Throughout the United States, about 30 percent of farmers were women in 2007, a 19 percent increase in just five years. They make much less than their male counterparts — $36,000 a year versus $150,671, and farm less than half the acreage per capita, yet the women are more likely to own their own land, according to Jenny Carleo of Rutgers Cooperative Extension
In New Jersey there are about 2,261 women-operated farms, about one-fifth of the total number of farms in the state. Their farms average 29 acres in size and produce, on average, $22,170 a year in products, way below the state average of $95,584.
Carleo says that a growing number of women are eager to start on the journey.“A lot of new farmers are women,” she finds.
Two local woman farmers — both Ivy League educated — who are currently treading that path are Jess Niederer, profiled below, and and Tannwen Mount, see story on following page.
Niederer, 29, owner of Chickadee Creek Farm on Titus Mill Road in Pennington, claims that being a bit of an anomaly in a male-dominated profession is more of an advantage than otherwise. “I get asked what I’m doing there a lot, and I get to tell my story,” she says, adding, “I’m usually up for any advice anyone would like to give me.”
But she admits that the few male farmers who will not stop calling her farm a “garden” do drive her a little crazy. For them, she has to spell out her farming credentials, giving them a line like this: “My tractor recently had a fuel leak, and I had to take apart the filters and check the priming pump to figure out the source of the problem.”
At the same time, Niederer suggests that for smaller-scale organic vegetable farms like hers, male dominance may be on the decrease. “An overwhelming number of women apply to be my employees,” she says.
Her father, Steve Niederer, also a farmer, was initially against Jess’s decision to follow in his path. “It was not something he was looking for his Ivy League-educated daughter to get into,” she says.
His worries had nothing to do with machismo, but rather with his own struggles as a farmer. Having experinced the struggles of faming first hand, he was mostly concerned about whether his daughter could make a living as the owner of an organic farm.
But because things are going well for his daughter — she is not investing tons of money with no return, and is moving slowly toward meeting her goals — he has become more accepting. “He’s coming around because I’m not being a fool,” she says. “It has come to be rewarding for him — after overcoming the shock of the thing.”
As a farmer himself, the elder Niederer has also been able to mentor her in some ways, particularly in the tool shed. “You can learn to fix everything a lot faster if you have someone who can fix everything working by you and giving you tips,” she says. Repair is apparently a critical farming skill; as the saying goes, “agriculture is 20 percent farming and 80 percent fixing what got busted.”
Very much looking the part, Niederer, in tan overalls and boots with thick dirty-blonde braids peaking out from her hat, now leases eight acres from her father, who raises Timothy hay and in the past has also planted soybeans and wheat. Completing the picture is her dog, Tilly (his actual name is Tiller, but she has to use his nickname because sometimes people hear “Tiller” as “Killer”).
Niederer currently has a propagation greenhouse and five high tunnels, which are unheated greenhouses where plants grow in the ground through the winter. The propagation greenhouse, where she produces all her own seedlings, is constructed from a series of tall, arching hoops and is covered in its entirety with clear plastic. She does not heat it until she begins planting seeds in mid-February, and then she heats sections only as she needs them, creating smaller spaces by draping plastic over a hoop and fastening it down with greenhouse tape. This has enabled her to reduce by $1,000 the very high propane costs she faced her first year. “It was a good thing to discover,” she says.
Niederer starts her seeding with the long-season crops that require 90 to 100 days before harvest, and frost-hearty peas are the first to go into the ground — as soon as it is ready, about mid-March.
Some crops grow through the winter, albeit at a slower rate, in her high tunnels, for example, lettuce, arugula, salad mix, tatsoi (a green that tastes like a cross between spinach and broccoli), kale, Swiss chard, and spinach; and at the tail end of the winter radishes, sweet turnips, and bok choy.
Peaking into one of her high tunnels and picking up the corner of a row cover that she uses when the temperature dips below 20 degrees at night, we see small spinach plants. They went into the ground in mid-October and produced very well in November and December. Then she “harvested them hard” for the January market, which was okay because their roots were well established. During January and February they grow slowly, ready to go gangbusters again in March. Niederer notes that she would be way behind if she started with baby plants in March.
