According to recent statistics published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 36% of farmers are women. American women own or manage 14% of our approximately two million farms, representing 7% of total farm acreage and 3% of sales.
What do these statistics really tell us? That American farms owned by women are smaller, less “industrial” and probably more diversified than the average. Interestingly the average female farmer is 60 years old—two years older than the average male farmer.
Harvest Market is proud to be associated with two of these women in farming, both of whom have extensive and varied agricultural backgrounds despite being much younger than the statistical average. Julia Smagorinsky and Heather Leach have both worked as cooks in the Harvest Market kitchen for several years and both are now embarking on new agricultural projects in the area.
Julia Smagorinsky grew up in Germany and was active in environmental issues as a teenager. It was during a student exchange trip to Costa Rica when she was fifteen that Julia realized “that farming was the way to go” to actively improve the environment. “Farming supports our basic needs as well as giving us meaningful relationships with the land,” she believes.
Later, Julia worked on a biodynamic dairy farm in England which also produced sheep and grains. Julia then went back to Germany to earn an undergraduate degree in plant production and breeding and then a graduate degree in economics and rural social science from the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart—a school specializing in the teaching of agricultural and environmental sciences.
After completing her studies Julia landed a position managing a biodynamic farm in Connecticut that featured a raw milk dairy, a 200-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, pigs, turkeys and wholesaling to a CSA aggregator in New York City. Essentially building that farm from the ground up, Julia notes that she “liked the lifestyle, being outside and the challenges that were always coming up.” What she liked the most, though, “was teaching the farms’ apprentices all the skills that they needed to succeed as farmers.”
Currently, while still maintaining part-time status in the Harvest Market kitchen, Julia is
embarking on another exciting agricultural project. On a two and one-half acre parcel at Inverbrook Farm in West Grove, PA, Julia is developing a very human-scaled, diversified operation that will include livestock, fruit and nut trees, vegetable and medicinal herb gardens and small-scaled grain production.
As this project comes into fruition she also hopes to collaborate with other permaculture and biodynamic growers to form a cooperative to share joint ventures in land use, crop marketing, processing and economies of scale. As Julia puts it, this new venture is her way of, “communicating with and about the land and the communities that it feeds.”
Additionally, Julia is working on a proposal to help regenerate a 100-acre parcel that is now
public open space. The proposal includes many standard permaculture practices: creating swales for ground water retention; planting mixed species hedgerows; grazing cattle on pasture to mimic
natural herbivore behavior. All of these will help the property become a carbon sink. “We can
imagine a farm where we create habitat, build soil and draw down carbon from the atmosphere,”states Julia.
Heather Leach’s introduction to agriculture also came out of her passionate concern for the environment. After getting her undergraduate degree in biology and teaching the subject at theChurch Farm School in Exton, PA, for six years, Heather decided to join the Peace Corps. “That’s when agriculture as something to do really snuck up on me,” she says about her Peace Corps experience. Even though she had no direct farming background at the time, Heather was assigned as an agricultural expert to a village in Mali.
She found her three-year stint in Mali to be exciting and focused on understanding the villagers’ relationships with the land and the cultural food ways that the land supported. “I realized that we as Americans are really good at networking,” she says. Adding, “I’m not the expert on their 1,000-year-old agricultural system.”
So rather than teaching the villagers standard American farming practices—which would have
had dubious value given their climate and food ways—she instead worked on linking farmers in
her village with those in other villages in various peer-to-peer exchanges. These exchanges lead
to the building of wells, cooperative marketing of crops and even a more nutritionally-dense porridge that improved the health of the village children.
After her stint in the Peace Corps Heather enrolled at the University of Kent in Canterbury
(UK) for a master’s degree in ethnobotany. But Mali still called to her as her thesis was on the
various community interactions with tamarind and baobab trees in the same village as her Peace
Not done with international agricultural travel, Heather then worked with indigenous
communities in Mexico helping with their farming systems and later continued her post-graduate
education studying how children learn about food in their home-gardens in Bolivia.
Heather, like Julia, is now working on several agricultural projects in Pennsylvania. She now
has a contract with the Philadelphia Department of Prisons to manage their 200-tree fruit orchard
and surrounding gardens. “This is the largest orchard within the city of Philadelphia and we have
a wide variety of fruit trees, from apples and cherries to jujubes and paw paws,” notes Heather.
In the orchard Heather works with two groups of men, the first are the year-round workers who
can earn spending money during their incarcerations. The second group of inmates has been
selected to participate in the Branching Up program which is administered through Temple
University. This group consists of eight men who go through a twelve-week educational
program followed by a six-week paid internship. According to Heather, these men are then given
assistance in getting ag-related jobs when they are released.
As rewarding as her work is with men in the prison orchard, Heather still has the time and passion to work a small plot just a few miles from Harvest Market in Pennsylvania. Heather is developing her permaculture garden while living in a yurt on borrowed land. “This is very small scale. I’m experimenting with different growing techniques to learn what works while growing food sustainably and improving the property,” she concludes.
Two women in agriculture. Two very different journeys that have gotten them to their current
farming projects. One similarity stands out, however. Both women are keenly aware of the
importance of community in any agricultural endeavor. The people matter. The growers matter.
The consumers matter. The land and environment which sustains all of us matters. Otherwise
agriculture, like anything else, is just a set of statistics.
Thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed this article.
This year a group of our staff, including Heather and Julia, attended PASA’s 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Conference. We’ve written another article summarizing our time and takeaways from this year’s PASA which you can read about here!