- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

MINERVA, Ohio (AP) - On a sunny afternoon in March, a group of women laugh as they pet and pose for photographs with a fluffy brown alpaca; some of them holding their iPads at arms-length to take selfies with the good-natured animal.

Alicia Rocco, alongside her sister Norma Prosser, runs Alpaca Spring Valley Farm.

Rocco welcomed the women - business and government leaders from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - as part of a program on women’s economic empowerment, focused on women and rural economic development.

The visit was arranged by Akron’s Global Ties organization and Women Farm, a Worthington-based organization that focuses on networking, mentorship, education and visibility for Ohio’s women farmers.

Of Ohio’s more than 113,600 farmers, nearly 30 percent - 31,413 - are women, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the latest year data was available.



According to Women Farm, four out of every 10 Ohio farms have at least one woman operator. While the state lost 400 farms between 2007 and 2012, it gained 1,571 farm operators. Of those, 960 of them - more than six out of every 10 new farm operators - were women, according to Women Farm.

This region of Northeast Ohio has one of the largest concentration of women farmers, said Heather Neikirk, agriculture and natural resources educator at Ohio State University’s Stark County Extension Office.

Wayne County has the most women farmers - 810 - but Stark, Holmes and Tuscarawas counties all have high numbers, she said.

Stark has 556 women farmers, according to the agriculture census. Of those, 166 were the principal operator of their farm - including Rocco.

But those numbers may underestimate women’s role in farming.

Until 1997, the agricultural census only counted principal operators, so many women who were an integral part of the farm weren’t included in the census, said Sharon Sachs, founder of Women Farm.

Women who work on their spouse’s or partner’s farm may still not be counted in the census, she said.

Even now, there’s this idea that if you aren’t farming full-time or producing a certain output you aren’t really a farmer, she said.

That thinking discounts the huge impact that women have in agriculture, especially their role in local food, sustainable agriculture and direct farm marketing, such as selling at farmers markets, she said. It’s important for women to claim their space, to say “yes, I am involved in agriculture … I am a farmer,” she said.

Rocco bought her first alpaca nine years ago. She now has 22 on her small farm on Whitacre Avenue SE in Paris Township.

While alpacas are sometimes raised for meat, Spring Valley’s are raised solely for fiber. After being sheared once a year, in May, their fur is used to make an array of products, from clothing to rugs to home insulation.

Rocco is also a natural health practitioner, a path she took after a brush with cancer more than 40 years ago, and brings her natural health approach to her herd. She uses only natural parasite control, and her animals are given all-natural feed with a specially-designed blend of herbal supplements that have kept her herd healthy, and without the need for veterinary care, for years, Rocco said.

“I wanted to treat animals the same way I treated people,” she said.

It’s an approach that has paid off.

“In your heart, if you know what you want to do, you know who you’re serving, you’ll be a success,” she said.

The farm operates an on-site store, Natural Approach Farm Store, that carries alpaca products. They’re sold alongside Journey to Botanicals - Rocco’s own brand of herbal products and essences with wares for both humans and animals.

Spring Valley is a good example of what women farmers seem to excel at - producing value-added products, Neikirk said.

In Stark County, the average farm is about 106 acres. The largest concentration of farms are between 15 and 50 acres, she said, adding that women really excel at farms that size.

Women farmers can also take the smallest farms and make something big from it, said Gigi Neal, an OSU Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources in Clermont County.

“A lot of our women farmers can take five to 10 acres and turn it into something really productive,” she said.

When it comes to food security and producing local food, “the smaller farmer has a crucial role in our future,” Sachs said, adding that women will play a huge role in those farms and the future of local food.

Both Neikirk and Neal are on the leadership team of the eXtension Women in Agriculture Learning Network, a nationwide organization that focuses on education, information and technical assistance for women in agriculture.

The goal is to “empower (women farmers) to help make better business decisions” and look at risk management models, Neal said.

“We’re trying to show them all the different opportunities out there,” she said.

Other groups, both in Ohio and nationally, also seek to connect and support women farmers.

Women Farm is focused on bringing women together to learn from each other, Sachs said.

It’s important for women to be visible in agriculture - so others can see them, learn from them, and look up to them, she said.

“(Women) are experienced and successful and they are there,” she said.

Groups like Women Farm are great for networking and making connections, Rocco said, adding that she’s made “connection after connection after connection.”

“(Women) need to stand up on our own, support other women.”

___

Information from: The Repository, https://www.cantonrep.com

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