Because the farm’s soil, Bucks silt loam, is good at retaining water, usually a thorough watering at the end of the fall provides sufficient moisture in the ground until March, although in a very warm winter some additional watering might be necessary.
In another high tunnel, lettuce is growing at a slow rate, but the bunch she cuts off with a harvest knife is tasty, the only difference being that the leaves are a little thicker during the winter.
The method of harvesting different crops — by hand or mechanically — depends entirely on the scale. In the summer, she will have a row of lettuce about 200 feet long and picks by hand, whereas for a mechanical harvester to be feasible, she would need to be growing many times more than she is now.
Niederer’s most recently built high tunnel is taller than the others — because she had a little more spare cash that she could sink back into her farm. It will be used to grow almost all of the 35 different varieties of tomatoes she plants, in four categories: red slicing, cherry, sauce, and heirloom. Its extra height is because certain tomatoes are indeterminate, meaning that they will grow more and produce more flowers with more space.
Niederer notes that it is difficult to grow organic tomatoes outside, where they are subject to bacterial and fungal diseases as well as water mold — spread by wind, weather, and raindrops.
Whenever the winter crops in the high tunnels are ready, she harvests them and sells them either in the new market in downtown Flemington or in the Princeton Farmer’s Market, which meets monthly in the Princeton Public Library community room.
Recently she visited a farm in New York state that manages to sell weekly at winter markets to get some ideas for expanding her own winter production. One thing she learned is that she will need to build a root cellar for vegetables like beets, cabbages, potatoes, and carrots that can be stored in perfect condition and brought to market throughout the winter. She also learned that she can plant vegetables closer to one another than she has been doing. Finally, she realized that she will need to better ventilate her high tunnels, which by midmorning, before their doors are opened, heat up and get very humid — an ideal environment for plants to get sick.
Niederer very much enjoys the learning side of farming, and says, “If you could be a master at doing everything after three years as a farmer, everybody would be doing it.”
Growing outdoors in the winter are 10 350-foot-long raised beds of garlic, where tiny greens peak out from under a leaf mulch cover. Niederer grows two kinds of garlic. The majority is hard-neck garlic, which produces the flowering stalks known as “garlic scapes.” They taste like garlicky green beans when lightly sauteed, says Niederer. One of the beds is devoted to soft-neck garlic, which is used to make garlic braids in the fall.
The leaf mulch that covers the garlic keeps the weeds down and during the winter prevents the extreme frost heave, created by the alternation between freezes and thaws, that brings rocks to the surface and could push the garlic cloves right out of the ground.
This mulch comes from long piles near her fields and greenhouses where Hopewell Township and Borough have dumped their autumn leaf pickups during the last two years. In the first pile, from 2012, the leaves are still discernible, but in the second they have decomposed and are nearly ready to be used as mulch.
Niederer’s farm is on its way to being fully certified as organic. Before being certified as “organic,” plants must spend three years in fields where no synthetics have been used. Some of her land has reached that milestone, and at market crops produced in this area are labeled “organic;” the others are labeled “transitional organic.”
Niederer’s great-grandfather Otto immigrated to the United States in 1910, largely because Switzerland was out of land. When he arrived in this country, he worked in a laceworks factory in Union City and also bought a farm in Titusville that today is part of Washington Crossing State Park.
Times got hard for Otto when his cows got tuberculosis, and part of his farm was taken over by the state. But he saved his family by inventing a machine that graded and processed eggs, the Egomatic. Whereas earlier farmers had to weigh each egg by hand, with the Egomatic the eggs rolled on a conveyer belt, passing over scales along the way. If the egg was too light to tip the first scale, it would roll on to the next one, and so forth. When it did tip a scale, it rolled to the side onto padded springs coiled to different thicknesses to make channels to hold the eggs. A cool video of the operation is available on Youtube.
