Katie Sistrunk says one of the things she loves most about farming is being able to work alongside her family, including (from left) her father, Cecil Ramagos Jr., daughter Piper Sistrunk, and brothers Andy and Ben Ramagos. Photography by Don Kadair
Eight years ago, Kacie Luckett stood in the backyard of her two-acre Central home with an abundance of fruits and vegetables she had grown to feed her family of four.
“We had a lot of stuff but no outlet,” says Luckett, 32. “I was a physical therapy assistant at the time, doing home health, and I was giving our produce away—and we still had more.”
She began selling her produce at the farmer’s market in Zachary and eventually to the Red Stick Farmers Market. As business grew, she and her husband moved their backyard farm to a 30-acre plot of land in Pride that used to be a cow pasture.
And Luckett, who went to school for physical therapy, became a farm owner.
On a breezy April morning, Luckett gives a tour of her farm. There are rows of asparagus, snap beans, yellow squash, cucumber, broccoli, turnips, celery, cabbage, corn and strawberries. Strawberries are her favorite and she can’t resist leaning down, plucking a ripe red strawberry from a long green stem and popping it into her mouth. She loves the farm—both the good days and the bad that seem to come with farm life—but she sometimes has to remind herself that she actually owns a farm.
“If you would have told me I would own a farm,” she says. “I would have said you were crazy.”
But farming is in Luckett’s blood. She grew up on 13 acres in Central, where she helped her dad pick the butter beans and snap beans he planted in a football field-length farmland.
“I swore I would never pick beans again, and look at me,” she says with a chuckle. “But I’m exactly where I should be. Once you find something you love, you never work a day in your life.”
There is no typical day for Luckett. She works on the farm with her husband, Derek, and six men from Mexico who spend 10 months of the year working for Luckett on H-2A temporary agricultural visas.
Luckett also has help from her two young children, Dalton, 10, and Maycee, 5. At the farm, the family plants seeds, picks ripe produce and packs boxes for the Community Supported Agricultural program. A CSA is a subscription program where a community member pays a weekly fee in exchange for a weekly box of between eight and 10 assorted seasonal pieces of produce.
When Luckett began her farm, she had seven CSA members. Before last August’s flood, she had nearly 450 members. Since the flood, membership has dropped, but she says it’s starting to pick back up. Luckett also handles all the social media, marketing and outreach for the farm. She is active in the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Louisiana farmers at the local, state and federal levels.
Despite her business and leadership roles, she says she still faces some scrutiny because of her gender.
“I don’t think people take women farmers serious all of the time,” she says. “This is a very male dominated field—and older males. Most farmers are over the age of 50. So, to walk down the road at the Red Stick Market and have people look at me and think the guys who are with me are in charge and then realize that they’re not, that is a shock sometimes.”
But experts say women are continuing to rise in the ranks of the farming world.
‘A HUGE ROLE’
Nationally, 14% of the nation’s 2.1 million farms had a woman listed as the primary operator, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture from the United States Department of Agriculture, the most recent data available. Women farmers control 7% of U.S. farmland and account for 3% of the sales, the report says.
“Women play a huge role on all farms and have always been the backbone of a farm, mostly working side-by-side with their husbands,” says Kim Bremmer, owner of Greenwood, Wisconsin-based Ag Inspirations and a motivational speaker on agriculture. “What has changed is that they are getting more recognized and taking on more leadership roles—especially on boards that used to be all men.”
Bremmer was the keynote speaker of this year’s Louisiana Women in Agriculture Conference, which was held for a fifth-consecutive year to highlight the importance of women in agriculture and encourage more to enter the industry.
Of the roughly 26,000 farms in Louisiana, about 3,500—or 13.5%—of them are operated by women, according to USDA statistics. But experts say that number could be even larger.
“This number represents women who are the sole operator of farms, but if you looked at women who are running a farm with a partner, it’s higher,” says Kevin Norton, state conservationist for Natural Resources Conservation Service for the USDA in Alexandria. “We are seeing women entering a lot of different roles in agriculture—in the business end, on the farm and in the political realm. They are in every area and every aspect of farming.”
