GERVAIS, Ore. — Looking back, Molly Pearmine McCarger realizes her grandfather knew something she didn’t. She was about 16 at the time, pressed into work at the family farm and viewing it with the world-weary resignation only a teenager can summon.
She was driving tractor when Les Pearmine flagged her down. Usually that meant you’d messed up and grandpa intended to set you straight. “Uh-oh,” she thought.
But she said he wanted to tell her something. “Out of all the grandkids, he saw me as the one to come back and work on the farm.”
And she did, eventually. After marriage, coaching softball and teaching, and amid welcoming a string of four yellow-haired daughters with her husband, Lindsay, she did come back to Pearmine Farms. With her younger brother Ernie, she is the fourth generation to work this ground: 1,200 acres of corn, beans, cherries, cauliflower and broccoli, and rotations of grass seed, wheat and clover.
In coming back eight years ago, she joined a rising tide of young women who are changing the face of Oregon agriculture. It is a quiet transformation, documented only by anecdote and with unknown implications. But there it is: Daughters are taking over the family farm, once the province of sons.
In Harrisburg, the fifth generation of the Bowers family to oversee Bashaw Farms, a 3,800-acre grass seed operation, will be Marie Bowers, 28, who also serves as president of Oregon Women for Agriculture. She began driving equipment when she was 12 — trucks, windrowers, bankout wagons and combines.
“I was definitely born into it,” she said. “I didn’t know county fairs existed until I was 17, because I was working harvest every summer.”
By the time she hit college at Washington State University, she was ready to leave farming behind and study psychology and political science.
Instead, she often found herself on campus talking about tractors. She worked for Farm Credit Services, the lending co-op, after college, but two harvests ago returned to Harrisburg. This year, she took over the planting. She and her younger sister, a massage therapist, are the only siblings.
“I was just thinking of the legacy,” she said. “I’m the fifth generation. What would become of it if I didn’t return?
“When I first told everyone I was going back to the farm, their first reaction was ‘You’re too smart for that, it’s a waste of your talents.’”
She smiles at such statements. “Farming’s not easy,” she said.
Up the highway in Scio, Macey Wessels farms with her father and brother, growing grass seed, mint, hazelnuts and radish on a combination of leased and owned land. She earned a crop and soil science degree from Oregon State University and after college worked for a crop consulting business. Eventually she moved into managing a blueberry farm and processing plant, but the opportunity to work with her family brought her to the farm. She’s since picked up some ground to farm on her own.
In every job, she’s run into a few men who don’t like working with women, but most people in agriculture have been “absolutely wonderful,” she said.
“I like the challenge,” Wessels said. “It’s a profession where you never know everything, you never stop learning. Every year is different, every day is a challenge.
“And some years, even when you do everything right and you’re on top of your game, you can still lose it all because of the weather.”
The best part? Her 7-year-old daughter gets to grow up on the farm.
“She’s out there every day with me,” Wessels said. “There’s no piece of equipment she doesn’t go on with me.”
Farm succession is an important issue in Oregon. The average farmer is 57; the Department of Agriculture has estimated that half the state’s farmland could change hands through retirement or death in the next decade.
Women have always worked on family farms, primarily by operating equipment or keeping the books, but a combination of factors may have opened the door to more women becoming the farms’ principal operator.
With families smaller than they were a generation ago, there are fewer children to carry on the business and in some cases, no sons. Automation and other technology have reduced the need for brute strength in farm labor. And like in many other facets of American life — such as women taking on military combat roles — gender stereotyping in farming may have simply slipped away.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed the number of women who were the principal operators of a farm or ranch — in charge of day to day operations — increased by almost 30 percent from the 2002 Census. Women are now the principal operators of 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms. The 2012 Census, due out in 2014, may show a similar increase.
Oregon farm families are finding ways to handle the changes.
In St. Paul, a tiny Willamette Valley town, Paul Kirsch and his daughter, Brenda Kirsch Frketich, struck an unusual bargain after she graduated from Loyola Marymount University and returned home. They agreed on a two-year internship in which she would do everything he did. When the time was up, if it didn’t work for either one, they could walk away with no hard feelings.
That was seven years ago. At the start of this year, Kirsch told his daughter it was time for her to take over.
“I just told her in January, ‘This has been on my mind for a year or so. Until you jump in with both feet, you rely on the other person to make all the decisions.’”
“Let’s start right now,” he told her. “As long as I come out to the shop in the morning, you’re just going to look at me.”
Both say the transition is going well.
“He doesn’t show up anymore,” Brenda Kirsch said with laugh. “It’s no longer an internship.”
Paul Kirsch said he’s been pleased to see his daughter anticipate problems and make decisions without him saying a word. After the heavy rains in September, Brenda announced she was going to start harvesting on the north side of their hazelnut orchard. The south side of the orchard has steep slopes that were going to be wet, and the tractor might slide. Better to start on the north and let the south dry out a bit.
“I’ve had my anxious moments,” Paul Kirsch said. “I’ll suggest things but I try not to argue with her. Let her make the decision.”
At Pearmine Farms in Gervais, Molly Pearmine McCarger and her brother, Ernie, handle day-to-day operations and refer to their father, Ron Pearmine, as their “consultant” on major purchases or decisions.
Recently, they conferred over whether to add a hazelnut orchard to the farm. Molly held out for 15 more acres of cherries and prevailed. She has a gut feeling the hazelnut market will be flooded by the time her family’s trees would reach full production. “I don’t know how I won that decision, entirely,” she said with a bemused smile.
“Hazelnuts would be new to us,” she adds. “We know how to grow cherries.”
At their father’s suggestion, they also meet quarterly with a three-member advisory committee made up of experts in various aspects of agriculture.
Molly Pearmine said no one can know what changes women will bring to Oregon agriculture as they assume leadership roles. For now, she’s still one of the few women in the room when Norpac Foods, the cooperative they grow vegetables for, holds its meetings. But the family has some history with the issue: Her great-grandmother, Nell Pearmine, was one of the original members of Willamette Cherry Growers when it formed in 1932.
“There definitely is a shift in who is returning and running the farms, for sure,” she said. “You see it more on the small farms, the under 100-acre kind of deal, but there is a shift in larger farming world, too, I think, that the daughters are coming home to do the work.
“It will help keep agriculture viable,” she says. “If the son doesn’t to it and the daughter doesn’t do it, then the family farm will disappear. It will keep family farms viable.”