There is something special about catching the sun rising above the tips of trees.
This is the view that greets Kasie Jo Layman every morning when she goes to work at Sandy Flat Berry Patch, where Layman oversees specialty products for the 400-acre farm.
Even on a recent busy Monday morning, Layman was able to sneak away, driving the farm’s beat up pickup truck up the side of the tangled but sprawling hillside to a point just above the trees.
“Isn’t it nice?” she said smiling at the landscape before her. “In the wintertime, when the leaves shed you can see all the mountains all around.
“There’s freedom up here.”
Layman, 29, didn’t set out to be a farmer. Growing up in southern Illinois, the daughter of a carpenter and a stay-at-home mom, she thought she’d do something more practical. But now, two years into the farming life, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She is among a growing crop of women choosing the same path.
As the demand for local food grows, so does the need for local farmers. And agriculture, long the bastion of men, is attracting more women. Female farmers now make up about 30 percent of the farmer operators in the U.S., a number that has nearly tripled in the past three decades, according to the U.S. Census. And while the numbers of male and female farmers dipped a bit in the most recent census, in the Upstate, there has been growing interest among women.
As academic program director for the Sustainable Agriculture program at Greenville Tech, Rebecca McKinney has seen a shift firsthand. About 80 percent of the inquiries McKinney fields are from women, and this year’s premier class is about two thirds women.
“I tell everybody it’s because we get it,” said Rebecca McKinney, whose work is also part of Greenville Tech’s Culinary Institute of the Carolinas. “We understand why you should be putting healthy food in your body, why you should be glad to be out in the sun with your hands in the soil.”
In an ever-growing industry (the state’s agribusiness industry has a $41.7 billion impact according to a 2013 report), the growth of women at all levels of the agricultural spectrum has the chance to significantly impact the food system, particularly in the area of sustainable farming. Women-operated farms tend to be smaller, and run with a focus on environmental and personal health, McKinney said, meaning more attention to environmental preservation and to things like organics and traditional heirloom varieties.
“I think this is the salvation of food systems in general,” McKinney said. “This is happening with women and men both in our area that I see, the people coming into farming now are very likely to have children and grandchildren with them and to involve them in the processes and what I see is they’re basically raising the next generation or two or three of farmers.”
A more meaningful life
Here are some facts you might not have known about Cherokee Bell tomatoes. One, they will dye your hands yellow after just five minutes of picking them; two, they are delicate things, bruising easily, and require a soft touch; and three, there is definitely a right way to pick them.
“You have to feel the way it hangs off the vine and then move it slowly in the opposite direction.
After studying computer science and engineering in college, Layman said it became clear that office life would not suit her.
She moved to Alaska in search of adventure, something different, and there, in the bleakest of climate zones, got interested in farming.
Fast forward to 2014 when she visited her older sister in Greenville. The area seemed perfect for farming, so Layman decided to stay and pursue her dream. She met Ruth Ann Lynn one day while working part-time at a local gym.
“She said how about working part-time at a farm too,” Layman said smiling. “Yeah right! Its 70 hours during strawberry season!”
Now, two years later, Layman lives in a basement apartment at the farm and oversees most of the specialty wholesale accounts. These include roadside markets, specialty stores like Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery and restaurants.
On that recent Monday morning, Layman was out the door by 7 a.m. and had several boxes full of heirloom tomatoes by 8:30 a.m.
“It’s crazy what happiness amounts to in life,” Layman said, taking a moment to pause. “I know there’s a lot of factors – relationships, religion. But your job takes up your entire life, so you have to be happy with that, you know?”
That is how Laura Collins looks at her shift into the agricultural realm as well. Her interest blossomed from everyday tasks like canning and gardening, and then slowly grew into more.
Today, the 30-year-old Collins lives and works at Bio-Way Farm, in Ware Shoals, and two years in she doesn’t regret her choice.
This past spring, Collins completed Clemson’s New and Beginning Farmer program, and she registered for an LLC to start a specialty herbs business. With Herbalicious, Collins hopes to supply what she sees as a niche market for culinary and medicinal herbs.
“Maybe it’s a desire for independence,” Collins said. “I have a lot of female friends that that’s all they’ve dreamt about is having a family and a husband, whereas there is a newer age of people that doesn’t really care much for that, and so maybe they’re more like me, seeing farming as a viable option, seeing farming as something they can do because there is more equality and just different goals and different lifestyle choices.”
Growing small businesses
In many cases, these emerging farmers are giving up a chance to make more money in other jobs.
