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Originally published August 30, 2009 at 12:13 AM | Page modified September 15, 2009 at 4:48 PM

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Number of women farmers growing in Washington state and nationally

An unprecedented number of women own their own farms, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, which was released earlier this year. Between 2002 and 2007, the most recent statistics available, the number of women who own farms in Washington state soared nearly 44 percent. Although farming is still overwhelmingly dominated by men, the number of male-owned farms increased just 3 percent during that same time period.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Few things bug Claire Thomas more than being called a gardener.

The 63-year-old Redmond farmer said some people just don't get that a woman can be responsible for 180,000 pounds of produce each year.

But part of the reason she's so good at farming, Thomas said, is because she's a woman — not in spite of it.

"It's really like taking care of a family," Thomas said of tending the vegetables on her farm, The Root Connection. It's a community-supported farm that charges members a seasonal fee for fresh produce they pick up each week.

Thomas is among an unprecedented number of women who own their own farms. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of female-owned farms in Washington state soared nearly 44 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture released earlier this year.

Although farming is still overwhelmingly dominated by men, the number of male-owned farms increased just 3 percent during that same time period.

Nationally, the number of women who own farms jumped almost 29 percent from 2002 to 2007, while the number of male-owned farms stayed essentially flat.

The census counts only owners of farms that generate at least $1,000 in revenue annually.

Many women farmers say the move toward organically grown food and the surging popularity of farmers markets have contributed to the boost in women in the industry.

The census showed that men tend to own large, commodity-crop farms while women usually operate small, diversified farms — the kind that tend to target eco-conscious buyers.

Thomas said she and her seven employees hand-planted all the vegetables on her 22-acre farm. Once her plants are in the soil, the main tools she uses to care for them are her hands — and the occasional pair of scissors.

Whether it's the carrots, the tomatoes, the squash or the beets, she makes sure she treats each vegetable as if it were a child with its own unique needs.

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"I talk to them," she said, while snipping leaves from her tomato plants. "I'll look at them and say, 'OK, you all grow now.' "

It just wouldn't be as satisfying to operate a large farm with "a whole lot of machinery and a whole lot of acres," Thomas said. At a big farm, she would hardly come into contact with the plants she grew or people who bought her food.

About 500 customers sign up each season to buy produce from her farm.

"I think that this more personal relationship really appeals to women," Thomas said.

Most women who own farms are between 45 and 54 years old, according to the census. Many of them grew up thinking that women weren't supposed to be farmers — like Nancy Hutto, chairwoman of the King County Agriculture Commission and owner of Snoqualmie Valley Honey Farm.

When Hutto, 68, was growing up, women were told they had to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries, she said. She went into teaching, but it bored her. In her 30s, she decided she needed to move onto something new, something more challenging. So she started her own business — a honey-bee farm.

"You're always having to interact with nature, which is a continual and ongoing dance," she said.

Some women farmers said they were lured to farming by the chance to make money while working from home and keeping a close eye on their children. They also didn't want to work for someone else. As a farmer, you're your own boss, Hutto said.

However, women haven't always been accepted as serious farmers.

Anne Schwartz, 55, said she remembers encountering the kind of sexism "that would just make you raise your eyebrows and drop your jaw." She owns a 13-acre organic vegetable farm in Rockport, Skagit County, called Blue Heron, with three full-time employees.

Schwartz recalled when she was first starting out as a farmer at the Upper Skagit Valley's Cascadian Farm in the 1970s. One day she had just finished scrubbing the combine and was covered in filth.

"This guy pulled up to buy some berries and he said, 'You're an abomination to womanhood — you should be ashamed of yourself,' " Schwartz said. "He was very offended by what I looked like."

Another time, she said, a man told her she had no right to call herself a farmer, and that she was just an "extravagant gardener." But Schwartz, like other women farmers, didn't let remarks like that derail her career.

As stereotypes about women farmers crumble, more women also are inheriting farms from their families, said Patrice Barrentine, direct-marketing coordinator for the state's agriculture department.

"In the past, women weren't seen as farmers, so typically farms were handed down from male to male, and that's just not the case anymore," she said.

As more women enter the industry the world of farming will begin to change, Thomas said. She named her farm The Root Connection to remind people what it's like to bond with the earth — an aspect of farming that she thinks the industry deserted long ago but women farmers will help to revive.

When people come to her farm, Thomas tells everyone that touching is welcome. She encourages everyone to pick some of her flowers, herbs and greens to go with the vegetables she packs for them.

"If you want (it)," she said, "you've got to come out here in the heat, in the rain, and pick it yourself."

Jean Guerrero: 206-464-2311 or jguerrero@seattletimes.com

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