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Women to the rescue

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Younger females plug the gap as more and more farmers' sons opt for other careers.


PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rockwood Urban Farm, owned by Leah Rodgers, is located in East Portland among apartments, home, a hot-rod garage, an air conditioning shop and the rush of urban traffic.Leah Rodgers isn't a typical farmer, and her farm isn't a typical farm. For one, Rodgers is a 37-year-old woman; most U.S. farmers are men, and their average age is 57.

For another, her 1-acre lot is smack-dab in the middle of East Portland, near David Douglas High School — next to homes, a hot-rod garage, an air-conditioning shop, and the rush of traffic on Southeast Stark Street. Her operation, Rockwood Urban Farm, is a hyperlocal CSA farm, which stands for community-supported agriculture, selling its produce largely to neighbors and restaurants.

"What's different about being a female farmer?" asks Rodgers, who started the farm three years ago. "It's in our innate nature to be healers — caring for the land, cultivating the community."

Sure, farming is historically passed down from father to son, but the role of the farm wife has been to grow the food to feed the family — a job somewhat usurped by the rise of big agriculture and processed food.

Young women today, especially in Portland, are increasingly channeling their activism into farming as a way to advance the food movement.

"It's independence," Rodgers says. "Instead of being enslaved by the man, (I'm) enslaved by the land. I'm my own maker."

It's not just happening here, but nationally.

According to a 2014 report on CSAs by Food Economy, the number of women farmers has more than doubled over the past 25 years, from 6 percent to 15 percent.

Women are three times more likely to be trying their hand at sustainable agriculture rather than being a conventional farmer.

“The sustainable agriculture community provides spaces that promote and are compatible with women’s identities as farmers," Food Economy notes.

The cost of entry to starting a CSA is lower, making it more accessible to women-initiated startups. It's also attractive to growing immigrant populations.

To replace the aging farming population, the federal government has tried to harness millennials' interest in the movement by providing support through loans and other resources. Women are increasingly filling the void.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Leah Rodgers walks among rows of her veggies at Rockwood Urban Farm.Rockwood Urban Farm features rows of broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, endive, radicchio and other winter veggies — with a small children's garden area and a homemade sod sofa under a large tree.

Rodgers and her fiance, Ryan Miller, are trying to balance the roles of farmer and entrepreneur. Though the farm operation is small, there are just as many, if not more, duties as any other business — marketing, outreach, taxes, permit regulations, payroll and more.

Miller helps on the farm in addition to his full-time job tending the garden at McMenamins properties, where Rodgers worked for seven years prior to Friends of Family Farmers, which she left last year.

At Rockwood Urban Farm, they've built a community of 50 CSA members, mostly neighbors.

Members pay between $550 and $650 for 20 weeks of produce (depending on the size of the box and pickup schedule).

Members also can order a fresh-cut bee-friendly bouquet from Rodgers' half-acre nursery at her home a half-mile away.

Rodgers supplements her CSA revenue by doing flowers for local weddings and selling her veggies to a half-dozen local restaurants, including Seastar Bakery, Handsome Pizza, Doug Fir, the East Glisan Pizza Lounge, Syril's at Clay Pigeon Winery, Desi PDX food cart, and McMenamins' Zeus Cafe.

Just this year, Rockwood Urban Farm and about a dozen other CSAs in the city started working with two local nonprofits to offer a new payment system that makes it easier for people of all incomes to purchase a CSA share.

It's a SNAP match program — Double Up Food Bucks — that lets eligible lower-income residents receive $200 toward a CSA.

There are definitely easier ways to make a living than tending to a farm in the middle of a city, Rodgers says. But she's living her dream.

"I was raised on the notion that I should be of service," she says. "I think farming is a crucial profession for our time. I'm not going to feed all of Portland on my acre. But those in our CSA community are very well nourished. They're paying for more than just vegetables."

For more: rockwoodurbanfarm.com.

@jenmomanderson

CSA Share Fair

The annual CSA Share Fair showcases more than 40 CSA farms in the Portland-Vancouver area.

Attendees can talk with producers, learn about different models and share items including fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, flowers, honey and more.

The event includes cooking demos by local chefs including Cathy Whims, Jason French and Leather Storrs; a cookbook swap meet; kids' activities; and nonprofit resource tables.

Food and beverages will be for sale by Tastebud, Seastar Bakery, LIFE Sampling, Nossa Familia Coffee and Hotlips Soda.

• When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 19

• Where: The Redd @ 831 S.E. Salmon St., Portland

• Find out more: portlandcsa.org