Continuing to farm on the side, Otto and his two sons, Otto Jr., and Herb — Jess Niederer’s grandfather — stayed in the business, which took a brief detour during the war when the Eg-omatic technology was contracted by the government to create the Rivetomatic, whose purpose was to efficiently sort airplane rivets by size. During the manufacturing process the rivets would drop onto the floor; after they were swept up and put into buckets, they needed to be sorted easily for efficient reuse.
Although Otto never stopped farming, Niederer’s father is not so sure he was gung ho about it. Niederer explains her father’s theory about his inventive grandfather. “He liked farming because it was peaceful and quiet, and he could think stuff up and not be bugged by anybody.”
Eventually the rest of the original farm was taken over by the government via eminent domain, and N iederer’s grandfather used the money the family received for its land to buy the farm that is now her father’s. “My dad has farmed his whole life,” she says, “since he was old enough to be stuck on a tractor.”
After purchasing the farm from her grandfather, her dad farmed the property while also doing other work to support his family — as a welder for the family business, a driller of elevator shafts for the World Trade Center towers, and maintenance supervisor at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. He also bought his own well-drilling rigs, then when he was done drilling wells for his farm, turned them over for a nice profit. As his daughter says admiringly, “He can fix anything.”
Niederer’s mother was a secretary in the public works department, eventually taking on more responsibility, and today is the assistant to the administrator in Hopewell Township.
Niederer and her siblings all went to college, but growing up she was a farm girl through and through. When she was a child, her father ran a horse-boarding stable, and as early as age eight she had partial responsibility for filling the water buckets, mucking out the stalls, and letting the horses in and out. By 11, she was fully responsible for this and recalls that once she got really good at it, she was able to do it in about an hour and a half a day. She was also paid for her efforts, something like 25 cents a stall. “It was piecework — good training for farming, where you get paid by the piece, not by the hour,” she says. “Your income was related to how many units you were able to get done.”
The wheat and hay that Niederer’s father grew had to be baled, and she remembers happy moments when the kids would stack the bales for storage. “It is a big harvest, and everyone is doing it all at once — you call everybody you know to come help,” says Jess. For example, as a quid pro quo the guys who hunt in her father’s 50 acres of woods for no charge are expected to help out on big projects like harvests. “It is a bunch of people really straining themselves but at least everybody is doing it together,” she says.
Harvests also mean hurrying up. “How fast you have to go depends on the weather,” says Niederer. “You have a time period when the crop is perfectly ripe, cured, or seasoned and ready to be brought in, and a weather event that could ruin it all. It’s best to operate under the assumption that you don’t have much time.”
Another thing Niederer learned early on was how to save money wherever possible. When she was about eight, her father was offered a Pennsylvania barn for free and he brought it truckload by truckload to his farm in New Jersey. They still use it today; it houses a walk-in cooler for vegetable storage, a tool shop, and farm equipment.
As a teen, Niederer was one of only a sprinkling of other farm kids and does not remember being at all separated from the mainstream. But there was one thing she was singled out for: “I have had huge biceps since I was eight years old — not a physio-type that is common among middle and high school females in this country,” she says, explaining, “I have done physical labor for a long time and my body is different because of that. Now that is trendy, but I don’t know if you think it’s trendy when you are 13.”
The farm kids were pretty much intermingled with everyone else, but they did share a simple understanding, she says: “You understood the need to shovel shit if that’s what is necessary.”
In addition to her farm tasks, Niederer also had an after-school job starting at age 14, at Rosedale Mills, up the street from her family’s farm.
When Niederer started college at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, she had a clear vision of her future, although that was to change. “I wanted to be an environmental scientist and eventually work in conservation biology and, if possible, just be outside all the time,” she recalls.
But she learned pretty quickly that science didn’t work for her. “I felt impatient personally doing scientific research at that point,” she says. “Part of it is that we know a lot about what we are supposed to be doing in science, conservation, and environment science — using less fuel, putting less carbon in the atmosphere, cutting down fewer rainforests — we already know this, but we’re just not doing it.”
