By Jennifer Sasseen
Everett Herald Business Journal
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Brown grasses of winter cover much of the 7 ½-acre patch of land in Lake Stevens that is Cheryl Dillon’s Be Well Farm.
Closer inspection reveals hidden wealth — a bright-green row of mustard greens and the darker, purple-green leaves of kale. There are sunchokes and leeks, parsnips, carrots and onions.
Dillon bends and plucks a flower from the tip of a mustard green at her knee, popping it in her mouth and inviting her visitor to do the same. It tastes of springtime — fresh and crisp, with a lingering sweetness.
In her fourth year of farming, Dillon, 55, is part of a growing wealth of women who seem to be embracing farming as a second career.
Locally the number of women responsible for day-to-day farm operations has been increasing for more than a decade, with 33 percent of farms in Snohomish County run by women in 2012, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. Out of 1,438 farms in the county, 477 were run by women.
That’s up from 31 percent in 2007 and 26 percent in 2002.
Nationally, the number of women farmers has also been rising, but at a much slower rate and with a slight dip between 2007 and 2012. Fourteen percent of 2.1 million U.S. farms were run by women in 2012, with higher numbers on the East and West coasts and lower in the Midwest.
Like their male counterparts, women farmers are increasingly older. The average age of women farmers in Snohomish County was 54.1 years in 2007 and 56.5 in 2012, compared to 60.1 nationwide in 2012.
For women, that upward trend in age may be partially a result of coming to farming as a second career. Some women in the 55-plus age category, retired from white-collar careers, may have dreamed about farming as a form of retirement, speculated Paul Gleason, resource conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lake Stevens.
“These are people who kind of want to step back from the rat-race,” he said, “and do something more romantic.”
Dillon voiced a similar sentiment.
“You do what you do to support your family and then you get to a point where you do what you’re passionate about,” she said. “And that’s kind of where I’m at.”
A country girl who’d often “wished I could have been born in pioneer days,” Dillon grew up in Oregon and moved to this area as a young woman, working for years in real estate and raising three daughters. Now single, she lives in Edmonds and leases her farmland off Lake Stevens’ Sunnyside Boulevard from Joseph Heineck, who bought the land 50 years ago and with his wife, Peggy, still lives in the farmhouse.
Dillon uses an old shipping container for storage, which, along with a porta-potty, perches on the slope below Heineck’s bright-red barn, listed on the state’s site of historic barns. Bales of hay can be seen through the windows; Dillon met Heineck buying hay for her horse, pastured in a neighboring farmer’s field.
How she came to farming is the story of a series of unpredictable events.
First she lost her mother to cancer, Dillon said. Then she had a cancer scare of her own, with tumors that led to a hysterectomy; the tumors proved benign, but Dillon had six weeks off work and a lot of time to think and read.
Though she’d always eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables, Dillon said, “I discovered that I was very ignorant, I was very unaware of organics.”
The more she read, the more she felt her calling. “I just found I was really passionate about food and wanting to make a difference,” she said.
The next step for Dillon was Mother Nature’s Organics, a food-delivery service she started in May 2008, delivering local farmers’ organic produce to customers, with the idea of working in real estate at least part time while running her business.
But it was 2008 and the financial crisis was coming to a head. None of her houses were closing, Dillon said, “and I thought, well, I might as well just devote all my time and energy to this.” Heineck had mentioned he was thinking of leasing some land and Dillon took him up on it, first supplementing farmers’ Community Supported Agriculture boxes with some of her own produce, and recently deciding to go it alone as Be Well Farm.
“I want to be known as a farm,” she said, “and not as an organic delivery service.”
As women like Dillon turn to farming, agricultural programs are becoming increasingly focused on giving them practical information to help them succeed, said Linda Neunzig, Snohomish County agricultural coordinator who also owns and runs the 50-acre Ninety Farms in Arlington.
That’s a big change from just 10 years when Neunzig went to her first women’s agricultural conference in Wenatchee
“It was all about how to be the wife of a farmer,” she said, adding, “I was so insulted by that first conference.”
Nowadays, women’s agricultural conferences are geared toward such topics as business plans and marketing tools, while outlets like farmers’ markets help feed the “eat local” movement and garner respect for farmers, male and female alike.
“When I started farming on my own, it wasn’t cool to be a farmer,” said the 52-year-old Neunzig.
Attitudes have evolved as the farm-to-table movement gathers steam; Neunzig credits local chefs with helping to create consumer interest in where food comes from and how it gets there.
Neunzig herself has been a leader in the movement and has received national recognition. A farmer since the early 1990s — after a seven-year stint working as a licensed veterinarian technician at UC Davis — she’s been featured in Gourmet Magazine and won a “Women Who Inspire” award from the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Organization. She’s also been a three-time U.S. delegate to Terra Madre in Italy, an annual meeting of a network of food communities representing some 150 countries and committed to producing quality food in a responsible, sustainable way.
Her short-haired Katahdin Hair Sheep, raised for their meat rather than the wool of more common sheep, supply Seattle-area restaurants and other customers with grass-fed lamb and are shipped around the world as breeding stock. Developed in Maine during the second half of the 20th Century, Katahdin Hair Sheep barely numbered in the thousands when she started raising them, Neunzig said, but are now the fastest-growing segment of sheep population in the country.
The 150 to 175 lambs born each year at Ninety Farms are born in the winter so they will be at least two months old in the spring and can take full advantage of the lush, nutrient-rich grass of the season, Neunzig said.
They are raised hormone- and antibiotic-free and all their manure is composted and spread back on the land. The fields are harvested to provide feed, animals are butchered on-site and consumers can buy meat on weekends at the Ninety Farms’ store. “Everything stays as close to home as possible,” Neunzig said.
According to the USDA, farms run by women tend to be not only smaller, but more diverse. Like Neunzig’s, they are more likely to focus on specialized livestock or, like Dillon’s, on a variety of produce items.
“I like to grow more unusual things,” Dillon said, “things you don’t always find in the store.”
That can range from 10 different kinds of winter and summer squash, to sunchokes, also called Jerusalem artichokes, to purple tomatillos. She prefers heirloom varieties, she said. Snohomish County’s proximity to Seattle, and the proliferation of farmers’ markets throughout the region, has a lot to do with the success of its small farmers.
“Farmers are rock stars at the farmer’s markets,” Neunzig said, and it doesn’t take a lot of land to make a difference.
“When you’re doing produce,” she said, referring to farmers like Dillon, “6 acres can feed a lot of people.”
Like Neunzig, Dillon believes in keeping things natural and close to home. She adds minerals to the soil by spreading lime and kelp, and by rotating cover crops like crimson clover.
Though she is not pursuing the “organic” label for now because it costs too much, she believes produce should be grown without pesticides, purchased locally and produced locally throughout the year.
“If you go to France, they grow fresh vegetables year-round,” she said, “and we have a very similar climate.”
With that in mind and with the aid of a federal grant, Dillon recently put up a 2,200-square-foot “hoop house,” a type of greenhouse also referred to as a “high tunnel,” on the land she leases from Heineck. Dillon is excited about the hoop house.
“It’s really going to help us extend our season,” she said. Farming is hard work, but Dillon said she is strong and healthy — “probably from all that organic food” — and doesn’t mind.
“I love working in the dirt,” she said, “and that’s my passion.”
Such passion seems almost a requirement in farming.
As Neunzig said, “It’s too hard of work to do it and not love it a bunch.”