Their chosen fields
An increasing number of family farms are run by women. They do it for love of land. Just ask Joann Beasley.
By DAN DEWITT
Published July 13, 2006
[Times photos: Keri Wiginton]
|Joann Beasley, 42, puts gas into her Case tractor before planting a crop of southern peas on her farm in Brooksville. She took over Beasley Farm after her father died 10 years ago. She often works outside from morning until night and can go weeks without venturing into the city. She had a more conventional job once, working as a medical assistant, but she was miserable.
||Beasley bushhogs a field at Beasley Farm in Brooksville while Menchaca tills the ground in preparation for planting a crop of southern peas. Menchaca formerly managed a feed lot in Georgia.
||Beasley and Menchaca sort crops after a trip to a market in Tampa. Beasley goes to markets to sell her produce and stock her farm with peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables she does not grow.
BROOKSVILLE -- Ten thousand freshly harvested onions, piled in a shed, await cleaning so they can be delivered to market. A field covered by a waist-high jungle of weeds and played-out squash plants needs to be mowed and plowed.
Nearby is another field, this one tilled and ready for planting, and, at the edge of it, a red and gray Case tractor. The woman behind the wheel, Joann Beasley, is the one who decides which of these jobs will be done when.
"I've got to get these peas planted before it rains," says Beasley, 42, looking up at the gathering clouds. "That's my priority right now."
The tractor is 30 years old and the work timeless. Only Beasley represents something new - trendy, even, though she is a traditionalist who would cringe at the idea.
The number of women running farms increased 86 percent in the United States and 83 percent in Florida between 1978 and 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That pattern has continued, said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. By 2014, his department estimates, 75 percent of family farms in Florida will be operated by women.
Pleased as women farmers are by this success, they can't ignore that it has come in a waning - some say dying - segment of agriculture: the family farm.
The average farmer in the United States and in Florida is more than 55 years old, McElroy said. Many of the "new" women farm owners are aging widows who have inherited land from their husbands. Beasley and other women farmers interviewed for this story said they were motivated more by passion for agriculture than by money. Several of them said that their operations, as is often true of family farms, survive only because they or their spouses worked elsewhere.
Most large farms, meanwhile, continue to be owned by men or male-dominated corporations, said Cynthia Connolly, who owns an organic farm and vineyard in Monticello.
Connolly, who received a doctorate in agricultural education from Iowa State University in 1980, compares family farming in the United States to medicine in the Soviet Union, where women became a force in a poorly paid profession.
"Historically, whenever something is taken over by women, it hasn't been well remunerated or respected."
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The most successful small farms succeed by catering to emerging markets, McElroy said. Beasley has done this by growing traditional crops and selling them to locals who want to pay their respects to their vanishing rural heritage.
For them, a trip to buy vegetables at Beasley's farm is a pilgrimage.
To get there, they drive east about 5 miles from downtown Brooksville until they come to a John Deere tractor permanently parked in her front yard. Next to it is a sign that says "Beasley Farm" and a lime rock driveway that leads into a forest of mid-size oaks. These shade a produce barn with white-painted plywood bins holding squash, tomatoes, onions and peppers, and a chalkboard that lists their prices.
On weekends, the yard usually is filled with customers who almost always can catch Beasley at work, on a tractor in the adjacent fields or in the barn sorting vegetables. But on this morning, in the middle of the last week of June, the spring harvest had ended and Beasley could spare a few minutes to sit at a picnic table and talk.
She says she hasn't noticed the ascension of women in family farming - "Not around here, anyway" - only agriculture's overall decline.
"A lot of the farmers around here," she says, "have sold their land for housing developments so they can be sitting there with a pocketful of money and they don't have to sweat . . .
"Young people don't want any part of any work where they don't have air conditioning."
If her opinions sound like an old man's, it may be because she learned so much from her father, Joseph LeDuc, who died 10 years ago at age 73.
He owned a welding shop, not a farm, when she was growing up in Michigan. But when he came home from work in the evenings he invariably walked back out the door to his garden, where he raised vegetables and, later, cut flowers that he sold to local shops.
"His love for the dirt was unreal," said his widow, Angie LeDuc, 79.
"I'm just like my daddy," said Beasley, briefly glancing down at her body. She seems proud, in a way that some women might not be, that it is perfectly built for manual labor: slim waist, muscular shoulders and strong, wide hands.
"I have his feet, his hair, his hands," she said - and his instinctive feel for working the land.
"That's what I remember, growing up, farming with my dad. I was his little sidekick," she said. "He was a great guy. He was the best. And he seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did his."