She started thinking that this path would just lead to frustration and turned her thoughts in a different direction. “I understood that food and human health were a big part of the picture that I cared about, and I cared about being near family and this farm,” she says.
When Niederer took off two different semesters while in college — one in New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and another in Nicaragua to learn to speak Spanish, she learned a lot about herself in ways that were critical to her future choices.
The semester in Nicaragua during her sophomore year was motivated by two things. “The goal was to get out of the country and see a little of another culture,” she says, “and I wanted to be somewhat bilingual.” She ended up in a one-woman program in the town of Ocotal in northern Nicaragua, where she learned to speak Spanish from elementary school teachers and in return gave English lessons to the children in their schools.
Culturally what made the biggest impression on her was how family-centric the people in the town were. “There were not too many people in the town where I was living who would have voluntarily made a choice to move away from their family,” she says, remembering the many times she was asked, “Don’t you miss your family right now?”
She realized that this sense of connection to family is normal for most of the world, whereas Americans, perhaps due to our being a nation of immigrants or because of our upward mobility, often choose to go away from their families — as most of her peer cohort from high school has done. “They do not decide consciously that the place they grew up is the place they are going to take care of,” she says. “Seeing that somewhere else challenged me to think about how I relate to family, home, and the farm I grew up on, and it opened the door for me to decide I wanted to come home eventually.”
Then during winter break at the end of 2005, she went to New Orleans to help with the devastation following the hurricanes, but decided to stay on through the next semester. “I realized I had to go back to school and New Orleans was not fixed yet, she says. Working for an organization called Common Ground Relief, she helped gut houses and helped run a distribution center for items like cleaning supplies, food, potable water, and clothing distributed to people trying to come back and clean up their homes.
She was also involved in organizing and finishing up an effort to take over a school in the lower ninth ward that the city was condemning. The community around it felt it was being condemned because the city didn’t have much of an interest in revitalizing that poor neighborhood, she says, but the government claimed the school was unsafe, which turned out not to be true according to the engineers, and today it is a community-run charter school.
Before her experience in New Orleans, Niederer was studying to be a conservation biologist and was interested in doing fieldwork, saving habitats, and improving environmental quality, but that all changed. In New Orleans, the people in the communities she worked in had chronically poor health and little access to primary rather than emergency healthcare. Many had heart conditions and diabetes that were exacerbated by the stress of the hurricanes. Seeing all of this changed how she looked at the world. “In New Orleans I became very interested in taking care of people as well, because I was interested in the welfare and fair treatment of people and the health of people,” she says.
In response to the devastation she had seen she became an emergency medical technician when she returned home. “There were situations where I realized I didn’t know anything about taking care of a human in a health emergency, and I felt it was important to learn,” she says. Today she is still an EMT volunteer for the Pennington First Aid Squad, doing a 12-hour shift every Thursday night throughout the six months when her farming duties slow down.
Niederer ended up majoring in natural resources, having decided she wanted to get out of college as soon as possible, and she graduated at the end of 2006. She notes that she did not study agriculture, even though, looking back, she realizes how useful that would have been.
After college she went to work to pay off her college loans, which took about a year and a half of part-time waitressing. She also started working at Honey Brook Organic Farm lon Wargo Road in Pennington. “I started thinking I might want to farm but figured I wanted to make sure it was not just a romantic notion,” she says, even though she did already know that farming is hard work, but work that she enjoys. Its owner, Jim Kinsel, taught her a lot about farming.
She thought carefully about where to get a farming job because she was interested in making a living from farming, without having a full-time job in addition, as her dad had to do. “I picked a farm locally where it looked like the farmers were making a living and farming with ideals that I could relate to — organic versus conventional agriculture, crop rotations, trying to make food affordable for customers, and also being able to pay their employees fairly well,” she says.
After two years at Honey Brook, she became the 13th generation of Niederer farmers, starting Chickadee Creek Farm while working on the side at Cherry Grove Organic Farm
Her ideals around farming include making enough money to pay herself enough and to pay the people who work for her well enough that they will potentially stay with her for a long time. “Nobody feels like they are being cheated, but I’d like to be able to pay people and myself better,” she says.
