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Female-run farms a growing trend nationally and locally


DEKALB — Brenda S. Smith is awake and out the door before 6 a.m. It’s 2 degrees below zero on a blustery March morning as she enters the nearby barn to begin her daily chores, which generally don’t end until the evening.

Long days, hard work and low temperatures are nothing new for Mrs. Smith, who grew up on a dairy farm and has spent most of her adult life managing one.

“This is what I know,” she said. “I’m the one who climbs out of bed at 1 in the morning when a cow is giving birth. I chose this way of life, and I love the cows.”

After her husband, David A., was killed in a farming accident 17 years ago, Mrs. Smith took sole ownership of the couple’s 163-acre farm on East DeKalb Road. She also was left to care for their three young daughters, ages 12, 8 and 2 at the time.

Each morning before sunrise, she leaves her two-story farmhouse and heads across the road into the barn, where 52 cows are waiting to be fed their grain. Next, she’ll milk each cow, using equipment that sends the milk into a 600-gallon tank, where it’s stored before being collected by a milk truck. Mrs. Smith repeats the task each afternoon.

Cows have to be milked every day, so time off is rare. Although the physical work has become more demanding as she ages, Mrs. Smith, 50, said she doesn’t regret the path she chose.

“I can’t see myself going to a job where you do the same thing all year ’round,” she said. “With farming, there’s planting, haying and harvesting. I like that variety.”

Mrs. Smith is among a growing number of women in the U.S. who own and manage farms.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that 86 percent of U.S. principal farm operators in the country are men and 14 percent are women. Nationally, the number of female-operated farms increased by 29 percent between 2002 and 2007. Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties saw a combined 28 percent hike.

Interest in farming and agricultural careers has become more socially acceptable for females. This shift encourages more girls to explore those fields, said Carol A. Wright, agriculture teacher at Canton Central’s Hugh C. Williams High School.

Mrs. Wright has taught at the school for the past 12 years and advises FFA, a national organization for teenagers interested in agriculture as a hobby or future occupation. This year, the high school and middle school FFA groups have about 30 members apiece.

“The majority of the students at all levels are female,” Mrs. Wright said. “In the past decade, the FFA in general has seen a significant increase of females participating in FFA as well as holding leadership positions.” She said most FFA leadership roles — local, state and national — are held by girls.

Compared with her early teaching years, Mrs. Wright said her recent agriculture classes have had a higher number of girls, and more females are choosing to become agriculture teachers.

“It’s quite exciting, considering females weren’t allowed to take ag classes or join FFA until 1969,” she said.

The chance to nurture animals is another reason why women are drawn to farming, said Kimberly R. Farnum, a Northern New York field representative for the New York Farm Bureau, a nongovernmental organization that works to strengthen agriculture in the state.

The growing diversity of farm-related jobs also is attracting females, Ms. Farnum said. “There’s a lot of different opportunities for females who want to be involved,” she said. “It’s way more acceptable for a girl to walk on a farm and not feel out of place.”


Elisha M. Hurlbut, 31, was working as an engineer at Corning Inc.’s Canton plant when she and her husband, Andrew A., also a former Corning engineer, decided to leave the security of their steady paychecks to work full time at their farm on County Route 21. Both graduated from Hugh C. Williams High School and later from Clarkson University, Potsdam.

“We were building up the farm, and it became too hard to do both,” Mrs. Hurlbut said. “I didn’t like being inside all day sitting in a cubicle, so we decided to keep growing the farm.”

She acknowledged that leaving the corporate world involved a trade-off. On the downside, farming is financially risky because it depends heavily on weather and other uncontrollable factors. At times, she also misses the social interaction with co-workers.

“One of the drawbacks is we don’t see many people in a day,” Mrs. Hurlbut said. “But you have a lot more control over your time. We’re our own boss, and every day is different.”

Working as a team, the couple now raise 120 beef cows and grow hay, corn for silage, and soybeans. They also tap roughly 1,300 maple trees and produce syrup and other maple products. The newest addition is Amazie Grace, their 14-month-old daughter, who will grow up surrounded by nature and animals.

“We take her with us when we cut wood and when we clean out the barn,” Mrs. Hurlbut said. “I can raise my family on a farm. I don’t have to outsource them to other people.”

But interest in farming stretches beyond adults, as the FFA program attests.

This year, Paige N. Moulton, 15, is serving as Canton’s FFA chapter president. She attends Madrid-Waddington Central School, but she participates in the Canton chapter because her district doesn’t offer FFA. Her family operates a dairy farm.

After high school, she said, she plans to attend SUNY Cobleskill to study agribusiness.

“I’m not sure I want to run a farm, but I know I want to work in agriculture,” Miss Moulton said. “I think more females are realizing that farming is not just for guys — girls can do it, too.”


Canton resident Carol H. Sheesley, 66, said she never planned to own a dairy farm.

“This wasn’t my goal in life. Not at all,” Mrs. Sheesley said during a chat at her kitchen table one morning a few months ago.

Five years ago she retired from her full-time job as a legal secretary, but has continued to operate Cowbell Acres with her husband, Tracy L., on Judson Street. The farm is unique in that it’s within the Canton village limits.

Although Mr. Sheesley maintains the grounds and the machinery, Mrs. Sheesley handles most of the daily work: feeding and milking the cows twice a day, cleaning out manure, and spreading fresh bedding.

She said she spends 10 hours a day, seven days a week, caring for about 60 calves, heifers and cows.

Years ago when they both were working full-time jobs, the Sheesleys wanted to start farming in order to teach their two children the importance of hard work, responsibility and discipline.

“It’s a wonderful way to raise a family. My kids didn’t go in the house and watch TV,” she said. “There were things to do in the barn. It’s important that they learn how to work. Too many don’t.”

Although she encourages other females to try farming, she acknowledged the work is physically demanding and affords little time off. There’s no retirement plan, and a steady paycheck isn’t a guarantee.

Still, Mrs. Sheesley said raising calves is satisfying work if you have a passion for animals.

“You’ve really got to love farming to do it,” she said.

She said she’s determined to keep running the farm as long as possible because she wants to pass along a strong work ethic to her twin 7-year-old grandsons, who live in Potsdam.

“I want my grandchildren to have the same experience my kids had,” Mrs. Sheesley said.

Mrs. Smith said the responsibility she learned growing up on a farm shaped the rest of her life. As a child, she took care of baby calves, a task that included bottle feeding and cleaning their pens.

“That barn was like my little kingdom,” she said. “I was in charge.”

To read about workshops in the north country that aid female farmers, visit

Women farmers in the north country

The number of farms with a female principal owner or a male principal owner, with the percentage change from 2002 to 2007, the most recent year in which statistics are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

St. Lawrence County| Females| Males| F/M ratio
2002| 178| 1,273| 12/88
2007| 222 (+25%)| 1,108 (-13%)| 17/83

Jefferson County
2002| 93| 935| 9/91
2007| 132 (+42%)| 753 (-19%)| 15/85

Lewis County
2002| 48| 673| 7/93
2007| 54 (+13%)| 562 (-16%)| 9/91

Tri-county area
2002| 319| 2,881| 10/90
2007| 408 (+28%)| 2,423 (-16%)| 14/86

United States
2002| 237,819| 1,891,163| 11/89
2007| 306,209 (+29%)| 1,898,583 (+0.4%)| 14/86

New York state
2002| 5,672| 31,583| 15/85
2007| 6,688 (+18%)| 29,664 (-6%)| 18/82
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