Mastering Chain Saws and Tractors: The Woman-Powered Farm

May 29, 2015

One third of America’s farmers are now over 65 years of age, creating an opportunity for younger people to enter the field, and some of the newcomers will - no doubt - be women.  Already, 14% of U.S. farmers are female, among them a Gordonsville resident who has written a book designed to help others master the skills needed to work the land. 

Audrey Levatino

When Audrey Levatino decided to grow cut flowers for Charlottesville’s farmers market, herbs and specialty crops for local chefs, she wasn’t sure what she was getting into.  One friend warned it was something like becoming a mother.

“You want to do it, but you don’t know until you actually do it how hard it is and what you’ve gotten yourself into, but by that time you have to do it.  The baby has to be fed.  The garden has to be tended, and you learn as you go.”

One early lesson involved fences.  Levatino and her husband own two donkeys and two llamas - kept at their 23-acre farm near Gordonsville by a high-tension wire fence.

“Trees fall on that fence and damage it, and then there is the opportunity for those large animals to escape, so it’s important to be able to use a chain saw, so that if you come across an instance where that tree has fallen on your fence, you can take care of that problem right away, before you have to go chasing your donkeys all over town.”

  Of course, using a chain saw doesn’t come natural to most Americans who’ve grown up in cities and suburbs, but Levatino discovered it’s not that difficult.

“I think women do a lot of things every day that are harder than using a chain saw, but because we don’t normally use chain saws, it’s scary.”

Using a tractor was also intimidating, and some jobs required more strength than she could muster.

“Women are very creative as farmers, and we have to be, because we’re not as strong as men, and we know that.  Now they have tractors that are easy to hitch, because the hardest part of a tractor is attaching implements like your plow and your blade and things like that. There’s a shovel that I use now called Her Shovel.  This shovel has a wider foot base, so you can put both feet on there and really use your lower body strength.”

Recognizing that there was a steep learning curve for the work she now does, Levatino - a retired high school English teacher -- decided to write a book on farming --  just for women.  It contains step by step instructions on everything from using that chain saw to choosing the right truck.  It makes clear that hard work lies ahead.

“It is easy to romanticize this job - especially when I tell people that I’m a flower farmer. I think they get this idea of me skipping in a sun dress through these rows of flowers with a little wreath on my head.  It’s not like that at all.  It’s long lines of drip tape and lots of weeding and picking and planting.”

The book, called Woman-Powered Farm, tells readers how to avoid injuries, offers instructions on sharpening tools and fixing flat tires, and provides a recipe for compost tea - a liquid fertilizer made with bat guano and molasses.

It also tells about the important role played by female farmers in early American history.

“There was no library, certainly no Internet, not even really a community of other farmers they could ask for help.  They were on their own!”

And last but not least, author and farmer Audrey Levatino shares inspiring profiles of modern women who farm.