Seeing the Faces Behind Successful Women-Led Farms in the Genesee River Valley
For the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken center stage, throwing wrenches into timelines, isolating families, and upending lives. The pandemic has raged for the entire year that I have led the Women for the Land initiative in New York. We needed to become creative, finding ways to safely gather. We’ve adopted new technologies and adapted to a world flipped upside down. But the pandemic has changed us in surprising ways. What I found when I took the helm in New York, is that women needed to connect to other women during this time. They needed to find their community; they were looking for inspiration and hope.
The Women for the Land initiative in New York was piloted by a Great Lakes Protection Fund project that began in 2016. AFT secured a dedicated partner with Joan Petzen of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who worked tirelessly in the early days of the project to identify and engage women landowners in the Genesee River Valley. A small but passionate group of women began meeting regularly to learn about conservation, succession planning, and farm business management.
Part of the pilot project aimed to illustrate the connection these amazing women had to their land in order to develop unique outreach tools that showed what conservation really looked like, to see the faces behind the farms. AFT secured an award-winning documentary photographer, Rebecca Drobis, to follow these women over the course of a year. Her photographs told their stories in an intimate and striking way that elevated the important role of women in agriculture.
There was Katherine Humphrey, who was born in a tin mine in Chihuahua, Mexico, and now, at 87, continues to operate her family’s Christmas tree farm. She wears her hair in a perfect braided bun on top of her head and radiates energy and warmth.
Debbie Zielonka, widowed at mid-life, has no fear of felling trees on her property; she carries a chainsaw with grace and confidence.
Leslie Hamilton is the third generation of farmers in her family, and the first woman to lead the Farm Bureau in her county; a strong and humble leader with a clear vision of the future.
And there is Meghan Hauser, who took the reigns of her family’s dairy operation with the aim to not only maintain their good conservation practices, but to innovate and excel. And she did just that, having been recognized with the highest award for conservation in the state.
These women are trailblazers, leaders, role models. They built a community through the Women for the Land program, where they were able to connect women landowners in the Genesee River Valley with one another, trade stories and advice, and learn new things.
Our photographer developed an interactive, immersive exhibit, with stunning photographs and the women’s own words capturing the essence of their connection to the land. But due to COVID-19, the exhibit was delayed for nearly a year and a half. It was almost like these stories were suspended in mid-air, unable to be heard or seen by anyone. In the meantime, I came on board to continue the important work of gathering these women together, no easy task when the world was on lockdown.
We persevered and during a brief respite this summer, the exhibit was finally able to open, hosted by the Arts Council of Wyoming County in the heart of the Genesee River Valley. We held a Learning Circle there, amid the exhibit. One by one the women trickled in, greeting one another with hugs, tears, and laughter. They walked slowly around taking time to read the quotes, remarking to one another in hushed voices. This was their community, these were their neighbors and friends they hadn’t seen through the pandemic. It was remarkable to see the real-life people side by side with their photographed selves. It was remarkable to simply be present with such an extraordinary group of women.
In the afternoon, we drove to Meghan Hauser’s dairy, Table Rock Farm. As a group, we watched the Commissioner of Agriculture present to Meghan the Leopold Conservation Award. This award, sponsored by AFT, honors farms for extraordinary efforts to protect the environment through the preservation of soil and water quality while ensuring farm viability for future generations.
At Table Rock Farm, 1,800 acres of corn and alfalfa are grown to feed a herd of 1,150 dairy cows. Crop rotations, conservation tillage and cover crops are utilized to promote soil health and prevent erosion. The farm is best known for the innovative cover and flare system on its manure storage. To protect resources, reduce waste, and improve air quality, Table Rock Farm worked with a team of professionals to develop an intricate system that separates solids from liquids in cow manure, and prevents methane from being released into the atmosphere. Separated manure solids are treated to reduce bacteria before being recycled into bedding. The clean and comfy product has resulted in better cow health and comfort. The manure system’s cover keeps out rain, reduces odor, and allows spreading during optimum weather conditions.
The women in the Learning Circle toured the farm, learning about the innovative ways that Meghan has implemented conservation on her land. Her photo sits with the others at the exhibit, her piece of her farm’s story is being told, her place in this community is being honored. But she’s still just one member of this extraordinary group of women. Though women have traditionally been underserved in the agricultural community, there are those who break the mold. And when they do, their success inspires others to do the same. I have high hopes that there will be another Leopold Conservation Award winner among this group of women. They come to this community to learn from one another, and they’re learning from the best. I can’t wait to see what comes next.