Women on the farm

June 15, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

WILLIAMSPORT - Like four generations of Wiles women before her, youngster Rachel Wiles does her part to make her family's dairy farm successful. At 7, she's already responsible for feeding and watering the farm's calves - and recently helped deliver her first bovine baby, says Rachel's mother, Becky Wiles.

Rachel also has watched her mother juggle her work on Futuraland 2020 Holsteins Farm with her duties as a wife and mother - an experience Becky Wiles hopes will shape her daughter into both a nurturing and self-sufficient woman, she says.

"I want her to be able to know how to take care of her family," Wiles says, "but I also want her to be able to hold her own, to do a day's work."


Greg and Becky Wiles hope one day to pass to Rachel and her two older brothers a farming heritage that spans at least five generations. And though women have always played a vital role on family farms, Rachel will likely have more leadership and business opportunities in the agricultural community than her foremothers.

In agriculture, as in many industries, women now have "more opportunities to work up to their potential without slamming against the glass ceiling, so to speak," says Don Schwartz, Maryland Cooperative Extension agent for Washington County.

"Now the ability to be a farm manager is based more on brains than brawn," he says.

It isn't at all unusual, however, to see women working farmland on heavy equipment. A higher percentage of women also own and operate farms than in years past, and more women than ever before are taking over administrative duties at local family farms, says Colleen Cashell, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Washington County.

Like Cashell, more women today also hold leadership positions in the agricultural community.

Ann M. Veneman is the first woman to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Locally, Smithsburg orchardist Priscilla Harsh serves as the first female president of the Washington County Farm Bureau. Boonsboro dairy farmer Janet Stiles is the first woman to serve as regional director for the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, a milk marketing and processing cooperative serving nearly 1,600 dairy farm families from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Fonda Rowe took over for her father as owner of Tri State Farm Automation Inc. in Hagerstown.

And the list goes on.

Harsh, who owns Clopper Orchards with her brother, Ben Clopper, says education is the key that's opened many agricultural doors for women.

"More women are going off to college for agriculture, and they're putting their educations to work," Harsh says.

While her mother's generation of farm women generally steered clear of making major farm decisions, Stiles says, her dairy science degree gave her a solid foundation upon which to build her family's farm in full partnership with her late husband. Janet Stiles long handled the farm's silo and financial work while her husband did all the milking, breeding and cattle-related paperwork, she says.

"We were always the consummate of partners," says Stiles, who has been running the family dairy farm with her son, Bobby, since Tracy Stiles died several years ago.

Cashell's degree in dairy production gave her an edge over some other candidates for the top post at the county Farm Service Agency, she says. She encountered "some resistance" from male farmers when she started her job 12 years ago, but her performance soon eroded gender-based doubts, Cashell says.

Farmers' participation in programs administered by the agency has tripled in the past dozen years - a fact that Cashell attributes, in part, to the agency's management.

Women held important but limited roles on family farms when Rachel Wiles' great-great-grandparents, Russell Peter Wiles Sr. and Letha Alice Grossnickel Wiles, married in 1916 and began farming together in Frederick County, Md. Most farm women then handled household chores, reared children, milked cows and cared for such small farm animals as chickens, according to a book of Grossnickel Wiles' remembrances, "So Many Mornings." Meanwhile, men did all the field work, bought livestock and other farm-related goods and sold the farm's commodities.

Cooking alone was nearly a full-time job for Letha Wiles, who gave birth to 11 children between 1917 and 1945, says Rachel's grandmother, Martha Wiles.

As her "daddy's helper" on her family's small dairy farm in Wolfsville, Md., Martha knew her way around a barn. But Charles Wiles didn't expect his new wife to do barn work after they were married nearly 38 years ago because his mother wasn't responsible for barn work, Martha says. Her primary role in the early years of her marriage was "having babies" and helping with the farm's paperwork - but that changed after her husband was injured in an early 1970s farm accident.

"He soon figured out that I could still do that farm work," Martha says with a chuckle.

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