Women’s History Month – Meet a Farmer!

This Women’s History Month, we are excited to get to know more about one of the amazing women of the local farming community – farmer Anna Swanberg. Anna runs Bent Gate Farms in Agnew, working to produce clean, sustainable, grass-fed meats for our community and beyond. Bent Gate Farms was one of the eight farms recognized last fall with the Land Trust’s “Farmer of the Year” award for their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. When we asked Anna to join the harvest-time event to accept the award on behalf of all farms, we had no idea what a treat we were in for. Anna’s authentic voice and passion for her work is evident in all that she says and does, and we are so glad to have her working in our amazing community of small farms. Join us as we learn more about Anna in the third (and final) interview in our Women’s History Month series…

How did your early upbringing influence your decision to become a farmer?
While I always loved animals (when I was in elementary school I planned to be Shamu’s trainer at SeaWorld until I learned I’d have to move to California away from my family), I never thought that I would have a farm like we do now. In my late teens I envisioned myself in the healthcare field as a paramedic or flight nurse. I really enjoyed science, especially biology and that knowledge has crossed over well to farming.

I adored spending time on my aunt and uncle’s hobby farm in Kent. They always had horses but they also had a constant rotation of everything from pigs to peafowl and rabbits and cows. My aunt was a school bus driver and seemingly knew everyone along her route so as soon as she heard of an animal needing a home, it made its way to their place. I loved going over there and seeing what new critter had arrived since the last time I had visited. She died shortly after we got started farming and I really wish she was here to see it. No doubt she would be my partner in crime helping me expand the variety of animals we raise.

What (if any) hurdles/challenges have you faced as a female farmer? 

Even though the percentage of female farmers is increasing overall, the livestock sector is still heavily dominated by male owners and operators, many of whom look down on female operators as less than. Integrating with this group of producers can be really intimidating for me. I’m thankful for the really awesome ones that have helped me get my foot in the door and are always there for us. 

I fight with my own lack of confidence and hesitate to ask for what I need to make the farm successful. We lease most of the land we farm and it can be challenging during negotiations to stand up to terms our farm can afford. Each time I do though, it’s like a check in the confidence column that makes the next time a little easier. 

In general, parenting and farming aren’t well respected professions. So like many work from home parents, I sometimes don’t feel like I’m enough.  I used to work in Emergency Medical Services which is a much higher profile, well respected career path. It can feel like my job as a farmer is valued less than the work in EMS that  I used to do. Each time someone reaches out to me and asks me to be a panelist, do a presentation or an interview, I get a case of imposter syndrome. All that being said, I’m grateful for the community of people who are changing all these things. We have some amazing supporters in our county that reach out with encouraging words. I watch my girls out in the fields, confidently driving tractors, backing up trailers, moving cattle around the field and I see the difference just one generation can make.

What is your favorite part of your work? 

I love the variety that each day brings. I really thrive on coming up with new ideas, trying new things, making adjustments and figuring out ways to improve. Ideas are constant and because I have so many, my family likes to jokingly roll their eyes when I start a conversation with, “I was thinking that we could try…” Some of this year’s big ideas are to start breeding our own pigs, expand the fall breeding herd of cattle, buy some new breeds of ewes and rotate the sheep at cattle together.

We are fairly new to farming and still make mistakes. While I could do without the inevitable prices these mistakes cost, it feeds into the “Try something new” approach I enjoy. Just this year I learned that I was turning the ram in too early with the ewes. This often causes them to get pregnant on their first cycle when they aren’t releasing as many eggs. This could be  why we have been having so many single births instead of twins. 

What is your least favorite part of your work?

Bookkeeping. Hands down.

What are the challenges that you face balancing/combining your career with family life? 

I’m not available for my kids as much as I’d like to be. There are days that I go out to do chores and don’t come back for 6-8 hours. They are left to do their own chores, solve the inevitable problems that go with raising their animals and get their school work done on their own. There are times when I don’t feel like I do either farming or parenting well because I’m needed in both places at exactly the same time and there isn’t anyone to cover for me. A few years ago I was out changing irrigation lines and I got a call from Lulu that Tot had fallen on the stairs. I could tell by the pitch of her crying that she had broken her arm and it was a long ¼ mile trek back to the house to scoop her up.

It is hard to hear from my kids, “Mom, you’re on your phone!” Sometimes it’s for social media, sometimes it’s to answer a call from a customer, sometimes to track inventory, etc. Because I don’t schedule time for these things, I squeeze in little chunks of these necessary tasks here and there. It’s on my list of things to improve but I struggle to schedule time for the bookkeeping tasks I don’t enjoy.

We are also often late to family gatherings or sometimes miss them all together because there is something that is needing immediate attention on the farm like cows out, a difficult birth or irrigation lines that won’t run.

What do you think are the key factors that will contribute to the success of small, local farms in the future? 

I think that the two things that will contribute most to the success of small, local farms is access to affordable land to rent or own and direct to consumer marketing. 

The price of land on the North Olympic Peninsula is going up exponentially.  Real estate trends mean farmland continues to be divided into smaller pieces making it difficult for farmers and ranchers to afford to purchase land or find land to lease.

Farming can be profitable if the pieces of land leased or purchased are affordable and large enough to carry out the operations. Farmers need a level of efficiency in order for their businesses to stay viable. It’s not efficient to drive a tractor 15 miles between 5-acre pieces each time you need to haul hay or till and not viable to purchase multiple tractors, irrigation lines, water troughs or corrals to cover multiple sections of land. Having one 30-acre piece of land vs seven 5-acres pieces is a simple way to achieve this efficiency.

Our dream is a 64 acre field near our house but the 1.6 million dollar price tag that piece currently has makes purchasing it unrealistic for us and from talking with farmers, other farms in the area as well.

Smaller farms are more resilient in their ability to pivot more quickly to things like weather or crop loss but this comes at the cost of efficiency/economy of scale. Getting farmers the highest prices for their crops by selling to the end consumer helps narrow this efficiency gap and makes turning a profit more likely. I’m happy to see the enthusiasm that our community has for purchasing directly from farmers.

Women have always contributed on family farms, but have not historically been leaders on farms. How do you see this changing?

Thankfully like many other careers, more and more women are leading farms and farm businesses. Having these women leaders for kids to see as role models makes owning and running a farm seem more tangible for them. I also think that we can’t ignore the fact that more parents are supportive of their daughters and other women following their dreams outside of traditional female roles and activities. I see young girls going out hunting, learning to weld, build with wood, and butcher animals. Even if these girls don’t go into those professions, the confidence and experience they gain translates into their own belief that they are competent and capable of things that they might have shied away from before.

Many of our local farms form partnerships (like Bent Gate and Chi’s Farm) – how do you see the local farming community coming together and what role do you think female farmers have played in that dynamic?

I think that in general, women are really good about thinking about collaboration and cooperation. Many women like to “bring people up” by working on projects together, joining forces and creating something that an individual farm couldn’t produce alone. I can grow pastured meats or I could focus my efforts on growing vegetables but it is hard to do both of them well. The Organic Veggie/Pastured Meats CSA that we have created with Chi’s Farm is a great way for families to get something that would be hard for Scott or I could do on our own. I’m excited to see more farms collaborate and create a wide, easily accessible food web for our community to enjoy.