Making money is not just an economic necessity for Niederer, but also a way to achieve her ecological ideals. “If farmers are financially successful,” she says, “they can be much better stewards of the land they are farming.” They do not have to exploit the land, for one reason, because with more money they will be able to buy organic compost rather than the less expensive alternative — 10 10 10 spray. Organic fertilizer costs a lot more per pound of nitrogen, notes Niederer, but the nitrogen is far less volatile, which means it is less able to convert to a form that becomes a greenhouse gas. She adds that 60 percent of the greenhouse gas produced by agriculture is from the use of synthetic fertilizer — not from driving tractors around.
Another way that having more money is useful is to help farmers like herself overcome the temptation to keep farming on the same piece of ground, which will wear out the soil. “If you can rest the land and plant a cover crop and not harvest for a year, then you are creating land that is going to be able to produce better for you and require less inputs shipped to your farm to fertilize subsequent crops,” she says.
To meet these challenges, as well as to earn enough to buy her land from her father, she needs to get to a bigger scale, estimating that to achieve all her goals she would need to plant 15 acres of vegetables.
During her time with Kinsel, Niederer focused largely on the pragmatics of farming. For example, he would have her repackage wheel bearings, a dirty task that involves taking apart the wheel and cleaning out the dust and grit on the rotating part of the axle. This is necessary to prevent pitting in the metal that can cause a wheel to fall off a tractor, which is very dangerous. Once the wheel is clean, it must be inspected to see if parts are showing wear, replacements ordered, the axle repacked with grease, and then the whole lot put back together.
Niederer also started learning more about tractors, whose use is not necessarily straightforward. They come in different sizes and have different pieces of equipment attached that do specific jobs, each with its own range of operational settings.
A rototiller, for example, has to be set for a certain number of rotations per minute and a particular depth of soil penetration, and requires that the tractor move at a certain groundspeed. “It depends on the soil conditions you are looking for at the end,” says Niederer. “The manipulation of those factors is important for achieving the desired result. As the operator, you can change these to make it do the right thing.” And, she adds, a farmer wants to use the lowest possible horsepower a job requires, both for improving efficiency and putting less weight on the soil so as to compact it less.
To give the uninitiated a glimpse of what a farmer needs to know about tractors, Niederer describes the tractors and attachments she had to learn to use. The chisel plow breaks up compaction layers in the soil, but the disc (actually an array of discs) is the primary tillage tool and starts flipping over the soil to prepare for planting.
The manure spreader covers the fields with the leaf compost that Niederer uses. “We would love to use compost manures,” she says, “but we don’t have an easily accessible source.” Compost manures have a higher nutrient percentage than leaf compost, but, she says, “part of farming is working with the materials that are available to you.”
The six-foot-wide rototiller works the compost into the soil, but not too deeply. Because this tool rotates quickly on a single level, it can create an undesirable smeared layer called a “hard pan.” The goal is to lightly work the very top layer of soil to create a smooth, fluffy surface for planting without developing a barrier to the plant roots.
The bed form shapes the soil into a raised bed, so that in a really wet year the plants are not sitting in a puddle. The roots, notes Niederer, need to have a lifted-up zone where they can have an air exchange, and the ideal soil composition is 45 percent mineral, 5 percent organic matter, 25 percent water, and 25 percent air. In a wet year, where 50 percent could be water, a raised bed provides a place for the water to drain. “Plant roots need air or they die,” says Niederer, and she advises home gardeners that they are likely to see a drastic yield increase with a bed raised to a height of at least four inches.
A cultivating tractor straddles a bed and has an array of tools underneath that can be lifted and lowered. One of its uses is to sweep and agitate the ground on either side of a bed, which in effect weeds between the rows — although a little bit of hand cleanup is necessary close to the row. “It’s hard to kill every weed without killing the crop,” says Niederer.
