Female farmers are fueling agriculture’s resurgence in the Roaring Fork Valley
Working the Aspen farmers’ market booth last summer for Rock Bottom Ranch, agriculture manager Alyssa Barsanti was chatting with a customer who couldn’t believe she was one of the farmers responsible for growing the vegetables he was about to buy.
“He asked to see my hands,” Barsanti recently recalled with a snicker.
She’s used to the doubters, most of them Doubting Thomases. But make no doubt about it, the resurgence of small farms in the Roaring Fork Valley is coming largely on the backs and biceps of women.
Rock Bottom Ranch in the Emma area has an all-female team of six working its fields and livestock pastures this year.
Two Roots Farm co-owner Harper Kaufman hired two women to prepare soil, plant seeds and young plants, weed and harvest land leased from Pitkin County Open Space and Trails near the Emma schoolhouse.
Entrepreneurs such as Vanessa Harmony are finding ways to cultivate their passion for a niche in agriculture into a business. Harmony hopes to turn a sidelight venture selling fruit trees and eligible perennials into a full-time job.
“Just the idea that women can farm is new to our psyche in America even though women have been farming forever,” Kaufman said.
The Edwards native got interested in farming while attending the University of Montana.
“After college I really wanted to go somewhere where I could get my hands dirty,” she said.
She also believed in agriculture’s ability to ease climate change through practices such as carbon sequestration rather than contributing so much to carbon emissions.
After first working at a farm in Northern California, she landed at Rock Bottom Ranch where she served for two years as agriculture manager. That solidified her desire to get into farming on her own. She and Christian LaBar, her life and business partner, started Two Roots Farm. They rented land for two years in Missouri Heights, then earned a 10-year lease from Pitkin County at the fertile Emma property last year. They grow vegetables on 3 of the 22 acres they lease and have expansion plans in mind.
Kaufman, 27, said she loves their decision despite “hard work, low pay and risky business.”
“My understanding of farming has definitely evolved,” she said. “I came into it with a lot of naivety.”
In the Roaring Fork Valley and an increasing number of areas around the country, farming isn’t economically viable because of high land costs. Initiatives such as Pitkin County Open Space’s purchase of land to preserve agriculture will be vital for the future of farming, she said.
“It’s such small margins and such hard work,” Kaufman said. Any number of factors — drought, hail, pests — can “really cripple a farm.”
Nevertheless, she’s encouraged that farming is attracting a lot of young, passionate newcomers and that many of them are women. She estimated that 80 percent of applicants for job openings at Two Roots are women. She senses greater interest among women in connecting to food and learning where it’s coming from.
“Even at the farmers’ market, we tend to sell to women,” she said.
Barsanti, 27, visited Rock Bottom Ranch four years ago and was impressed at how welcoming it was to the public.
“Most farm tours attract little kids and school groups,” she noted. Rock Bottom Ranch, owned and operated by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, encourages people of all ages to study its sustainable farming procedures. Barsanti ended up volunteering to help in the gardens on her first day. She parlayed her interest and volunteerism into a full-time seasonal job in spring 2016 and became agriculture manager in December 2017.
She is responsible for overseeing growing vegetables and greens on 2/3 of an acre and in various greenhouses on the property. She also oversees the ranch’s pigs, laying hens, meat chickens, bees, sheep, lambs and cattle grazed in a partnership with Cap K Ranch. That means making sure they are properly fed, rotated among different pastures and kept safe from predators and disease.
She is assisted by Mariah Foley, the lead staffer on vegetable production, and Jen Ghigiarelli, the livestock and site lead. Three seasonal workers are also women this year. Jason Smith is the overall manager of the ranch.
They work 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on any given day, but setting up a farmers’ market booth on summer weekends requires starting at 6 a.m. and harvesting — everything from pulling carrots from the dirt to trimming off leaves of baby lettuce and kale — extends some days until dusk.
“It’s definitely hard and tiring and taxing,” Barsanti said. “There’s days in the summer that I just want to collapse after work.”
The work attracts people who are passionate about farming, she said. It’s not a job you take on a whim or if you’re looking for easy work.
