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Nicole DeVito, co-owner of Aravaipa Creekside Growers in Dudleyville, Arizona, says she has had a hard time finding work pants and boots that fit her well. “I do have a pair of women’s Carhartts, but I only wear them if I’m going to crawl around in the mud after a monsoon,” says DeVito. “The crotch is so low that I walk like I’m wearing a diaper, and they pinch my stomach when I bend.” Instead of Carhartts, DeVito often wears worn-out jeans or hiking pants. In place of kneepads, she drags a piece of cardboard along the vegetable rows for kneeling.

Sarah Calhoun, founder of Red Ants Pants, is all too familiar with these circumstances. When she was growing up on a farm in Connecticut, Calhoun also struggled to find the right workwear. She often wore her dad’s hand-me-downs, made alterations, and resorted to fixing holes in her pants with duct tape. After college, she worked for Outward Bound and on trail crews in the backcountry, and realized that other women shared her frustration with the lack of workwear designed for women’s bodies. In fact, the trail crews were filled with women wearing men’s pants or fashioning their own work clothes just to be able to do their jobs.

Calhoun approached several clothing companies, urging them to develop a women’s workwear line, but to no avail. Eventually, she began dreaming of her own company. “I was 25 and super naive,” she recalls, laughing. “I thought: ‘how hard can that be?’”

After developing a business plan for a women’s workwear company, she approached a banker for a business loan. But after reading Calhoun’s business plan, he questioned the need for the product. “There are already men’s Carhartts,” he told her.

Trying to sell her idea to funding sources was one thing, but Calhoun says the harder part of creating a line of women’s workwear was her lack of experience in business and the apparel industry. She admits to a steep learning curve in areas such as website development, brand marketing, textile importing, and pattern making.

Despite these challenges, Red Ants Pants was born in 2006. Based in the tiny Montana town of White Sulphur Springs, it is one of only a handful of companies in the business—including Carhartts, Duluth Trading Company, and Rosies Workwear for Women. With only eight employees, Calhoun says Red Ants Pants is still a small business. “We have been growing steadily and are focusing on being better, not bigger,” she explains.

Calhoun says her product stands out, in part because the very same women who rely on Red Ants Pants on farms and trail crews have a hand in their design. The pants are designed with a focus on functionality and fit, and Calhoun says they naturally end up being flattering for women’s bodies.Red Ants Pants Founder Sarah Calhoun

A pair of Red Ants Pants retails for $139, a price point that some farmers might not be able to meet. But the cost reflects a product made entirely in the U.S. and designed for heavy use. Each pair of pants is made with a 12 oz. cotton canvas fabric, double knees, double seat, and gusseted crotch. “Depending on the work being done, the pants can easily last up to three years,” says Calhoun.

As the number of women working in agriculture has surged—more than doubling between 1982 and 2007—Calhoun’s products are becoming even more essential. Today there are over a million women farming around the country—approximately 30 percent of the nation’s farmers. In 2012, women principal farm operators sold $12.9 billion in agricultural products and operated 62.7 million acres of farmland.

“Women are drawn to this work for a number of reasons,” says Audra Mulkern, the founder and photographer behind Female Farmer Project. “Many love the independence and autonomy the work provides. But they’re also drawn to the nurturing aspect of feeding their families and their communities.”

While documenting the rise of these growers Mulkern, has heard women farmers describe big challenges, including the balancing of farm and family, the isolation of rural life, and the necessity of off-farm jobs to provide a sustainable income stream. But the women she meets also often talk about their daily challenges—such as a lack of maternity workwear and work pants that fit the curves of a woman’s body. All of these challenges translate to daily frustrations and extra hurdles. And can also be seen as representing greater inequities between men and women in the agriculture sector.

For Calhoun, Red Ants Pants has become a vehicle for building community, leadership opportunities, and education for women working in nontraditional industries. The Red Ants Pants Foundation—Calhoun’s nonprofit arm—supports women’s leadership, working family farms and ranches, and rural communities. They host women’s roping competitions, multi-day chainsaw workshops, and various women’s leadership events.

Calhoun hopes that her pants can symbolizes self-reliance, work ethic, body confidence, and strength. “Women tell stories like, ‘I wore your pants into surgery because I felt stronger wearing them,” she says, “And that’s amazing that emotionally-charged empowerment can come through a product.”

Aubrey Fletcher knew she wanted to work on a dairy farm ever since she was a little girl.

“I do remember my mom asking, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’” Fletcher recalls.

Fletcher knew the work was tough, she grew up milking cows every day. After college she and her husband wanted to return to his family farm, but it wasn’t making financial sense.

“The farm couldn’t necessarily  provide both of us with salaries,” says Fletcher. “So we thought, ‘Why not take our premium milk and take that a little further?’”

The Fletchers started Edgewood Creamery outside of Springfield, Missouri, last August. They recently opened a storefront on the farm selling their milk and cheese.

Between the new business, milkings, feedings, and fixing things that need to get fixed, there is a lot to do.

