Giving Thanks Where Thanks is Due
By Laura Lauffer
During the Thanksgiving season, we often recognize and appreciate the farmers in our community for the abundance of food on our tables. Three women farmers in the region shared their farming experience during this challenging year, what it means to them to farm as women and how they continued to grow and distribute their goods to the community in the challenging times of COVID.
“It is not how successful our business can be as the bottom line. The bottom line is how successful our business can be and support our employees' families and our community,” said Afton Darnell Roberts. “I believe that comes from being a woman and understanding all that goes into a job and your work life.”
Afton farms in Swain County on family land going back generations. Her father always encouraged her and told her, “This is a woman’s world. You can accomplish anything.” She helps manage a thriving diversified farm business meeting the needs of her staff and consumers during COVID job loss and market uncertainty. Darnell Farms launched a home delivery program to meet the demand of folks wary of shopping and who may be homebound.
Resiliency is being able to recover from tough situations, says Tarinii Isner. Tarinii and her family are in year four of their new farming and botanical business, LionPaw Botanicals. Vegetable and botanicals sales were planned for the spring market at the North Asheville farmer’s market. Due to COVID, new vendors were not able to join the market due to space restrictions.
Fortunately, Tarinii already had an online sales platform and is a respected local educator. She continued to produce her botanical blends and expand hemp production while finding resilience in her farming and educational work. She points a historic male-dominated agribusiness model, where women, the wives, often had a small patch of land for home vegetable and herb production. This was the place of family resilience, offering to heal of homegrown foods. She continues to teach and shares plants' heritage from the African diaspora now at home in Appalachian farms and gardens today.
Patricia Taylor of KT Farms has been working on her orchard and apiary throughout COVID. She is also a full-time nurse, her husband Tate, while ‘retired’ works with her on the 11.5-acre apple orchard in Haywood County. COVID has not affected her business model, and her farm offers families the opportunity to be outside in a healthy environment during this trying period.
KT’s chef Jasmine is a mother of three who appreciates the flexible hours and creativity of KT’s kitchen operation as they test new recipes such as fire tonic, balms, and lotions. As part of her plan to retire from nursing, KT is adding new products to her mix and will soon start producing apple cider vinegar in her on-farm kitchen. One of KT’s joys is to sell apples to the Swain and Haywood County School systems.
Both KT and Afton have led their farm companies into new directions bringing additional women on board to diversify their production and distribution. Tarinii hosts women’s groups on the farm offering a safe space for personal growth.
“We are planting seeds of spirit and in the earth,” she said.
Darnell Farms employs many women working in all production stages from tractor work, sales and running the new home delivery program.
“We have at 3-1 ratio of women to men on the farm,” Afton said. She knows women-run businesses are more compassionate by nature. Part of the Darnell Farms experience is the farm stand, picnics by the river, a swing set for the kids, hayrides, and live music. While these activities have slowed down in the time of COVID, Afton still encourages families to come out to the farm stand, order from your window, park and enjoy the river's natural beauty, and let the kids run.
These farmers have experienced the challenge of being recognized as capable business people when seeking advice or funding from traditional sources. Lenders can be difficult to work with.
“If I did not go to the bank with my husband for that first loan, the process would have been harder for sure,” Afton said.
She shared that she knows women farmers who have to take legal action to be treated fairly by lenders and other agencies. KT has seen a shift in funding from USDA programs such as the Farm Services Agency.
“It has definitely gotten easier; the USDA wants to support women and minority-owned businesses so our applications can get a better review than in the past,” she said.
KT said it took years for suppliers and advisors to take her seriously. As her orchard has grown and her hard work has paid off, she sees more respect coming her way, but it was hard to come by. Regional apple meetings are attended mostly by male farmers, some bring their wives, but KT observed they did not participate in the meetings.
“When I first walked into the apple meeting and started asking questions, the men in the room did not give me much credit,” she said. "Now that I have proven this is not a hobby, and I am busy making this business grow, my voice is heard."
Tarinni said as a woman farmer, it is sometimes hard to be seen, but she feels that because she loves what she is doing, the knowledge she offers comes shining through, creating the source of credibility. She is offering other women a reminder of their inner resilience and strength. Women have the capacity to restore and heal the land of the community through the relationship to growing food.
Women have farmed in Western North Carolina for centuries. These farmers are continuing the tradition of resiliency in hard times and supporting other women and our families in the process.
Women-owned farms in the region are on the rise. The 2012 Agriculture census shows 51 women farmers in Haywood County, home of KT’s Orchard, and 9 women farmers in Swain County where Darnell Farms is located. The 2017 Census identified 274 women farmers in Haywood County and 55 in Swain County. In Madison County, women farmers have increased from 33 in 2012 to 379.
Visit these fantastic farmers this fall to supply your tables with great products.
Laura Lauffer is the Project Director of EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems