The Female Farmer Project

documenting the rise of women in agriculture

guest essay - always a student

A conversation with Trillium Farm

Trillium Wood Farm is a small, diversified farm in Williamston, MI. It is a sister-run operation that focuses on sustainably-raised meat, mushrooms, and select vegetables. Our animals are completely pasture-raised, and either 100% grass-fed or fed organic, soy-free, locally-sourced grain. Situated in Michigan’s industrial agriculture center, we represent everything opposite to it. To us, small is beautiful because it means every animal we raise trusts us, it means integrity, community, and never pushing the land past its natural limits.

What became Trillium Wood Farm in 2013 sprouted from countless hours of conversation between us and our family, reading and watching everything we could, distrusting our faceless food system, and a deep feeling of belonging to the 80 acres we grew up on. We started out as most new farmers must: overwhelmed, over-confident, and with a short-lived sense of idealism. Much has grown and changed on the farm since its inception–as with all living things–and us with it. Heading into our fifth season, the constant is our relationship to each other, our animals, and our land that keeps the farm going.

There wasn’t any one thing or moment which inspired us to farm; rather, it grew out of a need to connect with our food and discover what it meant to produce it. Both of us are extremely health conscious and became certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioners after college, so we truly believe that you are what you eat. If our food is not healthy, it will not nourish our bodies. Healthy animals are raised on a species-appropriate diet on healthy land, and you can’t have healthy land without caring for it properly. It wasn’t enough to simply raise animals without anything harmful, to care for them and show them love; we had to completely re-evaluate our farming methods and learn how to heal our land. This is an ongoing process that we’re still learning.

We truly believe there is no work more important than this- with the exception of educating children to care for the earth properly. Farming is most of our heritage if you go back far enough. Farming was what nourished us, the earth, and our communities. It is our duty and honor to get back to our roots.

What skills do you use that you did not expect? What is your biggest challenge?

When you become a farmer you really become many things; on any given day you might be a vet, a midwife, a nutritionist, a mechanic, an accountant, a carpenter, a customer service rep, a soil scientist, an artist, or a teacher. The constant juggling and multitasking is incredibly overwhelming at times. Because of how consuming this lifestyle is, the most easily-neglected part is the business side. We currently have a huge stack of paperwork sitting on our table that has been pushed aside all season. Even though that aspect is so critical to running our operation and planning well for the future, it can feel separate from the farm and less important than the physical aspects of our jobs. All of it is really important, though, because if we don’t keep on top of our paperwork, we risk becoming disorganized, sloppy, and making bad business decisions.

In addition to the work of running a business, running it with other people is difficult. After a failed partnership attempt with others, we made the decision to keep ownership within the family. Family has the potential to be even more challenging than outside people, but also more stable and cohesive. We’re not without our issues, but we’re fortunate that we fell into farming together because we complement each other like yin and yang. Some people don't understand being able to work with family, but there was never a question of if we would work together. We just didn’t know it would be in farming until we found it. As sisters, we had already worked through so much that we fit like a glove as business partners. We’re each strong in different ways and balance out the other’s weaknesses, which is what every partnership strives for.

Are there any specific challenges/disadvantages in being a female farmer?

No! As rural farmers, we of course encounter macho men who view us as “cute” and want to help us carry heavy things, but we take a certain kind of pride in surprising them with our strength. In our eyes, it is an honor to be able to show men an example of strong, capable, competent women deserving of the utmost respect. In a field where the average worker is a middle-aged male farming thousands of acres or animals, we love being the curveballs. If we all have the land and a need for healthy food in common, how could farming be exclusive to one sex, age group, religion, or skin color?

What are the benefits/advantages in being a female farmer?

Joining a movement of insanely hardworking, skillful, tough, yet soft, nurturing women working to break barriers, nourish people, educate, and make their little piece of the world a better place. Nothing could be more empowering than that.

We think there is an advantage to being an “outsider” in a situation. Being first generation farmers as well as women, neither of which are the norm in farming, inspires us to work outside the box versus doing what convention has handed down to us.

What do you see as the biggest impediment to women entering the field of farming?

Most likely the idea that farming is men’s work. If we believe that, then it’s natural to think we’re somehow less capable by default of our biology. We associate men with all the traits we think farmers have: strength, toughness, and knowledge of things like machinery and construction. But guess what? While men often do have those qualities, they weren’t born with them (we’ll admit they may have a small leg up in the strength department). There’s nothing standing in our way of also becoming a farmer other than ourselves. Take it from two women who had close to zero farming knowledge, barely knew our way around a tractor, and struggled to lift a 50-lb grain bag 4 years ago. By no means do we have anything totally figured out yet, but we have come a long way. Still, it can be intimidating to enter a world in which over 80% of principal business operators are male. This is why it is important to have examples of successful women so we can work to slowly change this idea. Farming needs more women!

What has been the biggest reward?

When we take the time to step back and look at what we have helped create. It’s easy to get tunnel-vision and focus on everything wrong, and where we want to be. Some of the best moments are sharing our farm and our food with people who really appreciate our work and our principles. It makes all the hard work worth it to see our farm feed and bring people together.

What does it mean to you to be able to farm?