For potatoes, the same cultivating tractor can create furrows with an implement that is tilted at an angle. After the farmworkers throw seed potatoes into these furrows, the tractor is used to cover them back up. Then, when the potatoes are ready to be harvested, the tractor sinks the same implement used to create the furrows more deeply so that it throws the potatoes on top of the soil. Currently these are picked up by hand and put in a bag, but if the scale of the planting were much bigger, it would make sense to purchase a mechanical potato harvester, says Niederer.
She has a lot of the farming mechanics down, but in terms of business Niederer still has a lot to learn. “None of it is rocket science, but there are a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross and paperwork to stay on top of — proper filing, permit gathering,” she says.
Another aspect of the agriculture business, of course, is how you sell your produce and for how much. Niederer read in a 2009 issue of “Growing for Market” about a farm in Oklahoma that was selling its produce through a “market CSA (community supported agriculture).” With this approach, farm customers commit their business in advance by establishing an account with a cash payment. Pickup during the season can be done at any of a number of one-day-a-week farmers’ markets, and “payment” is via a reduction in the customer’s account balance.
Niederer liked this idea, having often heard the complaints of customers to a regular CSA, where food is apportioned by “shares” and customers can end up with way too of one item and not enough of another. With a market CSA, customers only buy what they want and as much as they need.
As a businesswoman, the upside for Niederer is that she gets paid in January and February, and customers are committing their business to her farm. For her customers, they get a discount off the market table price of the produce (and the discount increases, based on the amount of money the customer puts up before the season begins). Clients also feel a lot more connected to the farm, coming to seasonal potlucks and getting a weekly update of farm doings with their account balances.
Niederer warns that sometimes early in the season, she may run out of, say, head lettuce, but the customers are not charged and are likely to get it the following week. “Farming is pretty unpredictable,” she says, noting that the size of crops is affected by weather, bugs, and plant diseases.
If for some reason she ends up with a huge amount of some type of produce, as she did last year with ginger, she will sell to Zone 7, a farm fresh-distribution service founded by Mikey Azzara that connects farmers and chefs. This service is very different from what her father faces when he has excess grain and has to take it to an auction, where he is entirely a price taker.
This year Niederer will be offering her produce at five markets, where she sets her price by determining her breakeven and how much profit she needs to make above that. These include: Montgomery, on Saturdays from 9 to 1 by the Village Shopper on 206; the Stangl factory in downtown Flemington on Saturdays from 9 to 2; Pennington at Rosedale Mills, Saturdays from 9-1; Rutgers Gardens, on Fridays from 12-4; and Princeton Library Plaza, on Thursdays from 11-4.
Musing about what a farmer is, Niederer notes how daunted she has been by the eight-page, bullet-pointed DACUM (Developing A Curriculum), which is a job occupational analysis and profile performed by expert workers in an occupation.
She says, “I teach a class for people aspiring to farm for NOFA-NJ (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey) and show them that profile to scare the shit out of them.”
Farming, she says, requires a person to have or to develop “a decently diverse skill set.” Farmers have to be able to fix things, get a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection, work a 14-hour day in the sun, soothe a disgruntled employee, weld a disc array when it breaks, and effectively tell someone how to prepare an eggplant. “If you can’t explain how to use it, they can’t buy it,” she explains. As someone who is very busy and does not have time to cook, yet expects to eat healthfully, she favors and provides for her customers recipes with short lists of ingredients and short instructions.
At her 10th reunion at TK High School, Niederer was surprised to learn that more than half of her former classmates seemed to hate their jobs, whereas “the ones who loved their jobs cared about the work they were doing.”
So recently, when she spoke at the National Honor Society induction at Hopewell Valley Central High School, she urged the students to figure out how to make a living doing something they care about — as she is. But, realistically, she adds, a mite sadly, “it’s still possible that half will do it for the money.”
Chickadee Creek Farm. Titus Mill Road, Pennignton, 08534. 609-462-3854. Jess Niederer, farmer. chickadeecreekfarm.com