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Down-to-earth women

Shira Kamm, as part of the growing force of female farmers, is eager for the harvest.

For an economics major, Shira Kamm is handy with a shovel or a hoe. And she's cozy behind the wheel of a truck or a tractor.

But she does tire of questions about how she manages that 12-foot truck, assumptions that she must be gay, and unwanted advice from guys.

Such is the lot of the female farmer.

Kamm, 30, just signed on to lease land from a retired couple in Glen Mills to start her own farm: Wild Goose Garden, on four acres near Cheyney University.

And that puts her among a new breed of city slickers - urbanite devotees of the Do-It-Yourself culture, committed to sustainability and ready to put their jeans to good use.

They are a small but growing force. Since Pennsylvania did its first count in 1980, the number of independent farmers who are women - that is, women who run the place - more than doubled, from 5 to 11 percent.

And when the census includes all farm workers, the number of women is 27 percent, says Carolyn Sachs, who heads the Women's Studies department at the Pennsylvania State University and cofounded the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network. The data reflect what's happening nationally.

"There are more women-owned businesses in lots of fields," Sachs says. Farming is no exception.

The numbers include wives and daughters working land they grew up on, and women on inner-city farms such as Mill Creek in West Philadelphia and Greensgrow in Kensington.

But the majority are like Kamm - college-educated women on small- and medium-size farms outside the city.

They're not necessarily in it for the money.

"They're trying to make a living, but they have other goals than the financial bottom line," Sachs says. "They also want balance in their lives."

Most are drawn, like Kamm, by the satisfaction, the independence, and the chance to put their beliefs to work.

Many left careers in business or nonprofit fields for this life. Kamm was director of development for two nonprofits before going into farming four years ago.

A pragmatist with an infectious effervescence, Kamm was raised in a Wilmington suburb, in a development named Green Acres. The family home backed onto a field owned by Peco; her father paid the utility $1 a year for the right to grow tomatoes and roses. He paid Kamm a penny for every 10 weeds she dug up by the roots.

She started her high school's first recycling club and wonders now if she was meant to be born 100 years ago, "when people really lived on the land."

Now that she has her own little acreage, Kamm is planting biodynamically - using natural elements to increase the fertility of the land, and planting cover crops such as alfalfa and rye to prevent erosion, smother weeds and add nitrogen.

She's started scallions, onions, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, mint and parsley. Next up: arugula, celery, cilantro, dill and asparagus.

She's especially into marketing her wares.

On Wednesdays, she'll sell her produce at the Mill at Anselma in Chester Springs, and on Saturdays at the Rittenhouse Square farm market.

She'll offer wicker baskets, strewn with ribbons and flowers and packed with a family recipe plus all the fruits and vegetables it calls for.

She's signed up with Farm Fresh Express, a new farm-to-home delivery service run, coincidentally, by two women, who gather produce from 24 area farms and deliver to several hundred homes.

She's having entirely too much fun at the moment, but she realizes it's only temporary. Kamm knows the sweat and tears are ahead. She'll rise at daybreak and spend long hours bending and hauling, in fair weather and foul.

Why is she doing this? What is the real appeal?

"Farming is just a weird thing," Kamm says, "People feel drawn to it, and they don't know why. I know I love it, and I could give you a list of reasons, but the real reason is just a gut thing I can't explain.

According to the cash-free terms of her lease with homeowners Jack Nachamkin and Margaret Goodman, Kamm will supply the couple with a basket of produce a week and fill their root cellar with potatoes, onions, squash and cabbage.

"As a starting farmer, there's no way I could afford to buy property or equipment," Kamm says. "The lease is very generous."

Nachamkin, a retired physicist, bought the property with his wife in 2000. They still live in a house there, but when illness crept in, they posted the farming opportunity with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and found Kamm.

"I wanted to encourage someone to do well here," says Nachamkin. He brought in an old camping trailer as living quarters for his tenant. There's no heat or running water yet, but it does have a composting toilet. Kamm's comfortable all the same.

"I'm doing the things that need to be done and doing them with delight," she says.

Nachamkin smiles over at her with fatherly affection and collegial respect. This landlord and tenant represent perhaps the perfect combination of aging and new-age hipsters.

Kamm's parents, who are divorced and live nearby, were initially shocked but are now supportive of their daughter's decision to farm. Dad put up a couple thousand for a used 12-foot refrigerated truck, and Mom envisions herself helping out at the markets.

Kamm will need more help, of course. Some of it will come in the form of interns and volunteers. But she has also hired an assistant - 30-year-old Deirdre Bowers, of West Chester. The two had worked together as interns on another local farm.

To share her enthusiasm and pride, Kamm has printed business cards with the Wild Goose Garden logo and the words

Deirdre Bowers, Assistant Farmer.

Listen in as she shows the cards to Bowers for the first time:

"Oh, look. They're so cool," Bowers says, doing a little dance of glee. "I have to give you a hug," she says throwing her arm around her new boss. The two giggle and share an embrace.

"And by the way, I'm not gay," says Kamm. "Everybody thinks I'm gay because I have short hair and know how to use power tools.

"But I'm fem. I have a tea set in my trailer."

In fact, while she and her computer-geek boyfriend are "on a break," Kamm, a graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion, has her profile on JDate. She wouldn't mind finding another computer geek, maybe one with family medical benefits.

"In a few years I hope to get married and have kids," she says. Long-term, she wants to start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in which neighbors buy memberships and work in exchange for their produce.

"But the problem is I'm Jewish, and not many Jewish men are interested in farming."

Kamm's cell phone rings, interrupting the conversation. (This is 21st-century farming).

The folks from West Chester Growers, the premier farm market in the region, are on the phone. Their market space is full for this year, but they were impressed by the professionalism of Kamm's recent presentation. Though she has grown absolutely nothing at Wild Goose Garden so far, they're offering her a space in 2009 - if she wants it.

"If?" she exclaims, sharing the news. "Totally!"