Originally created 10/13/03

Female farmers thrive just like other career women



TIGERVILLE, S.C. -- If a bull is sick, a fence is broken or a pasture on their 300-acre ranch needs mowing, Shirley Brown and Doris Blackmon roll up their sleeves and get to work.

The sisters founded Famoda Farm in the shadow of the Appalachians more than four decades ago and have been raising Angus cattle ever since.

When they started, they were a curiosity - two women taking over a farm by choice instead of by tragedy, like when a father or husband dies. Now, farm experts say more women are choosing to go into the fields and pastures, reflecting a growing trend of female-owned small businesses across the economic spectrum.

The rise of direct-marketing tools, including the Internet, help out female farmers just like any other businesswomen, American Farm Bureau spokeswoman Betty Wolanyk said. "Agriculture just happens to be the area they choose," she said.

South Carolina led the Southeast in the number of female farm operators, increasing by better than 22 percent from 1992 to 1997 to about 2,000, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All but two Southern states saw increases ranging from about 3 percent to about 22 percent.

The trend has continued since then as niche farming that doesn't require a lot of money - such as raising goats or growing organic vegetables - becomes more popular, Wolanyk said.

The Agriculture Department is crunching numbers for its 2002 count. When totals are released next spring, officials expect to see another increase, helped by a decision to count farmers who own land in partnerships. Women often choose to become partners with family members or others on big farming operations and haven't been counted before.

Brown, 63, and Blackmon, 60, never knew they would be on the cusp of a trend when their parents gave them each a cow in 1962 and helped them buy the land for their ranch, about 20 miles north of Greenville. They honored them by naming their farm Famoda, after the first two letters in father, mother and daughter.

The pair became fascinated with cattle by watching their father, who was a meatpacker, and by participating in 4-H livestock shows.

"We were one of the first ladies in this. We were oddballs," said Brown, who remembers going to farm trade shows early on and being ignored by vendors who figured she was just waiting around for her husband or father.

The sisters do most of the work themselves. They feed the cattle, mow the grass and clear pastures on their own. Blackmon's husband does help out a little, mainly with mechanical problems like a broken-down tractor.

"Our cattle are used to women," Blackmon said. "They don't respond well to men." The Famoda cows and bulls are some of the best-tempered cattle around, she said.

The sisters also have a reputation for quality. A trophy case along one wall of the home they share has dozens of trophies and ribbons from their days of showing their prize animals.

Some of the trophies were won by Blackmon's daughter, who works as an embryologist, helping to artificially inseminate cattle. She lives in Ohio now, Blackmon said, but her daughter wants to move back to South Carolina and might just take over the farm.

Famoda reached a peak of 75 cattle a decade or so ago but the sisters now tend to about 35 animals. That makes it easier as they grow older and take on new responsibilities, including caring for their 101-year-old mother.

But Blackmon and Brown have no plans to stop raising cattle any time soon.

"I just like working outside. I have a God-given talent for working with the cattle," Brown said.

For more proof about how ponytails are replacing crew cuts in the fields, look no further than the organization formerly called the Future Farmers of America.

The FFA started accepting female members in 1969. Today, 36 percent of the membership is female and better than half of the leadership positions are filled by women, national spokesman William Stagg said.

A connection to the outdoors also may explain some increase in female farmers. Many find the spiritual bond to the land an attractive benefit to farming.

Judy Best is one of them. The 55-year-old woman grows tomatoes, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables on her share of the 300-acre Beechwood Farms she owns with her brother near Marietta.

She loves the way her crops look when they are healthy, but her favorite thing is to retreat to her greenhouse far away from the nearby roads and reflect on the beauty of nature.

"You can hear the birds; the rain sounds good on it," Best said. "It's just a wonderful place to be."

Number of female farmers increasing in Southeast:

The percentage increase or decrease in the number of female farmers across the Southeast from 1992 to 1997, which are the latest figures available from the federal Department of Agriculture. The United States saw a 13.7 percent increase.

South Carolina 22.6

Alabama 21.9

Georgia 21.8

Mississippi 14.3

West Virginia 13.9

Tennessee 12.1

Florida 11.0

Arkansas 8.0

Virginia 4.6

North Carolina 3.1

Kentucky -4.5

Louisiana -4.6