How I Lead: Alice McGary on Training New Women Farmers

By Ash Bruxvoort Mustard Seed Community Farm, a few miles north of Ames, IA,  has a lot going on. The diverse 11-acre farm runs a CSA (community supported agriculture program), provides food to the hungry, and is restoring prairie habitat.

“We joke that we try to grow anything you can in Iowa,” said farmer Alice McGary (at right in photo). This includes unique crops like paw paws and aronia berries. A mix of workers scurry around the farm. Graduate students from the University of Northern Iowa collect data about native bees, interns from Iowa State University’s Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture participate in research studies, and young women from the WFAN’s Harvesting Our Potential mentorship program learn what it takes to run a CSA.

Alice and her husband Nate Kemperman live at the farm, and lead the intern crew, which has about 10 workers. They are committed to service, to their workers, to the land, and to the hungry. Their mission is inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement, and they try to create an example for others by living a sustainable, nonviolent, cooperative life.

Elena Ingram (at left in photo), a senior studying horticulture at ISU, and Milli Zonarich (center), a junior studying political science and economics at Grinnell College, were matched with Alice as their mentor for the 2015 growing season through WFAN. These young women committed to learning about sustainable farming and a service-based life for three to four months. Neither of them had farming experience beyond basic gardening skills before coming to Mustard Seed, but as I watched them pick green beans it was clear they both felt comfortable now.

Building Life Skills

That newfound comfort can be attributed to a close working relationship with Alice. Elena, who is at Mustard Seed for her second season, told me how valuable coming back for a second internship has been for her. In other jobs or in school, she is usually told what to do, she said, but at Mustard Seed interns are expected to take initiative—even when they’re just beginning. That can be a scary feeling, but under Alice’s leadership, Elena has grown as a beginning farmer, a student, and a woman.

Alice said watching Elena grow through a second season on the farm has been incredible. She reiterated that during her first season Elena was a little timid, but in her second season she has taken on a leadership role on the farm.

“I’m quiet, so I feel like a lot of men could and have bossed me around or assumed I don’t know as much as I do,” said Elena. “That’s even happened on the farm a little bit. The guys, not intentionally, assumed a position of authority. Milli and I brought it up to them and they apologized. They didn’t realize it was happening. Now we make sure we are more assertive.”

Milli and Elena agreed they felt more comfortable speaking up on the farm since they have a woman as a mentor. Milli said she felt it was especially important for young women to work on their assertiveness, and that the skill bleeds into all aspects of her life.

“You learn what kind of problems you can just let go of and what kind of problems you need to work through—and you really learn how to do that here,” said Milli.

A Supportive Community

“I wouldn’t have been able to become a farmer if other farmers hadn’t taught me what they knew,” Alice said. “It’s important for me to be able to mentor beginning women farmers. I just want to encourage women in any way I can to be leaders and entrepreneurs, whether they’re farming or not.”

When she was starting out, Alice looked for a formal internship with Gary Guthrie, who has managed Growing Harmony Farm near Nevada, IA, since 1997. She took it upon herself to be part of every aspect of the farming process, from planning to planting. It was through his encouragement as a mentor that she started her own farm. She emphasized how important it is to have community as a farmer.

Elena said while she attends Iowa State University, one of the nation’s largest ag schools, there aren’t very many women ag professors and not very many people working in non-conventional ag. “It’s hard to find that support.”

“It’s hard to be a woman farming in Iowa, hard to be doing non-conventional, and hard to be a beginner who doesn’t come from a farm family,” Alice said. “I think these things need extra support.” She said in her experience, farming in Iowa is a very male-dominated culture, and while the men she interacts with are respectful, she doesn’t always feel they think of her as intelligent, competent, or a decision maker.

The supportive community at Mustard Seed helps these young women on and off the farm. “Alice isn’t just a boss, she’s also a friend,” said Elena. “During the school year, she called me just to check in and see how I was doing. She really cares about us and gets to know us personally,” said Elena.

“There’s constantly people coming and going here,” she continued. “You have to interact with people and build relationships—that’s really helped me.” She explained that prior to coming to the farm, she had undergone some personal struggles, and the farm helped her build positive and supportive relationships.

Gains for the Future

Alice has been involved with WFAN’s mentorship program for six years, and mentored people interested in farming for the life of the farm, which is eight years old in 2015. “We have a lot of people working on our farm,” she said, and estimated she’s had approximately 20 formal internships but an even greater number of informal workers. Of those interns, several have gone on to work in the food system in Cooperative Extension, soil and water conservation, nonprofit organizations, and on other farms.

She added that most interns continue to grow and preserve food after they leave and continue learning. There are some people who come and learn they do not want to farm, but she said she sees that as an economic success—especially since starting a new farm can be a financial risk.

Elena said she wants to intern at as many farms as she can for the next five years. Eventually she said she would like to have her own farm. Milli said the experience has made her care more about where her food comes from and how to live a sustainable life.

“[Working on a farm] has given me a new perspective on what’s necessary in life,” said Milli. She said while she isn’t sure exactly how farming will fit into her future plans, she’s young and she feels sure it will in some way.

Alice said the stipend provided to Harvesting Our Potential participates through WFAN helps them support their mentees and allows the mentees to fully commit to learning how to farm. She said the program’s always improving evaluation process helps the mentees take the program seriously, and holds her accountable as a mentor.

WFAN encourages the mentors to create formal lesson plans. Mustard Seed has formal workshops for their interns in soil science, crop rotation, basic farming skills, business planning, preserving food, and prairie restoration. At the beginning of each season, they teach interns how to observe crops and look for mineral deficiencies and sickness.

The interns are also encouraged to participate in workdays on a group of five farms in the area, and Alice is always willing to set up visits to other farms that cater towards the interns’ specific interests.

When I asked her what was in the future for Mustard Seed, she said she felt the farm was already doing what it set out to do, but she hopes to achieve a balanced quality of life and more long-term sustainability of the community in the future. She said she would also like to be able to teach women more about machinery and basic carpentry skills.

“What if there aren’t things like this?” Alice asked at the end of our conversation. “I feel like if we don’t do something creative then we’ll just get the same old thing.”