Women Farmers Turn Entrepreneurs

Women farmers must overcome the poorly fitted tools designed for an industry dominated by men.

Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger

The women powering Green Heron Tools: Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger.

Photo by Lisa Kivirist

Content Tools

Soil Sisters (New Society Publishers, 2016), by Lisa Kivirist, plows new ground and provides a wealth of invaluable information and resources for fledgling female farming entrepreneurs. As women in agriculture are sprouting up in record numbers, but they face a host of distinct challenges and opportunities. This excerpt introduces you to entrepreneurs that are customizing tools to fit women so they may work more efficiently.

You can purchase this book from the Capper's Farmer store: Soil Sisters.

Tools that Fit

The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” fits the story of Green Heron Tools. While the number of new women farmers continues to grow, you wouldn’t know it by the farm tools specifically designed for women in the retail aisle. Most items, from hand tools to larger equipment, are still designed for a male body that is taller and generally stronger. Enter Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger, female farmers turned entrepreneurs.

Avid gardeners for years, Adams and Brensinger started a small commercial farm operation as a new career venture in their early 50s to help supply Adams’s son’s restaurant in Pennsylvania. The duo quickly realized they lacked the proper tools too efficiently and safely farm at a scale they needed to be a viable, sustainable business. But whereas many of us female farmers would simply “make do” with our tool situation, these two embraced the opportunity to both launch an entrepreneurial enterprise and help champion this growing movement of women farmers by focusing on helping women farmers use their bodies properly through ergonomically appropriate tools. “Our first step involved researching what tools already existed for women farmers,” explains Adams. “We thought we could just collect what existed and perhaps put it all in one catalog.”

But to their surprise, they didn’t find any farm tools designed specifically for women. “We didn’t find anything other than a few so-called ‘ladies’ tools that were pink or flowered and usually flimsy, as if all women needed were ‘pretty’ tools. We found that pretty insulting,” Brensinger adds. “Nobody had ever considered that women would do better with tools designed specifically for our bodies... Women’s bodies work differently than men’s and we work better and safer with tools designed for our physiology.”

The duo launched Green Heron Tools. They had previously named their farm Green Heron Farms because a green heron nested on their property — quite serendipitously, as the green heron is the one of the few birds documented to use tools such as small sticks for tasks like fishing. “Follow your intuition and everything feels meant to be,” says Adams.

The duo received a Small Business Innovation Research Grant (SBIR) from the USDA, which supports research that leads to agricultural innovations. This led to a partnership with engineers from Penn State University and intensive research with women farmers, studying female ergonomics. Collaborative research forms the core of the Green Heron Tools business: listening to and surveying women growers and understanding what this group uniquely needs, then designing products accordingly.

“The cooperative spirit of women farmers brought this venture to life,” adds Brensinger. “Women by nature are supportive and collaborative, and we are very indebted to the support and feedback we received.” Beyond the research and the business, however, Ann and Liz share a passion for helping women better understand and use their bodies from the start and offer two pieces of advice:

1. Minimize Risk
A core learning for us is that too many women take physical risks out of necessity. We simply want to get the job done as fast as possible and don’t think that we should do something a different way, like using a lever as opposed to lifting something directly,” shares Adams. Stepping back and thinking through a task before jumping in can go a long way in promoting safety and health and shrinking risk.

2. Think Prevention
Prevention is the best strategy to protect our bodies. Vary tasks and don’t keep your body in any one position for too long,” explains Brensinger. Prevention is important because we want farmers to do what they love for as long as they can. If you take care of yourself, you avoid injury that can not only hurt yourself but hurt your bottom line too if you can’t work to get your harvest in. Unlike other professions, farmers don’t get sick time or readily have someone else do their job.

Wearables That Work

“Ever since the gold rush, women have been wearing men’s pants when they need to get serious work done, and I felt it was high time to change that,” proclaims Sarah Calhoun, owner of Red Ants Pants, the first company dedicated to making work clothes for women. Raised on a Connecticut farm and a dedicated outdoors woman, Calhoun grew frustrated, as she could never find a pair of durable, comfortable work pants that fit her female body. “I didn’t want to start a business; I only wanted a pair of damn pants that fit.” Red Ants Pants is based in White Sulphur Springs, a small ranching town in the middle of Montana. The pants are fully made in the USA. Turns out women come in a lot more shapes and sizes in our lower halves than boys do. Men tend to be fairly square in shape from the waist down, whereas women have more variation, with curves. “Men tend to carry any extra weight in their bellies, but we women can carry it in a variety of places such as hips, butts, thighs, and even face and arms. We’re apple-shaped, pear shaped, and every fruit you can imagine,” says Calhoun, laughing.

Calhoun created 74 variations of basically the same pair of pants, adjusting for size and whether a woman has a straight or curvy build. “Work clothes that fit properly serve a safety function, as we need a range of motion to move quickly and safely, particularly when we’re operating machinery or up on a ladder,” adds Calhoun. With this in mind, avoid clothing with drawstrings or baggy material. While something loose may feel comfortable, it’s a safety hazard as it can get caught in equipment.

While quality work wear from a place like Red Ants Pants is an investment at $129 a pair, women farmers creatively make do with what is available locally and in their budget. For the hot summer months, I keep fully covered in light cotton clothes from the thrift store. In this case, I’m primarily weeding or harvesting, so baggy flowing material works fine and keeps me cool. Covering my legs and arms completely both helps with sun protection as well as dirt removal at the end of the day. Way easier to shower off sweat than scrub off soil.

For that reason, when working the field rows I always wear old gym shoes and old white cotton socks — my “farm socks” I affectionately call them, as I don’t worry about bleaching them super white ever again. My feet may get a little hot sometimes but this system keeps my feet easier to clean at the end of the day than Teva sandals.

No Pockets? No Problem!

One final wearable that women farmers use is the fanny pack. Classic 1980s retro style, a fanny pack keeps your essential gear easily accessible and works exceptionally well if you like to work in stretch yoga pants sans pockets. With my allergies, I always have tissue and my inhaler. I also carry a notepad; so many ideas pop into my head when my fingers dig into the soil that I’ve learned to write everything down immediately. Other secrets you’ll find in female farmer fanny packs: phone, zip ties, knives, and snacks.


Reprinted with permission from Soil Sisters by Lisa Kivirist and published by New Society Publishers, 2016. Buy this book from our store: Soil Sisters.