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Women and Farming: a tale of two farmers

Women and Farming: a tale of two farmers

by Kirsten Breau

Women have always had strong ties to the land and to the industry of agriculture but have been historically underrepresented by the media and through policy decisions. Even so, the past three decades have seen more and more women entering the profession of farming with women now making up more than 30 percent of farm operators here in the U.S. Among them are farming newcomers Marissa Paykos of Whippoorwill Farms SC and Madison Cowart of Bootleg Farms.

When Marissa Paykos started Whippoorwill Farms SC, a small acre farm in Pineland, South Carolina, she was chasing a life that brought her closer to the one place where she had really found herself, nature. “Trying to keep up with what society wants of me, I had lost myself, ” Marissa says, reflecting back on the years of restlessness and depression that lead up to the decision to buy the land where Whippoorwill Farms SC now sits.

Growing up, Marissa’s father was a biology teacher. She was continuously learning about the environment, “It moved me to see all the Earth had to offer.” It was while living in an RV Park that Marissa reconnected with her love of nature, and the idea for Whippoorwill Farms SC took root.

James, Ellie and Marissa
photo courtesy of Marissa Paykos

Marissa still lives in an RV, though now she shares it with her husband James and her daughter Ellie who turns four next month. The RV sits nestled in the center of their two-acre farm. When asked

what the biggest obstacle was to entering the field, Marissa replied, “The whole thing is daunting, as a female in agriculture, first generation, on two acres of land – it’s difficult to be taken seriously.” On a chilly spring morning the mother, daughter team showed me around the farm. Ellie gently cradled a small chick as we toured.

Whippoorwill Farms SC is a sustainable small acre farm home to pigs, horses, chickens, rabbits and one goat Ellie aspirationally named “Cow.” Though Marissa grew up with horses and a garden she tended with her dad, this was her first experience with farming as a business. She wanted her daughter Ellie to grow up “in a place that is safe and nurtures a hunger for learning and exploring and respecting all that the earth provides.”

“Women are starting to take every opportunity given to them and to be anything they want to be, that’s what we are trying to show Ellie,” Marissa said about the decision to move to the farm one week after Ellie was born. “Anytime a woman wants to take on a role not traditionally held by women, that’s a win.”

Ellie spends most of her days working beside her mother on the farm. She collects eggs, fills water buckets, feeds the pigs and chickens, lunges and rides the horses, helps to collect the chickens for slaughter and most importantly makes sure all the animals have enough affection. When asked what her favorite part of farming was she eagerly replied, “The horses!”

When Marissa was asked the same she said with candor, “How lucky I am that my coworkers are animals. I hang out outside with animals all day. I get to watch them thriving, learn the idiosyncrasies of the pigs and personalities of the horses. There are so many reasons for what I do, but on the day to day that’s the best.”

Madison Cowart’s path to farming differed from that of Marissa. Madison (Maddi) grew up on the farm, but initially set out to leave that way of life behind her. Maddi’s parents, Wendy and Richard Cowart started Bootleg Farm, a 50-acre farm in Springfield, Georgia when Maddi was in high school.

Madison Cowart
photo courtesy of Madison Cowart

Bootleg Farm is home to goats, chickens, ducks, and quail. They are Grade A licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the USDA.

When asked what her early role on the farm was Maddi replied openly, “Being a snotty teenager, trying to get out of every chore, wanting to get away, go to school and be a business woman and not do farm labor.”

Maddi got her BA in Business and an MS in accounting. With a CPA license, she worked in Atlanta for six years. Being in the city away from her big, close-knit family weighed heavy on her.

“For a while it was fine, but I didn’t feel like it was a fit for me anymore,” she said. Adding, “I was drawn back to the land and back to the farm, I wish I could describe it better, it just feels right.”

Maddi’s role has shifted dramaticallyfrom the early years of Bootleg Farm.

She milks the goats in the morning, helps with afternoon chores, and maintains the books for farm invoicing and billing. When we spoke, she was busy mid-kidding season, they had just had twenty-five births in 48 hours. Maddi’s mindset about the work has shifted as well, now her favorite part about farming is the unexplainable sense of pride she gets from the work, “It’s where I want to be, even on my worst days out here.”

Wendy Cowart said her daughter’s return to the farm came at a time where they both needed it, “We both learn from each other, and while there are days that are rough, we are here for each other. I think she is finding that hard work, callused hands and sore muscles give her a sense of peace and certainly helps her with a good night’s sleep.”

Wendy is a registered nurse off farm, helps with kidding and milking, and is the primary cheese maker for Bootleg Farms, “People ask us why we work so hard all the time, and trust me, there are days I wonder that myself. But the simple reason for me is that I love our farm life. There is a peace that you find working with animals on a daily basis and, somehow, it puts life into proper perspective.”

Wendy Cowart
photo courtesy of Madison Cowart

For many women, Maddi and Marissa’s stories of being drawn to the land and the work of farming resonate deeply. When asked about the growing number of women in agriculture Wendy replied, “I think it’s great. Women have been a part of farming longer than the media recognizes. While they have not been in the limelight, they were and are there and have always been a vital part of farming. Farming would not make it without strong women.”

Statistic from: 2012 USDA Census of Ag.

To learn more about our featured farmers:

Whippoorwill Farms SC: Website, www.whippoorwillfarmssc.com and Instagram, @whippoorwillfarmssc

Bootleg Farms: Website, www.bootlegfarm.net and Instagram, @bootlegfarmllc

Or visit them both at the Forsyth Farmers’ Market in Savannah, Ga.