“When I first started working for the farm, it did take a while for the older generation to take me seriously as a young woman. But there are so many more women coming into farming, and who is better than telling our story than a woman or mom? The way I can tell our story is completely different than an older man. You can connect on a whole new level.” —Katie Sistrunk, Ramagos Farms Inc.
Katie Sistrunk, 33, grew up working for her family’s sugarcane farm in Iberville Parish. Her great grandfather farmed, her dad farmed with her grandfather and she and her brothers all worked on the farm. But you won’t find Sistrunk riding a tractor on the field of the 1,500 acres of Ramagos Farms Inc.
Instead, she works in the office where she manages the farm’s finances, hires and handles the paperwork for her H-2A immigrant workers, trains workers on different farming policies, orders seeds and lobbies for legislation pertaining to sugar. She also schedules school tours of the farm, educates children about farming and handles payroll.
She loves working side-by-side with her dad and brothers, and being able to bring her 18-month-old daughter, Piper, to work every day, too.
“She has been delivering payroll with me on the field since she was a newborn,” Sistrunk says. “I like that she is growing up like I grew up.”
She is actively involved with Farm Bureau and 4-H, and is responsible for training workers on pesticide safety. She says the more time she spends on the farm, the more leadership roles she attains.
“When I first started working for the farm, it did take a while for the older generation to take me seriously as a young woman,” she says. “But there are so many more women coming into farming, and who is better than telling our story than a woman or mom? The way I can tell our story is completely different than an older man. You can connect on a whole new level.”
Bremmer says this is a trait she sees in many women and one that is helping the industry.
“At the end of the day—and I don’t mean this to offend anyone—but women are better communicators,” says Bremmer. “Women are able to connect on a different level because they are growing and raising food that they are also feeding their families with. They are connecting better with everyday moms.”
According to the 2012 Ag Census statistics, women principal operators sold $12.9 billion, or 3.3%, of total U.S. sales in agricultural products and operated 62.7 million acres, or 6.9%, of U.S. farm land.
Women began taking on more leadership roles in the 1970s, says Norton.
“Before the ’70s, it was male dominated as far as sitting on a board or attending a meeting,” he says. “There was a partnership in owning and working a farm, but men were the ones who attended the meetings. Now you find women in those leadership positions, attending meetings and serving on a lot of different boards. They are involved in all aspects of agriculture.”
When Maggie Long, 34, was a child, she used to drive past fields in rural Louisiana, mesmerized by the process of growing. As an adult, she spent six years working for the produce department at Whole Foods in Baton Rouge when she discovered her passion for farming. She spent four of those years as a produce specialist, buying all the produce for the department, garnering relationships with local farmers and visiting local farms.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with produce for some reason,” she says. “There’s something so honest and humbling about farm work. It’s therapeutic in a lot of ways and there’s more to it than just the physical labor. There is a lot of planning and research and all of the details that go into it all. I enjoy the details and the process.”
When she decided to open a farm in St. Francisville, she researched the most profitable cash crops. Marijuana was number one and mushrooms were second, she says.
“They came up as one of the most five profitable cash crops,” she says of mushrooms. “And I thought ‘OK, we can do that.’”
She started her farm with her daughter, Evie, 8, and her husband, Cyrus Lester, 33, and called it Mushroom Maggie’s Farm.
Because mushrooms are grown in an indoor, temperature-controlled and high-humidity environment, they can be harvested all year, Long says. She adds that they have incredible health benefits and local Baton Rouge restaurants specializing in farm-to-table fare have expressed an interest in buying from Mushroom Maggie’s. While a fire destroyed the barn and their mushroom blocks in February, Long says she is already in the process of rebuilding and regrowing.
“When I was working at Whole Foods, there were not many women in farming or even in produce, and I like that I am part of something I believe so strongly in,” she says. “I want to be profitable and I want people to enjoy it and be part of the experience of what is going on in the Baton Rouge area. But I’m also so proud of the process and making sure it’s consistent and reliable. For farmers, that’s the most important thing.”