When you think of a farmer, what comes to mind? Is it a man in his 60s, with a beard, sitting on a tractor? Maybe several years ago you would be right, but the tide is changing, especially in West Virginia.
“I think we’ve earned the respect of fellow farmers that we’re here and we’re for real,” said Darla Stemple, who runs a farm in Aurora, West Virginia, in Preston County.
She and her sister Debbie Fike run Vested Heirs Farm together. They grow 10 different vegetables and fruits, including lettuce and strawberries.
Darla and Debbie’s Grandparents started this farm in 1934. Through the years, the farm passed to the men in their family, until it was their brother’s turn to take on the family business.
“He had no interest in taking it over, so here we are,” said Debbie Fike.
Debbie and Darla were not ready to give up their family’s land, so they stepped up to the plate, along with their friend Cindy Murphy, and Debbie’s husband BJ Fike. Debbie and Darla grew up on a farm, so agriculture is nothing new to them, but being the ones in charge was, and it took some getting used to.
“It either succeeds or fails on what we do today, and that’s self-satisfaction," said Stemple.
Even though women have made a bigger splash in farming over the last few decades, the industry is still male dominated, and Darla said sometimes when people come to the farm, they get lost looking for the farmer.
“Occasionally they’ll look for the man in charge. Usually you aren’t going to find anyone but us here,” said Stemple.
14 percent of farmers across the country are women, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
“I think we came into it at the right time. The woman in Ag is evolving, and it’s more popular now than it’s ever been,” said Stemple.
29 percent of farmers in West Virginia are women, and those women earn more than $62 million through farming.
And there are also more young women in West Virginia joining Future Farmers of America (FFA) -- women like 19-year-old year old Lindsey Knotts, a fifth-generation farmer in Sugarlands, a community in Tucker County.
She also grew up on a farm, cutting and bailing hay, working with animals and picking blueberries. “Whenever it comes to hauling I drive the Duramax, and I drive with 10 or more bales of hay on the back,” Knotts said.
One organization that works to help support women in agriculture is called FarmHer. They had a conference in Morgantown at the beginning of this year.
“Our message to them is that you can go, do and be anything you want to be,” said Marji Guyler-Alaniz, the founder of FarmHer. She said that although there are more women going into agriculture, there is still a stigma for women in the industry.
“You just have to keep your head down, keep going, stay strong, stand up straight and know that you are who you are and you’re making a difference.”
Guyler-Alaniz started FarmHer after she decided to leave her 11-year career on the cooperate side of agriculture. She said women weren’t being supported enough in the agricultural world and she wanted to do something about that.
“I think it’s becoming more ok to say -- I do this, I’m a farmer.”
Although women are making strides, she said it can still be hard for women to get loans to start a farm or increase the size of their farm. Whenever she gets frustrated about that, she remembers a quote from a female farmer she met during one of her FarmHer events.
“I may not be able to do all of the work here. I may not have the strong back, but I have a strong mind, and I can make anything happen.”
That is exactly the attitude Darla, Debbie, Lindsey and the 9,300 other female farmers in West Virginia have.
“I think attention to detail," said Debra Fike. "We focus on things that maybe a male would not focus on. He may focus on big equipment. We focus on the little pieces that need done." Fike admited she is speaking generally here, and knows there are male farmers that pay attention to detail. But she said women are more apt to look at every tiny detail, rather than just go hop on a tractor.
Her sister, Darla Stemple, added, “it’s not all brawn. A lot of it is brain. If you can do that portion of it you’ve got the biggest part of it.”
Chris Williams works for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. That story was produced as part of a collaboration among the agency, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Inside Appalachia. Jennifer Smith also contributed reporting for this story.