Part of Rock Bottom Ranch’s mission is to inspire young farmers and help teach them skills needed for their own pursuits. The ranch didn’t aim to create an all-female team this year, Barsanti said, but there were more and better-qualified female applicants in this year’s crop.
Barsanti believes women possess many of the traits and qualities necessary to be a good farmer — intuition when an animal is sick, for example, and a nurturing, caring approach to life.
“You’re taking care of hundreds of living things,” she said. “That’s a big responsibility.”
Women aren’t exactly unicorns when it comes to farming and ranching. A recent New York Times article cited U.S. government data that showed 14 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the country had a female proprietor. Kaufman, Barsanti and other observers believe the number of women in the Roaring Fork Valley farming community is substantially higher. Women, in fact, might be in the majority, they surmised.
Still, in an increasingly urbanized society, female farmers can still produce surprise. Barsanti said she’s been on the “wedding circuit” lately, going to friends’ nuptials around the country. Many old friends and new acquaintances are surprised and interested when they learn about her career.
“I say I’m a farmer because I’m proud to be a farmer,” she said.
Every year she spends in farming makes a future career change seem implausible.
“I love the job and the lifestyle,” Barsanti said.
Foley was hired to lead vegetable farming at Rock Bottom Ranch this year. The Denver native said that by the time she graduated from the University of Denver a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine working 40-plus hours per week at a computer in an office.
“I love working with my hands. I love being outside,” she said.
Foley was involved in some ag-related pursuits in college — providing advice on where the university bought its food and founding a community garden. Most of the people involved in the efforts were women, she said. The joke was they were the seventh sorority on campus — Alfa Alfa Asparagus.
Foley is now in her seventh year of working in some type of agricultural operation and fourth year in it full time. She has witnessed that farming is attracting a diverse spectrum of people who are interested in knowing where their food comes from and passionate enough that they want to get involved in growing it.
“Farming isn’t just a redneck profession,” she said.
Like Rock Bottom Ranch, Kaufman is working to encourage people to get into farming. She founded the collaborative Roaring Fork Farmers & Ranchers five years ago as a resource for people to share ideas and resources.
“Farming is hard enough,” she said. “We don’t need to be competing and keeping secrets.”
Kaufman said the number of farming-related, start-up businesses that have sprouted in the Roaring Fork Valley in recent years has encouraged her. Women head many of them.
Vanessa Harmony, a self-described “tree hugger,” horticulturist, arborist, edible plant enthusiast and mulch fanatic, gave up a career in the pharmaceutical industry when she realized her heart was in permaculture design and forest gardening, specifically with edible, perennial plants. She pursued apprenticeships to gain new skills and worked at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt for three years.
She’s started her own nursery in the Roaring Fork Valley and consults with people on planting fruit trees and shrubs, grapevines and edible perennial plants. (She can be reached through her business website at coloradopear.com.)
“People are often surprised at all the fruits we can grow in the mountains,” Harmony said.
For some women, starting a business isn’t what enticed them to get into farming. Emma Geddes left a 15-year career as an educator to work at Two Roots Farm this year. She said she is excited to learn outside of four walls and connect with the community in a new way.
“I’ve always been interested in living simply,” she said. “I love working in the outdoors. I love the calmness of mind.”
Mikensi Romersa this spring earned a master’s degree in environmental science and natural resource journalism from the University of Montana then promptly headed to the Roaring Fork Valley to be a farmer. She befriended Kaufman and LaBar as an undergraduate in Montana, then visited them when they operated Two Roots Farm on leased land in Missouri Heights. All through grad school, she couldn’t get her mind off getting back to the farm. She arrived two weeks ago for a summer of work.
“I’m hoping that it’s indefinite,” Romersa said.
Her education included broadcast journalism, so she sees an opportunity to tell the stories of farming and farmers through documentaries.
“It could be real impactful for all involved,” she said.
Over the last month, Geddes enjoyed the opportunity to get involved in all aspects of the farm and working with the seasonal cycles. Working outdoors has been challenging this spring because winter held on for so long. Still, it brought its rewards.
“I just get excited to watch things grow,” Geddes said.
That includes her muscles. Weeding and planting all day — requiring strenuous lifting, twisting and maneuvering — can be demanding, Geddes said.
“We joke that people pay good money (at gyms) to do what we do,” she said.