Women Farmers

Bringing It All Back Home

By Mary Jasch
Natalie Burger at work

Every day, seven days a week, Natalie and Mike Burger rise at six to walk the pastures to make sure all her eighty alpacas, three Tibetan yaks (one is a bull), forty cashmere goats and Angora goats, and six Teeswater sheep are safe, and that there are no major emergencies. They put out fifty pounds of grain, fill up the hay feeders and water in troughs and buckets. They clean up manure in eating areas and interact with the animals. A couple hours later, Mike heads to his transmission shop in Mine Hill, and Natalie trims up the business end—checking and answering emails, updating animal medical records and births, marketing on social media. She handles orders for the farm’s shop, where she sells articles and everything one needs to turn luxury fibers into luxurious yet practical hats, scarves, socks and gloves and teaches. After lunch and before school lets out, Burger does her fiber art: dying, spinning and weaving. She completes and adds one thing to her shop’s inventory every day. After school is family time followed by the morning’s chores all over again. Some nights, she attends Board of Agriculture meetings and leads a 4-H goat and alpaca club.

Natalie Burger is a farmer and fiber artist, and Secretary of the Sussex County Board of Agriculture. She, with her husband Mike, own Hidden Pastures, a luxury fiber farm where animals and their fur are the products. Burger is among the roughly twenty-two percent women of New Jersey’s 15,936-plus farmers, and their rate is steadily increasing (USDA Census). They come to the land straight from college with ideals and energy to make the world a better place. They retire from corporations to earn a living being outdoors doing what they love, and they come to educate. They are daughters of farmers, and wives of deceased farmers. They all come with grit, knowledge and spirit.


Take Debbie Post of Riamede Farm in Chester. She came home to her mother’s apple orchard after her mother died and after thirty years of being a banker. “I came back for two reasons: to keep a farm alive and to take care of a parent.” Post had the business end down with a Harvard MBA, but she knew nothing about growing apples. She came home to run-down barns and broken equipment, but immediately saw the loyal customers her mother had made by starting a pick-your-own orchard in the early ‘70s, born out of frustration and a dearth of migrant labor.

Thinking outside the box instead of following traditional business practices is a mark of women in agriculture these days. Ms. Post was ahead of her time and was jeered at for letting the public in her orchard. “This business model was started by a woman who nobody took seriously,” says Debbie, “except the customers,” whose cars lined the narrow country lane when Riamede apples ripened. “I inherited a loyal customer base—any business’s most important asset—and a deferred maintenance mess. Without the former, I would never have succeeded at fixing the latter.”

The apple does not fall far from the tree. Debbie, armed with her MBA, also recognized the emotional and visual value of the old heirloom trees that create Riamede’s nineteenth-century farm experience. Nobody has these big old trees anymore. They may be inefficient from an agriculture standpoint, but are big from a marketing standpoint. “I do product differentiation. Why it’s different is because of my old trees, which is why I won’t pull them out.” The farm has three thousand trees. (On a recent visit to Riamede, I marveled at the elegance of these ancient trees with strong, out-stretched limbs and shaggy trunks, branches loaded with ripe fruit. The newer finely-pruned trees don’t come close to the noble beauty of the full, richly-laden old trees.)

Debbie learned to farm, she says, by bullying the experts, especially those at Rutgers Cooperative Extension, whose job it is to help farmers keep their farms open. “They gave me very practical and wise advice. I asked a lot of stupid questions— that’s the way to learn,” she says.

One of her biggest challenges is hiring good people. She compensates important employees with entrepreneurial opportunities and profit sharing which “provides an incentive to be part of the farm’s success and drives your key employee to make more money by adding incremental income that is no risk to the farm. When people share in success, you have a better operation.” The farm manager plants an acre of tomatoes that are his (he earns the money from their sale), and Riamede customers have the option of picking those tomatoes. He also gets a salary and bonus.

Debbie runs the farm with no debt so there’s a lot less risk in a bad year and everyone tightens their belt together. They add equipment and improvements as they can afford. “The worst thing an industry as volatile as agricultural can do is to over-leverage,” she says.

Women are very innovative, believes Burger, who says they have added creativity to farming and have also added their own strength. They approach agriculture entirely differently by considering unusual alternatives. If they have a problem they say “I’m going to solve it. We’re very open to lending each other support; we reach out to one another. That’s how women function in society, and that’s how they function in agriculture.”


Enter Annie’s Project, a risk management educational organization started in the Midwest to lend support to women farmers. In New Jersey, Annie’s Project teams up with county agents and extension specialists at Rutgers Experimental Stations to teach women the business of agriculture in a series of classes. They specialize in risk management: marketing, finance, personnel, production, and legal issues. Each session is a part of a business plan, so the participant can have a definitive strategy by the end of the classes.

The participants enjoy interacting with other women, says Robin Brumfield, Ph.D., Professor and Specialist in Farm Management and state co-leader. “Farms are fairly isolated, so they like sharing ideas and talking about business plans and getting feedback from the other women.” The women are mostly niche farmers. Products range from sheep, doggie daycare, bee keepers, beef cattle, beach plums, wool, and greenhouse crop.

