When Emma Downing ’16 opened Blue Heron Farm in New Boston two years ago, she received as a gift a felted wool flag featuring an artfully-rendered blue heron in flight. Nestled in a clover-filled pasture on a slope with three grazing cows, a crowd of young pigs and a colorful flock of laying hens, Blue Heron Farm is just one of the Granite State’s new, women-owned farms. Like its namesake, the farm has taken flight, though Downing knows that maintaining that success requires constant work. That’s why she participated in Annie’s Project, a UNH Extension program that connects women farmers with educational programs, workshops and networking events. During a recent interview, Downing shared her thoughts on Annie’s Project, farming and working with Extension specialists.
How did you begin farming?
My grandfather was a dairy farmer and this is part of his original property. He ended up selling and my mom took it over for a while. We raised bison for a long time when I was little, which was unique. We bought this piece of property from him, and since then we didn’t really do any farming. I got a horse in sixth grade, and that was my first step getting back into agriculture. I got a job at a perennial nursery in high school, and I was really into that. I was really into plants, and I ended up going to UNH and thought I would be the vegetable growing queen.
I ended up getting a degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems in 2016. Once I was there I thought, “Maybe plants aren’t that exciting?” So I got into the UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture’s Cooperative Real Education in Agricultural Management (CREAM) program, and that is where my cow obsession blossomed. I had the dairy background from my grandfather and mom and they were really into fairs and showing cattle, so I always had it and being in CREAM was my “This is it!” moment. It was the best, it was such an amazing experience. As I got out of college, I got my first job at a dairy farm, and just decided I would farm 24/7.
What does your operation look like today?
I raise pigs, I have two beef cattle and one dairy calf. The pigs are Duroc/tamworth crosses and have proven very hearty and do well in the woods here. I have about 40 laying hens. I have a mixture of hens – Rhode Island reds, barred rocks (my favorites), silver laced Wyandottes and some colored egg-laying hens. I really enjoy having a myriad of breeds. I don’t love the “one chicken” look. It bothers me. If I am going to have chickens on pasture, I am going to have really pretty chickens on pasture. Some people may say it isn’t efficient, but they are really pretty. What is the fun in 300 brown hens? The colored layers are crazy looking. There are so many colors and shapes and sizes. It’s fun to have them.
How did you learn about UNH Extension?
I knew about Cooperative Extension when I was at UNH from speakers and classes. Also, when I was working at Mt. Uncanoonuc Perennials. We would host events and do soil testing. I think I got to know it more when I started working at Benedikt Dairy, because they work a lot with Extension and NRCS, and that is where I learned what a resource it was. I was also in the CREAM program with Elaina, so we have a relationship.
What has your experience with Annie’s Project been like?
I really enjoyed that experience. It was really nice to be in the same space with a bunch of other people who share the same interest and passion for working hard. It isn’t the easiest lifestyle, so it was amazing to be around people who are like me. Meeting people who were similar to me and have similar goals was amazing. The best thing was the women farmer panel. Being able to hear the stories of female farmers who have been doing it for a really long time and succeeding, while verifying that it is really hard work, though you can see on their faces that it is worth it. It is different when you are working your passion and not just a job. It is a different life. It was really amazing to hear their stories and feel like I am headed in the right direction.
What are some of your goals?
I am hoping to be able to expand the farm here. I really want to be in this community. I grew up here and I want to serve this community and connect them to agriculture. This was a big ag town back in the day, and it still is, but people are a little more disconnected. I want to help reconnect. I have a yearling dairy calf, and she is the exciting future of my farm. So, that’s where I want to go with it, but I will have to work really hard to get there.
I don’t think you have to travel for personal growth. Growing within your community, and helping your community grow in a positive way, is what I want to do. How can you not love it here? It is gorgeous and it is home. It’s connected to my family.
What are some challenges women face in the farming community?
I think that it has become better within the farming community. People ask me if it is hard to be a female within the industry of farmers. I feel like within the industry it isn’t hard. When you prove yourself as a hard-working individual, the community will respect you. We are all out there working our butts off every single day. There is just a mutual respect there and there are things that we learn from each other. I think it is outside of the farm community where you get the “But how do you drive a tractor if you are a girl?” questions. A farmer wouldn’t ask you that because how else would you run your farm if you can’t drive a tractor? That is a cool thing, and blowing that up and showing the rest of the world that women can farm and feed you is something that Annie’s Project is doing and it is a special thing and a special community.
What has it been like working with UNH Extension specialists Elaina Enzien and Kelly McAadam?
It has been really helpful to have a familiar face. I met Elaina in the CREAM program. I am not the best at reaching out for help and I am really busy. Elaina got me to go to Annie’s and it was a wonderful experience. She is my physical connection and a friendly face that helps me stay moving in the right direction. Elaina is great at letting me know when there is a resource that can help me, and I am sure she is that person for a lot of people because she is so personable and easy to work with.
Kelly is just an awesome person. She was easy to talk to and so knowledgeable. She has that hardworking farm background and a business mind. Anyone who can balance that, I applaud that because it is so hard. I just started out with animals and was like, “Look I am farming!” but then I needed to sell product, and then I had to think like a business person. She helps people figure out how to do that.
What was one thing that you learned at Annie’s Project that has had the biggest impact?
The simplest thing: record keeping. Figuring out what works for me was important. I am a step-by-step person, but it is so important and we talked about it a lot at Annie’s project. Writing everything down and keeping track has been so helpful when you need to look back. I used to not do that, I used to just do chores and think that was farming. I have realized how important that is.
Has keeping better records helped you form a better vision for your farm’s future?
Yes. It has helped me focus and figure out what is profitable, what could be profitable. This is my second year raising pigs, and last year I broke even. I had done the work before, but I had never done the finances. Breaking even your first year is great! But being able to look at my records and make decisions about how to adjust my costs and prices to make more money was very helpful. I am buying feed in bulk and raising my prices a bit, and if I look back at my records this year, I can assess if this will work for me or not. It’s so crazy when you look at how much feed you buy in six months. It adds up. I am now having my feed delivered, which is saving me three hours of time on the farm working, which is a positive change. Also, this year I stocked up on fencing at a good price. I did some cost analysis and shopped around for better processing rates, too.
Is it hard to price things?
Yeah. I don’t make that much money, so when I look at the prices, I might not be able to afford the product every week. But is it worth it? Yes. I was not good about pricing my labor into costs, so now I am factoring that into my prices. I work hard every single day for these products. I struggle with the accessibility, because I want people to buy my products. I am not trying to make them crazy expensive, but I want to price them what they are worth. I raise my pigs well and they are happy and healthy.
This is my first year doing the farmers market, and it has been really nice to see people connect my face to my business. They understand that they are supporting me, and people are willing and happy to support me and this business and this community. I was blown away that people would buy my products, and then come back for more the next week.
Would you like to hear about upcoming Annie's Project workshops and others like it?