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Women as Farmers

Breaking the Grass Ceiling

These sweet paco-vicuña crias with their flirty eyes and mischievous grins hum a lot when content, but won’t hesitate to spit if annoyed.

These sweet paco-vicuña crias with their flirty eyes and mischievous grins hum a lot when content, but won’t hesitate to spit if annoyed.

Women farmers? Oh, yes. They are changing the face of farming in what has long been male-dominated conventional agriculture. According to the 2012 USDA census, women represent 14 percent of principal farm operators in the U.S.—the persons in charge of the farm’s day-to-day operations—and 30 percent of all farm operators. In Colorado, 6,860 are principal operators and of those, 5,823 are full farm owners. Closer to home, in El Paso County, 353 women own farms out of a total 1,206.  

Although more young women are becoming farmers, the majority of women farm owners and principal operators tilling the soil and riding herd on livestock are between 45-64 years old.

According to the USDA, most farms owned by women are under 50 acres. Their emerging presence in the industry is having a significant impact in small-scale, sustainable and organic farming where they can work on smaller parcels of land with less capital equipment. Their produce goes directly from farm to table, and sells at farmers markets and local grocers and restaurants.

They are also developing farms in different ways than conventional agriculture. Their operations are more diversified and often include educational components. Reasons for becoming farmers are as varied as their products. Most tend to specialize in growing combination crops, including hay production, followed by dairy farming, cattle and other livestock. Hard work and long days are a given.

In Colorado, Jane Levene, owner of Jefferson Farms Natural Fibers in Denver and Salida, is one of a growing number of llama, alpaca and paco-vicuña farmers. The animals’ surprising popularity is due to their elegant temperament and the value of their fiber.

How Levene came to raise and breed the charming camelids and sell their fabulous fibers came about by happy chance. In 1995 she and her husband bought a 5.5 acre property with zoning for general agricultural uses, on which they built their home and remodeled another one for her parents. After unsuccessful attempts at raising hay and a few cows, she bought two alpacas. The herd grew to 40, and then she discovered paco-vicuñas (PVs) and her heart was stolen.

Early in her venture, Levene balanced working full time on the farm with a full-time job as a cardiac sonographer, until the exhausting schedule became overwhelming. Today, she runs the two locations and more than 450 animals with the help of only three employees. The babies (crias) and breeding stock are in Denver, and the adults are in Salida.

Because she is involved in every aspect of the farms’ operations, the challenges of running a business and having a personal life are always present. “So often I just want to stay in the barn,” she says. “But I’ve learned that if I make the better choices for family and the welfare of the animals, the best outcomes will happen.”

A typical work day is 12-16 hours—every day—during which she and a part-time employee clean the barns, feed the herd fresh hay, and clean all the waterers and buckets throughout the day. At 10:00 p.m. she makes her last check through the barns to make sure “all the babies are okay, and everyone is where they need to be.”

Then comes the paper work with record keeping, budgets and financial oversight. It’s a long day.

Although Levene relies heavily on the full-time resident manager of the Salida farm, whom she considers key to its success, she makes the trip from Denver on a regular basis to help with animal problems, tour groups, or other issues.

The best part of Levene’s day? “Working closely with the animals,” she says, “and earning their trust.” Fortunately, she adds, “learning to work with them didn’t have a steep learning curve.” Their gentle, intelligent and sweet dispositions make them easy to care for and relaxing to be around. They hum a lot when they’re happy, curious or distressed, and they’re, well, so adorable.

Fiber production. Top quality fiber is the end product at Jefferson Farms. Shearing takes place in May each year on about 75 percent of the herd. The really fine paco-vicuñas tend to grow their fleece more slowly and are sheared every other year.

Levene cleans, grades and sorts all the fleeces into processing groups. Samples from every fleece sheared are sent to a fiber-testing lab in Denver where their micron count is measured. The data from their report is also sent to Colorado State University, where it is analyzed against all the PVs in the U.S. “This tells us how well the herd is doing, and if we are getting the best results from our breeding program,” she says.

For 25 years, Levene has shared her life with her precious Zen-like camelids. After building a significant operation from a starter herd of two alpacas, hard work, patience and taking the long view of future success have been critical.

“I firmly believe that the most important thing is to live the life you want, with family, friends and good stewardship of the land. If we take care of that, all else will follow.”