They also offer social media education and estate planning as a one-day intensive class at three locations in the state, called “Later Life Farming” with a focus on transitioning their farms. Most farmers want to keep farming until they die. “We work with everybody. We’ve been so successful, the women have beaten the door down. We’ve had men wanting to come. We are an affirmative action organization, and so, if men want to come, we help them.”


Bobolink

Nina Stein White, farmer, co-owns Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse in Milford, New Jersey, with her husband, Jonathan White. “I collaborate and make decisions with my husband on all facets of the operation, from herd management to chicken breed selection. I also run the large garden where we grow tomatoes and herbs for the bakery.” The business is multi-faceted. At Bobolink, they milk thirty-five cows of their own breed, the Bobolink Blacks, a multiple cross with the ancient Kerry cattle of Ireland to produce hand-made, grass-fed, aged raw milk cheeses. They also make bread and pastries with heirloom grains in a wood-fired oven. Their motto may well be: “Creating wholesome food in a sustainable way.”

Nina and Johathan at Bobolink

White’s areas of expertise include “developing bread recipes, sourcing the grains, training and supervising bakery staff, and teaching bread classes; growing the vegetable garden, particularly herbs and heirloom tomatoes grown with fertility from their own animals; and managing the cows from breed development to grazing techniques.

“I have always appreciated doing things the old-fashioned way, from hand crafts to home cooking. I have also been obsessed with ethics and environmental issues since I was ten.” White never did or didn’t do something because she is a woman. Instead she uses her skills of organization and communication, “and my true caring nature to create a great day environment for our workers to excel.” She derives her greatest pleasures in leaving the world a better place than when she began work. Her biggest challenge? “I live to work. Sometimes I get tired before the work is done!”


Genesis Farm

Love for the land and all it contains is a spiritual aspect of nurturers. Learning and teaching these messages can be daunting and joyful, as the Whites know, as do Sister Miriam MacGillis and the staff at Genesis Farm in Blairstown. Genesis Farm was founded as a project of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell in 1980, when the conditions of farming and food were not as well understood as they are today. In 1972 Miriam had begun to study agricultural systems and how they drive production and distribution, both locally and globally. Genesis Farm was created to focus on those systems, as well as on the alternatives to industrialized farming being carried by the agrarian movement and the diverse associations of organic farmers and advocates.

When Heinz Thomet, a young Swiss biodynamic farmer came to the farm in 1985 they began a biodynamic market garden based on the spiritual, agricultural insights of Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. In 1988 this vegetable production morphed into the CSG at Genesis Farm, the first agricultural model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in New Jersey, and the sixth in the country.

Judy Von Handorf, now greenhouse caretaker, joined the effort at the beginning. Presently, with Smadar English, both women play key roles, not only in the farming but also through the internship program which has trained aspiring new farmers, many of them women. “Women are more drawn to small, sustainable agriculture. We are nurturers, and this is all about nurturing,” says Smadar. Hannah Hobbes, who spent two seasons interning at the CSG is now employed full-time and in turn helps to nurture and mentor the present interns, including McKenna Oettinger, from Bergen County.

Smadar English, Judy von Handorf, Hannah Hobbs, McKenna Oettinger, Sister Miriam MacGillis, and Linda Keirnan at Genesis Farm.

For thirty-six years, and continuing into the present, Genesis Farm has explored the deeper ecological and social issues of our time. Miriam believes that most of the crises we currently face have their roots in an outdated Western worldview­­­­—or cosmology—that considers human beings as inherently separate from everything else because each human has a spiritual soul, while everything else is simply physical matter. “This belief,” she suggests “is inconsistent with the scientific discoveries of a single, evolving Universe. The study of this new cosmology sheds light on the deeper root causes of the industrialized agricultural systems that are destroying the air, soils, water, seeds and foods of the planet.” She suggests that this inconsistency is also at the heart of the chemical toxicity, racism, war making, poverty and injustice that threatens the very life of Earth.

In 1990, Genesis created adult residential programs to explore this scientific evidence, through accredited courses in a new discipline called earth literacy, drawn principally from the writings of cultural historian Thomas Berry and mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme. These programs also focused on bioregionalism and developing a “sense of place” with a need to re-invent agriculture, economics, health, education and the full range of human enterprises as derived from Earth itself. They continue this work today through demonstration gardens coordinated by Linda Kiernan, who incorporates the principles of Biodynamics into “backyard” gardening, and seed saving. The landscape and gardens emphasize the importance of spiritual renewal through honoring the seasons, the diverse communities of nature and advocating against its desecration by the persistent use of poisons.

“We are all of us part of the past, the present and the future, ” says Miriam. “We are all one community, but this has vast implications…”

Read more about Genesis Farm from a recent interview...
The magnificent biodynamic landscape at Genesis Farm, including demonstration and shared gardens, is always open for visitors.

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