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Feminism and Farmers: Somerset County Boasts the Highest Number of Female Farmers in the State

By Anna Reinalda | November 8, 2021

Five influential local female farmers shared their thoughts in a panel discussion titled “Influencing Agriculture’’ led by Somerset County Commissioner Melonie Marano.

Cows graze at a local dairy farm.

A Somerset County Agriculture Development Board panel highlighting women in agriculture took a strange turn in the closing remarks from SCADB Chairman Mark W. Kirby.

Facing the panelists, Kirby said, “Back in the day, [farming] was a physical job – a man’s job. Not to disparage the women, some women can handle a man’s job, but it was a man’s job.

“Today, with the modern technology we have out there, the women – young ladies – are able to do the work that we [men] were able to do.” Kirby’s peculiar sentiment set an antithetical pall over close of the women’s panel.

Seeming to imply that women are only now able to participate in farming due to assistance from new technologies, Kirby’s words defied both historical accuracy and the triumphant statements made by the panel’s participants, who reflected on their decades of experience in response to compelling questions posed by Somerset County Commissioner Melonie Marano.

The panel featured five influential women in the county’s agricultural community, including Margaret Waldock, executive director at Duke Farms; Joanne Powell, an animal science professor at Delaware Valley University; Debbie Norz, co-owner of Norz Hill Farm and Market; Lauren Salvatore, the sustainable agriculture coordinator for Duke Farms; and Erica Puskas, co-operator of Middlebush Dairy Farm and co-owner of Big Cow Creamery.

Lauren Saltavore poses with a cow.

Marano kicked off the panel bragging that Somerset County has the highest number of female farmers in New Jersey, a statistic that bears great clout in the Garden State.

Kirby’s statement about women in agriculture was nothing new to the women on the panel.

Puskas, a multi-generational dairy farmer, reflected on men frequently expressing surprise at a woman doing farm work, “because they’re assuming we can’t.”

Salvatore, who is newer to agriculture, has also noticed the trend of men thinking, “Oh, she’s a girl, she’s not tough enough, she’s going to cry when a calf dies,” and added, “I am emotional, but I don’t think that makes me any less [successful] in this field. I think it’s an asset sometimes.”

Despite the negative expectations that pervade the male-dominant farming industry, all of the panel members expressed optimism for the future.

Powell said, “This is an exciting time in agriculture, especially for women. In fact, the majority of my classes have way more women than men,” indicating an influx of college-aged women who are serious about entering the field.

Women’s obstacles in entering the world of crops, tractors, and livestock are furthered by parents’ modern expectations. Salvatore and Powell both noted that parents in general attempt to dissuade their children from farming as a career. “You have to convince parents that agriculture is a viable career path for [kids], and that is very, very difficult,” Powell said.

In an era when high school students are inundated with pressure to seek business, law, and medical degrees, trades like farming are becoming less common, especially in suburban settings.

Waldock, whose primary focus is on sustainability and public communications, expressed concern over the “trend of [an] aging farmer population and not a lot of young folks coming up the ranks,” meaning, we will soon face a shortage of farmers, and food by extension.

Waldock said the American Farmland Trust works on breaking down “barriers to young people getting access to [land] ownership,” by establishing estate succession plans, which match retiring farmers with young farmers to take their places.

With many parents discouraging their children from agriculture, Marano asked the panel how children could be encouraged to explore agriculture as a career path.

Overwhelmingly, the panelists noted 4H as a key mode of entry for young people who are interested in farming.

However, Norz said, “it is the parents who have to be able to make that commitment,” so their children can participate in 4H activities.

On the subject of children’s participation in agriculture, one audience member asked how the panelists explain the mortality aspect of livestock farming to children.

Puskas joked, saying, “you can’t be a farmer unless you want your heart broken,” before adding that an important aspect is in managing expectations.

The children in her life know the fate of their animals all along, and introduce one of their beef steer by saying: “This is Ferdinand, we’re going to eat him."

Powell, who has decades of experience leading 4H groups, teaches her kids that “[farm] animals serve a purpose,” and there are “no pets.”

With her own children Norz said: “We didn’t sugarcoat anything that was going to happen.”

While the realities of farming can be harsh and difficult, the panelists said they make peace with the inevitable sadness. Puskas said, “we give them the best life while we have them,” and that’s a consolation.

Managing the realities of farming is an issue with the public as well as with children.

Many consumers express apprehension over the fate of the animals. Norz says most of the public’s concern stems from a “thirst for knowledge.”

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, Waldock noted a surge of interest in local farms. She said consumers were turning away from grocery stores, and the Duke Farms Market was bustling with customers. The community garden sold out of plots instantly.

“I really do hope we don’t lose that insight as things get comfortable again,” she said.

Norz noted the importance of “dollar choices,” for consumers, highlighting that buying food directly from local farms gives customers the chance to talk to farmers and learn about where their food comes from – an opportunity that is unavailable at supermarkets.

When asked what inspired them to get involved in agriculture, the panelists all seemed to agree that farming comes naturally to women.

“For years my dad hired only women to milk cows because they’re gentler, they’re calmer, they’re less impulsive, they’re more thorough,” Puskas said.

Powell echoed Puskas, saying a former boss “would only hire women to work with in the breeding facility because women have an innate ability to recognize when there is going to be a problem.”

The panelists made it clear that they feel they are living the fullest expression of their abilities and talents when they are engaged in farming.

While their strength and expertise are indisputable, the agriculture industry does remain largely closed-off to women. But that doesn’t stand in the way of these panelists. As Powell put it, “This is our time. We deserve a place in the barn."


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