A congenital heart problem forced him to retire to Florida where, ignoring his doctors' advice to rest as much as possible, he began raising cattle.
Beasley, meanwhile, attended college and then went to work as a medical assistant, first in Michigan and later Florida, a distasteful period for her.
She hates computers, phones and paperwork. She is so uncomfortable in enclosed spaces that when she takes her two daughters to a movie, she insists on going to the drive-in in Dade City. In her last job as a medical assistant, she was confined to a small, windowless office that she called "the cave."
"All I did was stay inside and listen to people complain," she said. "Boy, did I miss working outside with my dad."
When he became gravely ill in the mid 1990s, she wanted to take care of him. To make this easier, she and her husband, James, bought a double-wide mobile home that they moved onto her parents' 12-acre property.
"I wasn't working then. My kids were small. It was a really, really hard time for me," she said.
When he died, she said, she grieved for a full year. Then she planted an oak sapling in her father's memory at the edge of one pasture and made up her mind to devote herself to farming.
Realizing that the cattle were a financial drain, she started selling them off. Her father had collected tractors as a hobby; she put them to work. She raised cucumbers and zucchini in the spring, peas and okra in the summer, radishes and turnips in the winter. To avoid the heavy use of pesticides, she chose not to grow crops that would require them, such as corn and tomatoes. She began delivering her vegetables to local groceries and selling them at her farm.
"I found that people were really happy with our produce. I was making a little bit of money," she said. "I found peace."
During the next several years - as the oak grew to more than 20 feet tall and began to spread its branches over the pasture - she and her husband bought six more acres and signed agreements to lease an additional 14. Five years ago, she took on a friend and neighbor, Rolando Menchaca, 58, as a business partner.
Menchaca, who formerly managed a feed lot in Georgia, has contributed his long experience in agriculture and helped Beasley navigate its enclaves of male chauvinism, especially the produce market off E Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa.
They drive there once or twice a week to sell their vegetables and buy varieties they don't grow for resale at their barn. Beasley said the male vendors always seem to offer better prices to her partner.
Menchaca, in turn, has been energized by her passion.
"I'd see her on a tractor and I'd say, gosh, there aren't too many women like her," Menchaca said.
She was driving her tractor as he said this, on her way to one of their leased properties, while he slowly followed in a Chevrolet pickup truck. They drove through a gate and into a 10-acre clearing divided into a half-dozen plots of freshly turned, sandy soil. One of these was faintly striped with rows of sprouting black-eyed peas the two of them had planted only a few days earlier.
"They're beautiful," Beasley said, stopping to take a look.
In a neighboring plot, she went to work, carefully holding a straight line as her tractor pulled a decades-old two-row planter, which cut narrow troughs in the soil and filled them with an evenly spaced line of pink conch peas.
She and Menchaca worked through the lunch hour and, in the evening, drove to the Tampa market to stock up for the busy Fourth of July weekend. They returned at 2:30 a.m. and woke up six hours later, to prepare one of the squash fields for the summer pea crop, pulling up the black plastic irrigation lines, mowing the tangled plants and turning them into soil.
Finally, at noon, they returned to the shaded picnic table for a water break.
Through such relentless work, Beasley said, she and Menchaca have built a business profitable enough that they plan to buy an automatic pea sheller this year and are scouting out more land to lease.
But she said she might not have succeeded without the inherited advantages of land, machinery and a mother who cooks, keeps her farm's books and deals with customers. She may not have been able to survive setbacks such as the 2004 hurricane season if not for her husband's job, maintaining fences on property owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. And, though she plans to expand her business, she has neither the ambition nor resources to compete with the large corporate operations.
"I'm happy if I can clear expenses and have a little extra left over," she said.
Beasley is aware of one other limitation to her business: It will end with her.
Her daughters - Stacy, 15, and Kelly, 12 - are great kids, she said, good students, respectful and likable. But they are not like Beasley or her father. Neither of them wants to farm, and by 1 p.m., Beasley couldn't help but notice that her oldest daughter had not yet left the house.
"I'm going to get her butt out here," Beasley said.
Mother and daughter emerged from the house a few minutes later, Stacy with a fresh application of lipstick and her hair shining.
"She's tall. She's beautiful," her mother said. "She's Stacy."
"I support my mom and I'm happy for her," Stacy said, after sitting down at the table.
So, does she have any interest in taking over her mother's farm?
She looked around at the barn, the tractor, her mother, and shook her head.
"Not really."Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or email@example.com.
[Last modified July 12, 2006, 17:32:37]
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