Women haul boxes of greens from the backs of trucks. Others weigh bags of produce. Some pass out samples. Walking through Sacramento’s many local farmers markets, it’s not immediately apparent that a gender gap exists in farming. But it does.
While California boasts some of the highest numbers of female farmers in the U.S., at 33 percent of the state’s total farmers, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture, that’s still only one in seven farmers. Yet, the women who have chosen this profession don’t see themselves as statistics. They see themselves as hard workers feeding their communities.
Women growing food in Sacramento share many passions for a profession they felt called to do. They like being outside, feeding their community, the fast pace, challenges and culture of farm life. They also agree that farming comes with its struggles. Most importantly: The price Americans pay for food isn’t enough to sustain their businesses.
Comstock’s recently spoke with three women about the joys and challenges of running small farms.
Four Tines Farm, Auburn
Courtney McDonald never had ambitions for a traditional office life. She grew up on a hobby farm in Auburn and spent most of her career working in restaurants.
Nearly a decade ago, at age 28, she started burning out on life in a kitchen. At the time, Carpe Vino in Auburn, the restaurant where she was co-chef with her husband, had just earned four stars from the Sacramento Bee’s restaurant critic. That’s also when Flying Mule Farm in Auburn announced they were offering internships on their lamb farm. McDonald answered the call.
Four years ago, McDonald and her husband purchased their own 5.5 acres in Auburn, and have been running Four Tines Farm ever since. They raise sheep, pigs and chickens, while growing vegetables, herbs and flowers. The property also has a fruit orchard. On the farm, McDonald finds the respite she needs from cooking full time, although she remains the part-time pastry chef at Carpe Vino, where her husband now serves as full-time executive chef. She likes the long hours, physical labor and adrenaline rush of both professions.
“It’s crazy how much work it is,” McDonald jokes about her career path. “It’s totally insane, but it’s the best.”
McDonald’s favorite part of working on a farm is the joy of watching her young daughter Josie’s connection to nature and animals. She pridefully watches Josie correct farm visitors about the difference between a zinnia and a Mexican sunflower, or as she names every one of their 40 similar-looking chickens, recognizing the difference in the curve of a beak or the patch on a foot.
McDonald appreciates getting to live in the agriculture-centric community of Auburn, an area with an abundance of small farms under 10 acres in size. Growers help each other on shearing day. The local farm advisor’s office bustles with people attending trainings. Farmers markets and local farmstands feature produce grown locally, and with care. “Someone’s life is poured into the table at the farmers market,” McDonald says.
McDonald has mixed feelings about the label of woman farmer, because while she identifies and takes pride in being one, the work and conversation among her peers is not about gender. “We don’t sit around saying, ‘We’re girls and we’ll talk about girl farming,’” she says. “We’re farmers and we talk to each other.”
Heavy Dirt CSA, Davis
Sarah McCamman can’t imagine a life without farming. At age 32, she’s already been farming for nine years.
McCamman studied biology at UC Davis and lived in cooperative housing, where she “barely learned how to cook and [was] barely exposed to gardening.” As she finished her degree, she wanted to learn more about feeding herself and applied for a farm apprenticeship through the nonprofit Soil Born Farms.
She quickly learned the fast pace of farm life. When the farm managers were off repairing broken pumps, she would find herself alone, without a to-do list. She says she enjoyed the challenge of holding herself responsible and learning on the job. Soil Born hired McCamman to remain on the farm team for a second year after her apprenticeship ended.
Now, after a year as an assistant field manager in Iowa in 2011 at the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, McCamman runs her business Heavy Dirt CSA on the two-acre Heavy Dirt Farm in Davis. As owner, she grows produce using organic practices for her community supported agriculture program. She also sells the produce at the Oak Park Farmers Market.
In addition to feeling a sense of reward from producing quality, healthy food, McCamman says she loves her job for “the creativity and problem solving that farming demands.”
Not everything about farming waxes poetic for McCamman. When asked what she wishes people understood about her profession, she says, “I wish they knew how little I pay myself.” While she’s grateful for the customers who support her work, there’s a growing sense that Americans expect food at cheap prices — a challenge for a small farmer. “The economy of scale is never going to be in my favor,” she says. “There isn’t an easy solution.”
Despite these challenges, McCamman loves her work. In September, McCamman and her life partner, Randy Stannard, purchased a home on a one-acre property in south Sacramento. They plan to turn the land into a working farm with a weekly farmstand on site, and to continue selling their harvest at their neighborhood farmers market.
Camelia Enriquez Miller
Farmer/Sales & Marketing at Twin Peaks Orchard, Newcastle
Owner/Farmer, Orchard Delights, Newcastle
Camelia Enriquez Miller grew up at Twin Peaks Orchard in Newcastle, a farm that’s been in her family since 1912. She left at 15 years old to study ballet, but by 18 she was injured. At 19, she got married and started a family. By 2008, a decade after she left, she felt drawn back to her parents’ orchard, believing the culture of farm life would benefit her children.
In addition to her work in sales and marketing for the farm, Miller’s father gave her a six-acre plot to run her own way. Miller wanted to grow organic fruit, and he encouraged her to do so within the existing business. She calls it Orchard Delights. She says she finds it satisfying to overcome challenges and feed people from land that has a long family history and tradition.
Today, at age 40, Miller sees how things have changed for women in agriculture. California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross is female. Miller has also noticed more women working as equipment dealers, in pest control and other areas of the industry.
But she too has concerns about the going rate for fresh food in America. Miller recalls helping her father sell produce when she was a little girl. The $1.30 they could earn per pound in her youth hasn’t changed in several decades. In fact, she now competes with large-scale farms that are selling for merely 79 cents a pound. Miller can’t compete with those cheap prices, and wonders if Americans have come to undervalue food.
“As a society, we misplace our funds,” Miller says. “You see people with no problem spending $6 on a [coffee] drink, but can’t prioritize purchasing healthy food to feed families. There’s such a disconnect.”
Despite the financial challenges that come with the job, each small farmer is grateful for the support they find. “It’s so satisfying and rewarding just to feed people,” Miller says.