000, believing strongly in what she calls food sovereignty and food security. It’s another way, she said, to feed ourselves better. She’s now on the board of directors.
This coming spring, she and two other women farmers — Martha Gaffney and Jennifer Grahovac — will launch a new business, Farm Roots Connection (www.farmrootsconnection.com), a farmer-owned local food buying club, or community supported agriculture (CSA) group that will grow food in Wooster and sell to the Cleveland market.
Monica Bongue of Muddy Forks Farm in Wooster arranges her display of fresh produce at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
“We’re maxed out here,” said Bongue, 51, of the customer base in her rural county. “And we have worked with CSA groups who buy from us. We don’t get the best prices; the customers don’t always know which farm the food came from, and the farmers don’t always know how the food was handled.”
Apparently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees. Bongue and her partners received a $22,500 federal Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grant this year to launch their cooperative. About 10 farms are expected to participate, with plenty of room for growth.
In designing the farmer-owned cooperative, Bongue hopes to simplify the farmers’ jobs. Instead of raising a wide variety of produce for customers, each farmer can narrow his or her focus to a few crops. Teamed with other farmers, they can continue to offer diversity without having to do a wide variety of labor themselves.
Bongue, a native of Colombia, is married to David Francis, an agricultural researcher who moved to Wooster for work at Ohio State University. She has her own agricultural history, studying nutritional microbiology at the University of California at Davis.
She has always farmed at home, including her years raising three daughters.
“I had this idea [for the cooperative] 10 years ago,” she said. “But I didn’t have the money.”
So far, part of the grant has paid for marketing materials and attorney fees to set up by-laws. The rest will be used to acquire a refrigerated truck and pay for a part of Bongue’s salary managing the operation.
Muddy Forks Farm produce sold at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Farmer Monica Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
“We’re a little behind,” she said of the current season. “We only have a few customers. But it’s a good practice run to work out the kinks before we launch next spring. We hope to make this a pretty substantial business.”
Diane Morgan, Maggie’s Farm, Cleveland
Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side collects a variety of potatoes on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Surely this isn’t the only farm ever born in a meltdown moment. The way Diane Morgan tells it, she was living in her grandmother’s old neighborhood (Cleveland’s Stockyards) south of Clark Avenue. She had a good job at a computer company, but it really wasn’t what she wanted. Her husband Russ, a chef, was between jobs.
“I came home one day,” she explained in her sweetly lilting voice. “He was just sitting there and I started stamping my foot. I almost screamed, saying, ‘You’re doing what I’m supposed to do.’”
What she was “supposed” to do is look for her next opportunity.
“It’s funny when I think about it now, but it was a great experience,” said Morgan. “It made me ask myself, ‘Why are you mad at him about something you should do?’ It gave me the courage to do this.”
Today, Russ has a job in food at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Diane has 10 city lots to her name. Or to her dog’s name. The “Maggie” of Maggie’s farm is her pet, and relevant to the lyrics of the old Bob Dylan song about seizing your destiny, “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”
“It’s always interesting to see who gets it,” she said, adding that it’s usually a surprising number of young people.
Morgan doesn’t own all 10 lots, but she manages them as growing plots for a spectrum of people: churches, neighborhood groups, two dozen volunteers who help her do the work, the community supported agriculture members who pay her at the beginning of the season, wholesale buyers, and the customers who show up at her farmers market booths and her Friday and Saturday farm stand, 3164 W. 61st St.
“Neighbors Feeding Neighbors,” is her slogan.
Volunteers who work get paid in “Maggie Bucks,” her handwritten pieces of paper they can redeem for food.
Who participates? The employed, unemployed and the underemployed – all kindred spirits.
A week ago that group included Diana Mitchell of Lyndhurst, who was on vacation from her troubleshooting job at Progressive Insurance. Mitchell, 60, cleaned baby beets in a donated sink under a volunteer-built canopy and tore weeds out of some of the raised beds. Her reasons for being there made a long list: chance to do something different, love of organic food, Earth-friendly operations, chance to learn, chance to help.
Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side, passes freshly picked carrots to Arelis Latimer, a summer employee, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Arelis Latimer, 18, worked beside Mitchell at the sink. The Puerto Rico native got introduced to Maggie’s Farm during a Youth Opportunities Unlimited program for work and mentoring. When Morgan needed help, Latimer stepped up again before starting civil engineering studies at Cleveland State University. Her little brother likes to make smoothies from the carrots she brings home from the farm, 10 blocks away.
“I didn’t even know there were purple carrots,” said Latimer. “And they taste sweet.”
And there’s Christina Keegan, 28, whose new job starts soon, but passes the time until then at Maggie’s.
“I love to work outdoors, and I don’t like working with chemicals,” said Keegan, who is trained in traditional construction trades and in alternative forms such as straw bale houses.
“And I have a 3-year-old who eats a lot,” she said.
All three describe Morgan as a great teacher and businesswoman.
“Want to see my spreadsheets?” Morgan asks.
There have been failures at Maggie’s Farm. Groundhogs ate all the green beans last year. A phone was stolen at the market. A hazelnut tree crop failed.
And Maggie’s Farm isn’t where Morgan wants it to be quite yet.
“The business model we have is a cooperative but we’re still too small,” said Morgan. “This is our second year and we haven’t made any money yet. But when we do, people who work the farm will share in it.
“I’m a firm believer that human equity is just as important as financial equity. That probably sounds anti-capitalist, but I value the work and assistance I’ve gotten, and this seems the only fair way to go.”
Morgan taught herself how to farm organically, but she started networking that way, too. She attended the first Sustainable Cleveland conference and picked people’s brains. Her first “farm” was really a community garden. She sidestepped the usual method of handing out individual plots and told all the farmers that they were all working together to grow for one another. The group, she said, has continued nicely without her.
And while Maggie’s Farm still isn’t in the black, there is plenty in the plus column. It sells to a local food aggregator, Fresh Fork Market. It obtained the equipment to take food stamps as payment for local foods. And it built a refrigerated room and indoor market space.
The farm will be selling its granola bars this winter at the Rooted in Cleveland stand at the West Side Market.
And it hasn’t run out of volunteers yet.
Morgan recently put a notice on the farm’s Facebook page to talk about an upcoming art project to call attention to the market.
“Oh yay!!,” responded Kayla Kelsey. “This is right across the street from my house! Let me know if you ever need help with anything! My boyfriend and I are more than willing to lend a hand!”