The first woman who ever got me interested in farming is Barb Kline. She was the farmer who cared for the last zoned agricultural land in the City of Pittsburgh, right in Stanton Heights, right in my backyard. In fact, we bought our house specifically because it bordered this farm. How idyllic – especially after the hustle of New York City where we moved from. And it was indeed a joy to see lush acres when I looked out my window.
While I have volunteered here and there at the farm, helping with their CSA, with newsletters and marketing, one summer I decided to truly work with the land, committing 5 hours of every week during the season. Seems little but boy, was that an eye-opening experience. Farm work, especially with the of-the-moment growth of urban farms, young farmers and the series, Farm Kings (oy!) has become romanticized. But what that summer made me realize was the immense RESPECT that farmers deserve. IT IS NOT EASY TO FARM. Especially if you do it in a responsible, sustainable way.
I remember this song from my childhood, “Planting rice is never fun, work from morn til set of sun. Cannot sit and cannot stand. Plant the seedlings all by hand.” And while that song is not fully true – there is a lot of gratification to be had beginning with knowing that you can grow your own food – the hard work is more than real.
Ever since that time, I have had a different reverence for the food I eat and the farmers who made it possible for me to eat the way I do.
Then last year, I heard a story on All Things Considered that struck me. In 2011, women ran about 14% of the nation’s farms, “up from only 5 percent in the 1980s.” And while men still run the majority of farms in the US, “Most female-run farms tend to be smaller and more diverse, and many are part of the burgeoning organic and local foods movement.”
And this was not possible even a generation ago. “Girls could grow up to be farmers’ wives, but for a woman to actually consider herself to be farmer or grow up to be farmer, that wasn’t in the script.” Reminds me of my daughter’s book, The Princess Knight.
With that in mind, I sought to start documenting what it was like to be a fearless female farmer. And this summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to work with Liz Barentine, a student at Franklin College in Swtizerland, majoring in Communications and Media Studies. With much patience (I’ve never done this before), she worked with me to visit and film two farmers – Maggie Robertson of M&M Robertson Farm in Sligo, PA and Margaret Schlass of One Woman Farm in the North Hills.
Meet Maggie Robertson
The “M&M” in M&M Robertson Farm stands for husband and wife team, Maggie and Mik. The mission of the farm is to promote personal food security by educating, encouraging and supporting people to nourish themselves by growing their own healthy food.
Maggie and Mik are amazing partners who take on the challenges of farming with a family together. Maggie leads the planning and marketing for the farm and Mik does much of the “nuts and bolts” work on the farm, everything from tilling and fixing the tractors to installing the electric, heat, and water systems in the greenhouse.
I love how Maggie shared with me that when they first bought the farm, people in the neighborhood would automatically ask “what Mik is planning to plant this year.” And Maggie of course would graciously respond with “Well, I’m planning to do this….” As they say, you’ve come a long way baby.
Both Maggie and Mik are active in the community. She teaches workshops on Organic Gardening and speaks on other topics including women and agriculture, companion planting, and the importance of local farming and food networks.
Maggie is a regional representative for the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN), is active in the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), and the League of Women Voters.
I couldn’t ask for a more eloquent advocate than Maggie. Her participation in WAgN and passion for its mission in supporting women farmers is plain in the way she speaks. I worked as a Director at Catalyst and served as the CEO of Dress for Success Pittsburgh for three years and am just as passionate about supporting women in their quest for a “life of self-determination”, as Maggie puts it.
How many ways does Maggie inspire me? Watch the video to find out!