Promoting regenerative agriculture through women farmers
Just inland from the coast of Half Moon Bay, green, rolling hills extend in every direction. There are aces of tall grass dedicated to cattle, lamb, pigs, horses and chickens where they can graze and move about freely.
In her green overalls, tan cowgirl hat and brown cowgirl boots, Doniga Markegard really looks the part of a farm girl. With her dog, Skuya, and two of her daughters, Quill and Quince, Markegard hops into her utility van and drives out across the hills to give the cattle their hay.
And this is only one of the many chores that Markegard has to tick off her list each day.
Markegard and her husband, Erik, run The Markegard Family Grass-Fed ranch — a farm dedicated to regenerative agriculture and giving back to the land. Their philosophy is to keep their herds moving so as not to overgraze. That way, healthy grass can continue to grow, simulating biodiversity above and below ground all 365 days of the year.
But for the Markegard’s, the practice of regenerative agriculture does not just involve grassland health and no pesticides. It also involves promoting women in farming.
“Just like our land is better because of diversity, our agriculture is better when there is diversity,” said Markegard.
Every farmer knows that agriculture is historically a man’s sport.
For centuries, women have been key, invisible contributors to American farming. In ancient societies, women did a lot of the heavy lifting including hoeing, digging and hauling in the crops.
According to the 2014 Census of Agriculture by the USDA, women represent 30 percent of farmers in the United States. In states like Arizona, that number is 45 percent. In 2012, women who were the principal operators of their farm sold $12.9 billion in agricultural products and operated 62.7 million acres of farmland. However, of the 2.1 million principal farm operators nationally, only 13.7 percent were women. That’s only a 3 percent increase since 1978.
For Markegard, the grass ceiling can start to break by getting young girls dirty as early as possible. She always makes sure to involve her daughters in the farming business — be it throwing hay, mucking stalls, or building fences.
“My daughter came home from school one day and said, ‘Mom, I’m the only third grader who knows how to build a fence!'” Markegard said with a smile.
But not all girls have the opportunity to learn farming at such a young age.
Christine Hantelman, who co-owns Wookey Ranch in Chico with her husband, Richard Coon, moved from Iowa to California with no intention of being a farmer. Hantelman, Markegard and other women farmers spoke at a panel on women in regenerative agriculture at the EcoFarm Conference last month.
Even though she grew up around tons of farms, Hantelman had never learned much past chucking corn. Nonetheless, she was inspired by the idea of living off of the land and providing food for her friends and family. After quitting their day jobs, Hantelman and Coon turned their focus entirely on creating their own ranch and butchery. Now, they have 400 acres of land with sheep, chickens, turkey and pigs.
“I do all the killing, scalding and plucking of the chickens,” said Hantelman. “My husband then inspects the organs and puts them in the chiller.”
She also learned how to sheer the sheep to make wool, which is then used as mulch around the fruit trees or sold to the local co-op. The sheep also play a crucial role in keeping the long grass down to lessen the chance of a wildfire.
Hantelman notes that ranching is a huge challenge, but a good one. “If we are gonna eat meat, we need to participate in the entire process,” she said. This practice also inspired her to get a master’s in botany from Chico State University to better understand the indigenous wild grasses and wildflowers on her land.
Hantelman hopes that more women will become inspired to operate their own farm. When asked why women are necessary in the regenerative agriculture movement, she responded, “We’re half the population, so we should have at least half of the input.”
Hopefully, this sentiment will expand beyond the confines of California to women farmers in all states.
“It’s pretty lonely out there,” said Montana rancher Hilary Zaranek-Anderson, who also spoke at the EcoFarm Conference. “There are a lot of men in black cowboy hats and a lot of conventional farming operations.”
Like Hantelman, Zaranek-Anderson believes that giving back as much as you take from the land is key in breaking free of conventional farming practices, which the soil and this planet can no longer support.
“It’s not very cowboy to talk about energy, but I kid you not, it’s all about energy,” she said. “Your energetic signature that you project out into the environment really matters. Whether or not we can feel it, the rest of the animals can.”
Zaranek-Anderson is focused on changing her cattle’s grazing practices to what is called “low-stress livestock handling”. This teaches the cattle to graze as a unit, as opposed to independently. That way, when the wolves and bears come out to snatch away the young calves, their chances of succeeding are significantly reduced.
But you don’t have to be a tough cowgirl to help promote regenerative agriculture.
Community members can support local farms as opposed to the larger, industrial ones and become more conscientious of their impact on the soil and biodiversity around them.
“By caring for each other and the earth, we can make a big impact on future generations,” said Markegard. “It’s going to be healthy for your own physical, mental and spiritual being to be part of this movement.”
Originally published by Mercury News on Feb 3, 2019