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The Food Issue '09: Women in Charlotte's food industry

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Food and women have a complex relationship.

Of the two genders, biology assigned females as a food source for the young, prehistoric communities gave women the task of gathering and many anthropologists even argue that agriculture was invented by women. Later, women became primary food preparers and shoppers for the home, recorded the first recipes, began teaching home economics in schools, and, more recently in some cultures, started obsessing over the connection between food and the body.

Yet in 2009 -- when it comes to farming and/or working in restaurants -- it seems that more men have embraced food as an occupation.

While the number of women in agriculture is growing, the percentage is barely above two digits: The number of female farm operators in North Carolina in 2007 was 13 percent, up 2 percent from 2002. Harriett Baucom, who (along with her husband Milton) owns the Union County-based farm Baucom's Best, suggests though, that the statistics for females involved in farming may be skewed. She says that today the farm is viewed as a team: "Before, the man was the farmer and the wife was a supporting role. They had different areas of responsibilities, but a lot of that has changed."

In the areas of local restaurant ownership and executive chef rank, reliable statistics do not exist. In truth, most women -- in all walks of life -- do not want to have the "female" codicil attached to their name. Recently, however, when Elinor Ostrom -- a professor at Indiana University -- won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, the fact she was the first woman to win that award became news. In August 2009, my selection for Creative Loafing's "Best New Restaurant" was Common House, the first in that category to have a woman, Chef Emily Hahn, at the helm of the kitchen.

But, to find out what's really going on with women in the local food community, I checked in with a variety of female farmers, restaurateurs and chefs and asked about their careers and their place in Charlotte's "food-scape."

Sowing Seeds

At the time I spoke with farmer Baucom, she was worried about whether it would rain the coming week. "In farming you deal with unknowns; weather and animals can be the wild cards," says Baucom. "But this is part of the challenge."

She acknowledges that farming, particularly large agribusinesses, has been dominated by men. "There was lifting heavy things, fixing engines, wire and electrical work. That part of agriculture we have a physical disadvantage, but so many other areas are evolved -- for example, speaking to customers about health and nutrition."

Additionally, animals raised in a natural environment -- as are their Angus cattle -- require low-stress handling and nurturing, not strength. Baucom says that smaller farming and especially sustainable farming doesn't require that larger (and heavier) skill set. "I can change a tire," she says, adding that she is also better at the local farmers markets where much of their meat is sold. She suggests that women going into agriculture have an advantage. "Women seem to be open to new ideas. The traditional multigenerational [male] farmer may do things the way his grandfather and father did."

Denise Smart, owner of Nise's Herbs, says ownership of a farm is not gender-specific, but it is family-oriented. Sixteen years ago, when she started her 18-acre farm in Stanfield, N.C., she did it to give her the freedom to be with her children. They are grown now but often come back to pick for market.

Smart enjoys the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market where she sells her produce. She has noticed, however, that from year to year, some women show up with products at the farmers market and sell for a season, and then not return. "Farming is hard work, but rewarding," she says.

With all the work required on the farm, is there time remaining to mentor future farmers? Natalie Veres, co-owner of Grateful Growers Farm in Lincoln County, says, "One of the cool things about women farmers [is that] they have been more willing to share information and mentor."

The one area of farming that is growing is small-scale sustainable farming, a category in which the farms of Baucom, Smart and Veres fit. "Statistically speaking," Veres notes, "most of the new organic and small farms are led by women."

But getting into farming may be even more difficult nowadays. Veres cites difficulty acquiring bank loans and increasing land prices may prohibit some from getting into farming, but these increases have a benefit as well: With the higher price, stewardship of the land becomes more important. "The tendency is to take good care of the land and farm in a sustainable way," Veres remarks.

How have the local farms fared since September 2008? While the restaurant business dropped off a cliff, Smart said her business at the farmers market "didn't miss a beat." At Grateful Growers, though, the sales have been down at both restaurants and the farmers markets they attend. Veres says business "has been OK -- just not as well as we had hoped."

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