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By Frederick News Post

Once upon a time talking about women in agriculture meant discussing women who were married to farmers and the activities that came with the job of being a farmer's wife. This ran the gamut from keeping the books to milking cows to preparing meals.

The conversation has officially expanded.

It now includes women as principal operators of farms who are changing not only the agricultural landscape, but also how and what it produces. They are women who lean toward sustainable, specialized agricultural and away from the commodity crop cultivation and hog and cattle farming in which their forefathers engaged. They embrace horticultural operations and vegetable, sheep and goat farming pursued on smaller, more diverse farms.

This picture of the American woman farmer was painted by Carolyn Sachs, professor of women's studies and rural sociology at Penn State. FNP reporter Ike Wilson's Nov. 16 Farm & Garden story "Number of women farmers is increasing in U.S." covered Sachs' lecture on the topic at Gettysburg College.

Sachs ought to know what she's talking about. Her career-long areas of expertise and scholarship center on issues of gender, agriculture and the environment. Her presentation gave insight into rural endeavors of women that might go unnoticed where it not for the undertakings of government organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state associations such as the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network, of which Sachs also spoke.

The most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, dated 2007, showed that women head up more than 14 percent of the nation's 2.2 million farms, an increase of 30 percent over five years. This puts a woman in charge of more than one in every 10 farms in the nation.

In Maryland, the number of farms with women as principal operators jumped 16 percent between 2002 and 2007. In neighboring Virginia, woman-run farms matched our state's 16 percent upswing.

As for PA-WAgN, the nonprofit group's membership was fewer than 100 in 2003. Today, it totals more than 1,200 and female-focused farming organizations like it are on the rise nationwide.

As women apply their nurturing skills to the soil and develop finer-focused farming, eco-conscious consumers, farmers markets, and an increasing desire to buy locally greets them.

All involved are saying goodbye to the agri-middleman who once was a central figure in getting produce to market. They are saying hello to the Internet and opportunities it creates for small farming enterprises to offer pay-in-advance programs and other web-centric advertising and purchasing avenues.

In one respect, the current women-running farms phenomenon is not new. It repeats the historical model wherein women enter a field of endeavor in which they traditionally have not held the reins of power. Again they plow new ground and show they're not afraid to get their hands dirty.

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