By Sarah Honosky
The scent of lavender wafts over the entire 10-acre expanse of Appomattox countryside around Bonnie Swanson. Bees and butterflies are drawn to the zinnias, sunflowers and lavender bushes that grow on Swanson’s Evergreen Lavender Farm.
Even the tips of Swanson’s hair are dyed lavender.
Though she originally began the farm as a cut-flower production, a visit to Oregon lavender fields in 2009 inspired the transition to an entire lavender agritourism operation.
“I fell in love with the whole concept of purple,” Swanson said.
Today Swanson is one of the thousands in female agricultural producers responsible for the nationwide increase of female farmers — a population that grew 18% in Virginia, from 21,622 to 25,509 between 2012 and 2017, according to recently released 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture data.
The rise of women in farming is at least in part due to the booming agritourism market, according to female Lynchburg-area farmers.
Agritourism is any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, wineries and pick-your-own activities.
In 2012, the annual total revenue of agritourism in Virginia was just over $15 million. In five years, the market nearly tripled — in 2017 Virginia agritourism brought in almost $41 million in revenue.
“Agriculture is a changing market; you have to be willing to diversify to stay in,” said Joanne Jones, an Appomattox County farmer and president of the Appomattox Farm Bureau.
Jones ventured into agritourism at Dark Leaf Farms about 10 years ago, supplementing the farm’s 450 acres with strawberries, blackberries and pumpkins. She said agritourism is a huge part of the farm’s future, particularly as tobacco demand drops across the state. She said the newfound income helps sustain the farm that otherwise may have gone out of business as consumer demand shifted.
It’s the pumpkins that are the real draw, said Jones. With fall come corn mazes, bounce houses and petting zoos, bringing thousands of visitors to pick pumpkins in time for Halloween.
Though Dark Leaf Farms is owned by Jones and her husband, he works off-site as an Appomattox extension agent and the farming operation is her own, agritourism and all.
“I run it, from keeping the records straight through to planting and harvesting. There’s not a piece of machinery here that I can’t run,” Jones said. “There are more and more women coming into agriculture. I think it’s wonderful. We are just as qualified as the men to run the operation.”
Jones said the rise of women is an upward trend she has noticed over the last 10 years. Though women have always been involved in farming, Jones said in the past it may have been in more of a secondary role.
The 2017 agricultural census reflected that 39% of people involved in growing crops, tending livestock or poultry and creating farm-based agricultural products in Virginia are women — about 17% of those women are the primary farm operator, meaning they do the books and the majority of the work.
In Appomattox County, female producers have increased from 197 to 222 in the last five years.
“More and more women are stepping up and saying, ‘I could do this, too,’” Jones said.
Though land is often one of the largest barriers to success in agriculture, ventures like agritourism require far less property to thrive, said Jones.
Like Swanson, who runs her entire operation on ten acres, though the average Virginia farm is 180 acres. While Jones’ soybeans, wheat and corn crops dominate acreage on her farm, her agritourism endeavors — the berries and pumpkins — only require a handful.
Farmers are saving their operations with agritourism, said Jones. She said diversifying their tobacco farm with the agritourism operation helped sustain their livelihood as changing tobacco policies threatened their farm — forcing them to cut their tobacco crops in half this year. In the surrounding area, she noticed more women breaking into small agritourism ventures.
“I think agritourism will continue to grow in all aspects ... and I think that women will continue to play a more leading role in agriculture,” Jones said. “And the more women see other women do it, it will compel them to feel like we can do this and take a leading role.”
Back on the Evergreen Lavender Farm earlier this month, Swanson rattled off a list of women around her taking off on similar agritourism ventures. From cut flowers and berries to turmeric and ginger, she has also seen women on the rise.
It is a niche, more personalized and interactive, one that she said has put more women behind the counters at the Lynchburg farmers market in recent years. Better yet, it does not require a steep land or monetary investment to get off the ground. Swanson said her greatest investment is time.
The lavender farm hosts the Under the Oaks concert series on a wooden stage just in view of the bright fields, as well as crafting workshops, teaching visitors to make objects such as fresh lavender wreaths. Last month, the farm held its annual lavender festival that drew almost 2,000 people to the farm.
Cecelia Peters has been working at the lavender farm since June. She recently waded through the lavender fields in July heat, wearing mud streaks and a floppy hat, pulling stubborn weeds from the lavender bushes and checking their growth.
Despite the hard work, Peters said she found it meditative. She appreciated the empathy that Swanson brought to the business, and that she worked beside her employees in the gardens.
Peters said she has witnessed recent workshops at the farm, and saw both men and women interested in the crafting.
“That’s a hobby-craft thing that is stereotypically women, but [Swanson has] found a way to bring it into the community and make it something that other people want to participate in,” Peters said. “It’s something unique to a woman farmer to make that connection with the community in the way that she does.”
Swanson, who teaches at special education Appomattox County High School, attributes much of the interest in agritourism to people wanting to get back in touch with their roots.
“People are interested in how it all works,” Swanson said. “Being in schools, I see how removed kids are from their food sources.”
Ashley Wilt and her husband own Wilt Family Farms, a fruit and vegetable store and garden center in Appomattox. She agreed a big draw of agritourism is people wanting to learn more about where their food comes from.
Wilt said their 60-acre farm does a little bit of everything — from fruits and vegetables to livestock. Her two little girls, 8 and 4, are eager to help with the operation.
“It feels like it’s a dying trend,” Wilt said. “It’s nice that we have the younger generation willing to learn.”
Her daughter’s friends like to come and hang out on the farm, and there was enough interest that they now offer “Fridays on the Farm,” where kids can come and learn something different every week. Wilt said she likes watching them light up as they discover something new.
She said more women are doing everything, even if it is just visiting a farm and taking strategies back to their own garden in the backyard. Wilt said she predicts even more women coming into the field in the future.
“It might not be a huge farm, but every little bit helps,” Wilt said.
Lorrie Barron, owner and operator at Wildwood Berry and Produce in Charlotte Court House, has also noticed the trend. She said she has women friends going into farming, and attributes some of it to additional programs and grants available to encourage women into the field.
Like Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college tucked by the Blue Ridge Mountains, that is rolling out a new agricultural program focused on artisanal agriculture to coach the next generation of female farmers.
“You can be at home with children, take care of family and do things for yourself without being off the farm,” Barron said. “I make 10 times more money in a week than other women with a full time job, just doing what I do.”
She and her husband started as tobacco farmers, but have diversified into produce, livestock and agritourism by inviting guests to “pick your own” toward the end of the season.
“People like to see where their product comes from, they like to know its not a big commercial operation,” Barron said. “Ours is down to earth.”
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.