To us, farming means finding ways to continuously adapt to life’s ebbs and flows. It means always being a student. It means no 9-5 schedule or snow day ever. It means the rest of life pauses for a sick animal, birth, or emergency. It means dirty Carhartts and scratched up hands. It means calling the shots only as much as nature allows. It means celebrating our dependence on Mother Nature and our duty to her. It means surprising ourselves everyday with how strong we’ve become. It means embracing failure as our teacher. It means an intimate involvement in life’s creative and destructive forces. It means pull-our-hair-out frustration and cursing at beings who can't understand us. It means we each get to work with our best friend everyday. It means breaking gender norms accepted by society when we fix, build, and lift things as well as many men. It means having the most mentally, emotionally, physically challenging situations juxtaposed with deep happiness and fulfillment. It means becoming too attached to animals destined for someone’s dinner plate. It means feeling directly responsible anytime something happens to one of our babies. It means momma animals let us hold their newborns because of the trust we’ve built. It means honoring the gift we’ve been given of healthy bodies and an opportunity to do good work. It means keeping this property in our family for our children and our children’s children. It means creating community. It means commitment. It means putting our hearts and souls into raising nourishing food. It means caring for the land and beings on it in the best way we know how, and letting them care for us in turn.

What do you wish people understood about farming?

There are a few categories of reactions people have about farming life:
#1- “Ohmygosh you must just love what you do so much! What I wouldn't give to start my own farm!” Otherwise known as the idealizers.
#2- “Wow, no way could I do that! The long hours, the hard work, the lack of money, the animal death. Definitely not for me.” Otherwise known as the downers.
#3- “Say whatttttt?! Your chicken is $5.00/lb? I'm just gonna go to Kroger.” Otherwise known as the skeptics.

To the first two categories: combine these statements and you have the start of an accurate depiction of farming. No one would do it if it were always terrible and hard, but everyone would do it if it were easy and beautiful all the time. Farming is a full-time commitment of your body, mind, and soul, and we’ve used every description on the spectrum from “the actual worst” to “best-thing-ever” at some point.

To the third category: you can see our enterprise budgets and our profit-loss statement. We’re not getting rich off you, promise. We understand it is more than what you're used to, and some people may actually not be able to afford it, but this is the true cost of small food. You're paying for the quality of what goes into our animals, and you're also paying for the scale we operate on because it means we are more attentive to our animals; each one has a relationship with us. But, by all means, if we aren't on the same page please go to Kroger.

What are some things we as can do to help create support, equality and awareness for women farmers and small-scale farms?

You’re doing a lot to help the cause already! Letting farmers tell their honest stories to help others understand what goes into small-scale food production is key. The shift is happening, although slowly in some areas, and people are waking up to the fact that as long as we support our current centralized, mass-production system we are vulnerable. Where there is no personal connection to who grows our food, there is no accountability.

What was the most interesting challenge this past season? What will you do differently next season?

How to describe this season?

Imagine a day where you sleep through your alarm clock and are late for work, you’re having a bad hair day, you spill your coffee on your white shirt, you hit every red light, and you get a speeding ticket in a construction zone. To top it off: your boss fires you, and you come home to find your dog chewed up your expensive rug and your boyfriend left you for another woman.

That was this whole year. It sounds dramatic, but we questioned on a weekly basis if we were crazy and why we were still trying to make it work. Our spring started off cold and wet, so our grass wasn’t growing and much of what we direct-seeded rotted in the ground. We lost almost all our early-season crops. Then our summer was the complete opposite: hot and bone-dry. Our pastures dried up and we had to feed hay for six weeks in the middle of the summer. On top of that we had thousands of dollars of unplanned expenses, machinery breakdowns, fence replacements, a disease outbreak in our poultry that wiped out hundreds of chicks, all of our ducklings, and many turkeys (not avian flu, don’t worry!), a calf that escaped and was killed by a car, and a meningeal worm outbreak in our goats. We could keep going on and on but we won’t. Bottom line: we were completely discouraged and burnt out.

Every year has its challenges, and many of those presented by 2016 weren’t unique to us since they were weather-related. If it sounds like we’re complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves, we did but ultimately decided we needed to woman up and listen to the message being sent to us. Since we couldn’t handle another year like this one, we had two choices: stop farming or make it easier on ourselves. All signs pointed to a need for simplification.

The success of our farm will always be somewhat out of our control due to its nature (and to nature), but we also have made it harder on ourselves than necessary by trying to do everything–which is completely unrealistic for ourselves and one employee. By looking at what we spend the most time and money (and stress) on versus what we get back from each enterprise, we cut down some areas of the farm that don’t serve us. A large source of stress was our market garden and vegetable CSA. Vegetables can be profitable when they are a main focus, but don’t work for us because of how much we have going on. We will continue to grow a small selection of vegetables, but not a diversified garden for CSA. Making the decision to cut that was a giant weight off our shoulders. In its place, we are focusing our efforts to expand meat and mushroom production–two areas we feel incredibly passionate about and that make a lot of sense for us. We’re excited to go into next season with a clear idea of what our farm’s focus is.

Copyright Audra Mulkern 2017