Jennifer Syme of Broad Brook probably doesn’t look like the stereotypical image that comes to mind for the average consumer when they think of a farmer. But the 46-year-old wife and mother of two is the co-owner and operator of Syme Family Farm, a diverse business that grows and sells vegetable and herb plants, cut flowers, hanging baskets, mums, pumpkins, Christmas trees, wreaths and fresh eggs from their 100 laying hens. Her husband, Bill, works full time off the farm.
Syme is one of many Connecticut women who are leaders on the farm in various sectors of agriculture. Nationally speaking, one in three farm operators today is female.
“The farmer stereotype of an older man in overalls is slowly fading as the face of farming is changing,” Syme says. “When I attend industry meetings and workshops, I see a mix of men and women. If you visit a farmers’ market, you’ll see lots of women involved in both plant and animal agriculture. It’s a very exciting time for women in agriculture with lots of opportunities.”
Syme’s two daughters, Emily and Becca, are an integral part of the farm. Emily, 18, takes a lead role in the cut flower production, from seeding to harvesting and selling at markets. She also grows giant pumpkins to exhibit at local fairs through 4-H – her largest weighed 669 pounds – and she owns and raises her own dairy cattle. Emily shows her dairy cattle at the local, regional and national level.
“Becca is 15 and helps in all aspects of the farm, but her passion is beef cattle,” Syme says. “She has a small herd and makes all the management, nutrition and breeding decisions for them. She also helps shear the thousands of Christmas trees we grow.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in agriculture for the Symes is when customers purchase their plants, flowers or trees to bring into their own homes.
“Especially the Christmas trees – it is amazing to know that our farm is part of their family’s Christmas memories and traditions,” Syme says. “It is very gratifying to see families up on our tree hill at Christmastime making memories together. That’s what makes working hard out in the scorching heat of August or the freezing temperatures of December all worthwhile.”
Fairholm Farm Inc.
In Woodstock, Erica Hermonot co-owns Fairholm Farm, a fourth-generation dairy operation, with her parents, Diane and Todd Morin, and her husband, Jon.
“One thing I’ve always been proud of is how our farm has been passed down from women to women,” Hermonot says. “When my grandfather passed away at a young age, my grandmother took over along with my mother. The women in my family are strong – I come from good stock. Soon my father, Todd, joined the operation. We currently milk 400 cows, and we wholesale milk, shipping about 26,000 pounds per day.”
Growing up on the dairy farm, Hermonot admits she didn’t find agriculture appealing as a future career.
“Once I was in college, I moved far away so I wouldn’t be called in to milk,” she says. “I ended up in Wisconsin and quickly became friends with the agricultural community I had so much in common with. I realized dairy farming wasn’t something I would just end up doing – it was what I was meant to do.”
In addition to raising three young children – Mackenzie (5), Alexander (4) and Benjamin (18 months) – Hermonot works as the herdsman on the farm and is responsible for milking and maintaining the overall health of the cattle. The farm recently invested in new technology by adding four robotic milking stations as well as activity collars, which are like Fitbits for cows that monitor each cow’s daily activity and can let a farmer know if the cow is sick.
“We’ve worked hard to keep up with technology in order to have an appealing and sustainable business to pass on to the next generation, should they chose to do so,” Hermonot says.
She enjoys watching the young calves grow and continue the farm’s legacy.
“There is an honesty to agriculture that I admire,” Hermonot says. “The famous Paul Harvey speech ‘So God Made a Farmer’ comes to mind. As farmers, we know there are always going to be challenges, from the weather to the price of our products sold, but there’s also great pride that comes with what we do every day producing food for other people.”
Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm
If you visit Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm in Lyme, you’ll likely find 81-year-old Suzanne Sankow interacting with her 600 sheep, making a fresh batch of sheep’s milk cheese or crafting hand-spun wool into vests or socks that they sell in their on-site wool shop. Her husband, Stan, was born on the farm, but it was Suzanne who brought it back to life after Stan’s father died in the 1980s.
“The farm has been in my husband’s family since 1917,” Sankow says. “When I came to live here, they weren’t farming and the buildings needed work. As my children grew, I began to raise sheep. I wasn’t raised on a farm, but I’m an avid reader, and I inhaled every article I could find about sheep. My husband has always given me a free hand at doing this.”
The Sankows produce 2,000 pounds of wool each year, and in addition to vests and socks, they make blankets, hats, sweaters, scarves and yarn to sell. Stan isn’t directly involved with raising the animals, but for the past couple of years, he has been making wool socks. The farm store is open daily and also offers fresh lamb meat, several varieties of cheese and prepared foods such as white bean chili and lamb curry stew. The weekend before Thanksgiving, Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm hosts a farm day with sheep shearing and spinning demonstrations, hayrides and free samples of their award-winning meats and cheeses.
Not having grown up on a farm, Sankow says she never came into agriculture with the preconceived idea that men run a farm.
“I didn’t come here with the notion that Dad knows everything or my brother inherits the farm because he’s a man,” she says. “I was raised in a family of all girls, and my mom was a teacher who told us we could do anything.”
Sankow recalls a conversation with a male customer who asked her how she knew she could make sheep’s cheese.
“I said, ‘I never thought I couldn’t,’ ” she says. “If it turns out wrong, you read a book or make a phone call. What I have found is everything I need to know, I can find in a book.”