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Women farmers

You can forget that old stereotype of the farm-wife wearing an apron and making pies while her husband plows the furrows.

While the number of family farms steadily declines across the country, the U.S. Census shows a 27 percent jump in women who call themselves farmers. A new book, "Women of the Harvest," profiles 17 of them — including three from the Applegate Valley — who do it, not just for the good food, but "for the connection it provides between the land and animals to their souls."

"I love it. It's my life, my connection to nature, to source, to creator — and it provides food. It's one of the most empowering feelings ever. And I know the food is safe and healthy," says Michelle Bienick, a Chicago-bred naturopath, who leaped from workaday Portland four years ago to farm 10 acres on Humbug Creek.

Sometimes toting a new baby on her back, Bienick strolls the sunlit canyon, setting up pea trellises, turning over earth for a large plot of sweet corn and getting ready to put in strawberries, all of it organic and much of it destined for the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative.

Far from living in a simple clapboard farmhouse with wood stove, Bienick and husband Brian Hannagan built and live in an exotically sculpted, lusciously colored, two-story straw bale home with in-floor heating.

Back when most of Americans lived directly off the land, farm wives led a simple existence, but the modern version has usually been around the block, seen the inside of a college classroom and knows what it feels like to spend beautiful, sunny days trapped in a career cubicle.

Bienick is a naturopath — and she confesses to a bittersweet mix of emotions, missing the espresso houses and live music of the big city. But feeling passionate about "growing our own food and medicines, breathing the fresh air, being outdoors, hearing the creek — it's my spiritual practice, the connection with the earth and seasons."

On nearby Highway 238, near Ruch, Maria Largaespada, prunes acres of chardonnay grapes at her LongSword Vineyards — her career in electronic instrumentation at Eli Lily pharmaceutical corporation in Indiana only a vague memory.

"It didn't take long to know I loved it. It took longer for my body to get used to it, though. You could never get this fit at a gym. You're at it all day long," says a cheery Largaespade, waving her hand at the 360-degree view.

"There's definitely a spiritual component. You're out here in nature. It's so beautiful. I absolutely love it. It's the kind of work where you immediately see the fruit of your labors. That doesn't happen in the cubicle."

Often, it's the little things of farm life that "make me feel blessed," Largaespada says, like the hang gliders soaring down from nearby Woodrat Mountain, and shouting (in-flight), "Hey, Maria, are you open yet (for wine tasting)?"

How did she get into this dream lifestyle? She and husband Matthew Sorensen, their children finally headed off to college, asked each other, if you could do anything you wanted in life now, what would it be? The answer: grow grapes and make wine. So they did it, and the upside of those years in the cubicle was that they financed the move.

Maud Powell had never farmed before. She and husband Tom Powell, while touring the Indian subcontinent a decade ago, joined in communal faming in Kashmir, lived in a house with four generations under one roof and tilled fields of grain, potatoes and vegetables behind a yak — no machines anywhere, according to her profile in "Women of the Harvest."

Having found their passion in life, the couple came back to Oregon and for seven years, have farmed 5 acres on the Little Applegate. They coordinate Community Supported Agriculture, moving mostly organic produce from nine local farms to 75 families in the area. They, too, live in a straw bale house they built.

Dividing child care and farm chores is always an issue. Bienick takes the baby while her husband goes off to work — building straw bale homes. When two babies came early on in the project, Maud Powell focused on parenting, while her husband mastered farm tasks, something she found "disheartening," she says in the book. Things have evened out as the children got older.

For Maria Largaespada, the division of labor goes like this: "She's one of the hardest-working fools I know," joked her husband. "It's hard to get her to stop."

While there's a lot to know about farming — and mistakes can be costly, the women embrace the learning curve and the intense physical labor.

"It was a big surprise, the love of farming," says Largaespada. "I grew up in the city. I was an avid gardener. But this is different. In town, if your roses don't turn out, it's not a big problem. We're still learning and neighbors have taught us a ton. We're fortunate to have this network."

Maud Powell got a graduate degree in the Environment and Community program at Antioch University in Seattle and with those credentials, secured a rural development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a feasibility study on growing organic heirloom seeds.

The Powells now grow heirloom seeds — onions, beets, lettuce, sunflowers, radishes — for Seeds of Change and Fedco. Long-term, her vision is nothing short of mobilizing the organic farm network here to feed the entire Rogue Valley.

Farming is hard work and it's never really done. How does that suit women?

"Women are equally suited to farming with men. Perhaps because we're smaller, we do things differently," says Largaespada. "It's less to do with whether you're male or female than it is about loving to work with the land."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Michelle Bienick shovels manure with the emotional support of her son on her Applegate farm. Bienick is one of three local farmers profiled in the new book “Women of the Harvest.”