The Women in Agriculture pilot project in the Greater Flint area

A pilot project, initiated by a request from women farmers in Flint and the Genesee County region in 2014, explored how to engage women in food production work by forming a supportive network.

Over the last 30 years in Michigan, the number of farm acres where women are the primary operators has more than doubled, fueled in part by new opportunities in small scale farming and associations with the local food and sustainable agriculture movements. This trend is noted in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture in 2012. The increase in women farmers has corresponded with the growth of a variety of programs aimed at supporting women’s role in agriculture, which has expanded in regions across the United States. Women are considered the fastest growing farming population in the United States, although they tend to operate smaller farms than men, which corresponds with small scale diversified farms producing for direct sales.

Echoing these trends, a group of small scale urban and peri-urban women farmers in Flint approached the executive director of Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) at a food and farming conference in Flint in the fall of 2012 with a question. What was MIFFS doing to support female farmers in the state? With its mission dedicated to supporting beginning and historically underserved farmers in Michigan, Michelle Napier-Dunnings, MIFFS executive director responded with a question in return – what type of help do you need?

In cooperation with a small grant from the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (MSU-CRFS), MIFFS began to explore how to engage female farmers in the Greater Flint region, reaching out to the local Michigan State University Extension team for support and access to their food and farming network, as well as engaging directly with diverse female food producers to build a trusting team to guide the work. In the planning process for building the pilot program, several initial design strategies were identified as important. These included limiting the geographic area, ensuring that the network was focused on food producers and designed to encourage co-creation.

The intention was to provide a space for women farming in the area to share their challenges and opportunities with each other in growing and producing food, and to identify expertise and skills from within the group to solve them. The goal that emerged was to build knowledge and connections, innovation and problem-solving capacity. Women representing a broad range of farms sizes, including urban and rural growers, value-added food producers, and farm business owners were invited and encouraged to come together ‘with a purpose’, and in subsequent meetings, asked to invite others.

Through farmer-to-farmer skill sharing in meetings and hands-on, on-farm activities from February through September of 2014, the female farmers strengthened their relationships and built trust with each other, culminating in a fall harvest celebration where the bounty of the season was shared. As the pilot wrapped up, the women farmers expressed their interest in continuing the newly formed network, appreciating the collaborative learning environment and envisioning a training space to further build their skills. MIFFS sought additional funding to continue the Women in Agriculture (WIA) network and to implement a WIA farm site in Genesee County, to support beginning and experienced farmers. Financial support came initially from the Community Foundation of Greater Flint while MIFFS partnered with MSU-CRFS on a USDA Beginning Farmer grant, which was then awarded this winter. Plans in 2015 include breaking ground on the women’s training farm, planning educational opportunities for participants (with support from Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm), and ongoing network building activities.

To learn more about the pilot program, read the recently released report, Discovering Ourselves: A Pilot Network of Women-in-Agriculture Genesee County and Extended Area which describes the planning process, developments and lessons learned that created the Women in Agriculture network of Genesee County and extended area.

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