“There’s always something to be done on the farm. And very rarely my house gets clean,” Fletcher says laughing.

Aubrey Fletcher is one of thousands of women stepping out of the shadows of the male-dominated farm world to take more leadership roles on the farm. In the past 15 years the fraction of women who are taking the lead has nearly tripled to about 15 percent of all U.S. farms. Nearly one-third of farms in this country are run by couples working together.

Despite the busy workload, Fletcher has been meeting regularly with a new group of women dairy farmers in her area. She says having a space to come together with other women has been huge.

“Because they can relate to you,” Fletcher says. “They understand that, ‘Oh, you had three calves this morning and you didn’t get your kids to school on time.’ They understand the struggles of being a dairy-farm-wife-slash-mom, and it’s easy to just talk to them about the struggles, and the good times.”

Women-Focused Extension Groups

Groups designed for farm women are not just about the social and emotional support. They serve an educational role as well.

Reagan Bluel, a dairy specialist for the University of Missouri Extension who runs the group of women dairy farmers in Southern Missouri, says she started it out of a growing need she was hearing from women in her area.

“This is another forum to gather information both from extension but also from their peers to see what is successful on those farms,” says Bluel.

The daily grind of agricultural work can make it hard for farmers to get off the farm, Bluel says.

It can be very isolating,” Bluel says. “And so sometimes it takes scheduling yourself to leave the farm.”

In the next few months she’ll program sessions about everything from calf-raising to stress management.

Many women are used to standing out at big farm shows or meetings, and that’s why Rebecca Connelly started a group for women in dairy in Pennsylvania.

“The role of women on farms has always been there it’s just now women are looking for more information off the farm.”

Connelly says women want more training, they’re seeking out more entrepreneurial opportunities like starting a creamery, and they’re trying to bring a competitive edge to their farm. They also see the value of networking on social media and through these groups. Connelly and her colleagues are organizing a national conference for women dairy workers this year so they can come together to learn from experts and each other.

“Women want to meet other women in agriculture,” Connelly says. “Sometimes they don’t necessarily get out there to see their neighbors or across counties. So this is a great way to meet other women in their area, as well as finding out more resources that are available to them.”

 

This article originally appeared on Harvest Public Media.

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Most Americans have never heard of permaculture. And although the approach is gaining traction among U.S. urbanites (full disclosure: I teach urban permaculture), ideas differ about exactly what it is. An environmental philosophy? An approach to ecological design? A particular set of farming practices?

Some new and beginning farmers are also becoming interested, as evidenced by a recent discussion on the role of permaculture in agriculture at a gathering organized by the California-based Farmer’s Guild—a network for “the new generation of sustainable agriculture.” Read more

When Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger started a small heirloom vegetable farm in the early 1990s, they called their new venture Green Heron Farms, after the birds that nested in a copse of trees on their property in New Tripoli, Pennsylvania. The name would turn out to be a form of kismet, as green herons are some of the few birds that use tools.

Adams and Brensinger, with their backgrounds in nursing and public health, soon learned an important, albeit painful, lesson: Most of the farm tools they used often had been designed for men. Read more

Two years ago, in the middle of summer, the water was shut off on the 143-acre farm and ranch that Dustin Stein manages in Mancos, Colorado.

As a farmer at the beginning of his career, Stein, who runs Stubborn Farm, was fortunate to share senior water rights with his landowner—a sought-after claim in this part of the country. This seniority meant he had access to a backup reservoir, but even that only gave him two more weeks worth of water and didn’t guarantee that the record-setting drought wouldn’t have a serious effect on his 75 head of cattle, row crops, pigs, and flock of hens. Read more

Two surprising things happened to Curtis Stone the year he decided to start Green City Acres, in Kelowna, British Columbia. First, he became a town celebrity and, second, he made a good living doing it.

In The Urban Farmer, Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land, Stone lays out his methodology for building a successful farm on a quarter acre of land. He strictly follows high-density, bio-intensive methods to create a compact landscape of specialty crops grown for market. Read more

Jahi Ellis is in survival mode. His island is the 91 acres of farmland he owns in Vidalia, Georgia, nearly 200 miles outside of Atlanta. His current shelter is a shed on his family’s land. His four-year land redemption agreement ends next fall and if he doesn’t come up with the near $60,000 he owes, he could lose it all. Organic farming—and the price premiums it brings—is one of his last strategies for saving his family’s 144-year-old vegetable farm. Read more

When the days turn cold and dark, farmers celebrate. After months of unrelenting labor, they’re finally able to sit down and relax, spend time with family, and connect and commiserate with their colleagues in this rapidly evolving industry.

Farming conferences dot the landscape throughout the winter months. One of the most popular, high-profile gatherings is the Young Farmers Conference, hosted by Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture as a key part of their Growing Farmers Initiative. The conference has sold out for many years running, the 250 attendees are selected through a lottery system, and it routinely attracts big names from the food world, such as Wendell Berry and Mark Bittman. Read more