“I want to be my own boss, maybe,” said Kimberly Ferlauto, 36.
Ferlauto has a masters from Georgetown and over a decade of experience working in the non-profit sector, but she said, she got burnt out.
Ferlauto is among the first students to go through the sustainable agriculture program at Greenville Tech, which launched this past August. Currently, she also is working at Moon Hare Gardens, a small farm in Greer, where she oversees the farms heirloom crops and is also testing the waters of her own business venture.
Not having grown up in agriculture, the program at Greenville Tech is helping Ferlauto form connections within the local farming community, and she hopes it will help create a fulfilling and a lucrative business.
“Part of what I’m going to figure out in the program is where the gaps are in the current farming community,” Ferlauto said. “What is there not enough supply of? Where could I plug in and be not just be doing more of what everybody else is?”
You can make a living at farming, McKinney said, but too often people can’t separate their hobby from the business they want to create. That’s why Greenville Tech’s program is as focused on marketing and brand development as it is on soil health and machinery.
Greenville Tech created the Sustainable Agriculture program in 2014 as a way to connect the dots of a growing local-focused culinary movement and the growing need for farmers. The program, which is housed under the umbrella of the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas allows students of all levels the chance to learn how to grow a farming business. Students can work directly with culinary students, with both learning how to work together to mutual benefit.
The program’s focus on sustainability is very intentional. The practice is more environmentally friendly because it eschews traditional chemical herbicides and pesticides for methods like cover cropping and crop rotation.
And with more chefs interested in local food, there is more of a market for sutainably raised products. The average organic farmer can make money, McKinney assured. A good average might be about $20,000 a year per acre farmed, excluding cost of labor, or even $35,000 in a good year, McKinney said.
“It takes creativity sometimes to find the market that will support you, but as interest in local food grows and grows in Greenville, I think we have so many options for where farmers can sell products,” McKinney said. “And I think we'll have so many more options for the types of products that we can produce that have a market.”
That’s where sustainable farming has come into play a big role particularly for new and beginning farmers, both male and female. Since it requires less land and less equipment, the startup costs are much lower. For Ferlauto, sustainable fit both her desire for healthy living and better food, and her budget.
“Commodity farming is for the big guys,” Ferlauto said. “That’s hard to do, but it’s also just not appealing to me. Maybe it’s the nurturer in us women that makes us want to be more on the sustainable track, because for me it’s about nurturing the land as well as the vegetables and the people you’re feeding.”
Margie Levine likes to tell the story about the time she went to buy farm equipment only to be told to get her husband. The 62-year-old owner and operator of Crescent Farm chuckles as she recounts the quest for a tractor part. It wasn’t the first time she was overlooked because she was a woman, and it likely won’t be the last.
“I wish it wasn’t like that, and I don’t know why, but when I tell people I’m a farmer they’re like ‘Oh, what does that mean, you have a little garden out back?' “ Levine said with a smile. “Uh, no.”
At the age of 60, and many decades homesteading and working on other farms, Levine became a farm owner when she purchased the former Parson Produce in 2014. She launched Crescent Farm the same year and has grown quite the reputation among local restaurants as having some of the best, most interesting certified organic products around.
On a recent Wednesday, Levine was making deliveries to some of her clients: Stella’s Southern Bistro, American Grocery Restaurant, Kitchen Sync, GB&D, Dive ‘n' Boar and Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery. The former teacher has always had a hand in the agricultural realm. She has owned cows and chickens, raised pigs and made her own maple syrup, but this is the first time she has been in charge of everything, and it’s meant that Levine sees things from a new vantage point.
Her days are long, but satisfying, she said.
“It gives you hope,” Levine said. “It’s like every day you start again, like yesterday I tried that and it didn’t work, so well, today I’m going to try it this way instead. I have hope that I’m going to get up tomorrow morning and be able to see these sweet potatoes that I planted six months ago. I think that kind of keeps you rolling.”
Back at Sandy Flat Berry Patch, Layman is immersed in picking tomatoes. Today’s crop of Cherokee Purples, a tasty heirloom variety, is slated for Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, and so Layman is extra careful with her technique. She moves swiftly but gently, carefully inspecting each tomato before placing it (never tossing) into a box.
She'll cover about 18 rows of 450 feet before she’s done. As she moves along each, Layman smiles.
“There’s so much freedom with farming right now,” she said. “You can do what you want. You’re in control of most of it. Gods in control of all of it, but then you have this certain amount of control. You get to choose what you’re eating, you get to choose what other people are eating.”