Ironwood, a Women-Owned Farm

How Women, a Little Money and a Lot of Sweat Built Ironwood Farm

GHENT, COLUMBIA COUNTY—The 8.75 acres of Ironwood Farm slip softly down a hill behind County Route 9, marked by a couple of tractors and the undulations of a derelict 19th century barn. When a breeze blows, the plastic sheeting covering the farm’s greenhouses crackles; other than that, the only sound comes from a bird colony in the vines that billow over a defunct silo. In one of the greenhouses, a kitten cleans himself on a domestic-scaled washing machine. The farmers use its spin cycle to dry freshly washed greens.

Lauren Jones and Aliyah Brandt have been working this land since 2014, and currently they raise nearly 50 types of Certified Organic vegetables, greens and herbs year round. They’ve been remarkably successful, given their short history and the small parcel of land that they till. Ironwood sells through distributors and multiple CSAs (in both the Hudson Valley and in Westchester); they operate stalls at a growing number of farmers’ markets on both sides of the river; and their goods can be found at many regional shops that specialize in organic and locally raised food.

The increasingly hip Hudson Valley restaurant scene has also been keen to partner with Ironwood. The farm sells to Gaskins (in Germantown) and W.M. Farmer and Sons (in Hudson), where the chef has commissioned Ironwood to plant special produce this summer. Hudson Food Studio’s Chef David Chicane has been purchasing from Ironwood since its first year. Ironwood is small enough (and flexible enough) to welcome collaboration with individual chefs.

Photo Credit: Bryan Derballa

Pumpkin picking and harvest in Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.Pumpkin picking and harvest in Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.

Playing squash. Ironwood farmworkers cover ground by tossing pumpkins during harvest.

Farmer operating tractor in the Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, NYFarmer operating tractor in the Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, NY

Machines big and small. While all of the farmers operate Ironwood’s tractors, much of the hard work here is done by hand. Aliyah Brandt on one of Ironwood’s two tractors.

Barn with a silo in the Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farms in Hudson, New York.Barn with a silo in the Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farms in Hudson, New York.

Old Skool. Ironwood’s derelict 19th century barn and silo.

Pumpkin tossing and harvest in Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.Pumpkin tossing and harvest in Hudson Valley at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.

Out in the field. Gorgeous weather makes it all look easy. It wasn’t.

Ironwood Farm is Forged

Neither of the women of Ironwood Farm come from farming families. The closest is soft-spoken Lauren Jones, whose grandmother raised cattle in Texas. Instead, Jones comes to farming from a start in social justice. “I was living in Oregon and working in the nonprofit sector after college. We were working in a mentoring program, and I was doing home visits with people in poverty. I began to notice that the programming we were offering was ineffective because of food insecurity. So, I started a little garden for the mentoring program, and then I began growing my own food with some friends in Portland. After work, we would go out and grow our own food.”

It was farming that ultimately chose Jones. “I think office jobs are really hard. I was having a hard time in the office environment, you know . . . it wasn’t jibing with me.” Jones left Portland for a job at Little Seed Gardens, a 100-acre farm in Chatham, NY, that raises 20 acres of Certified Organic vegetables. There, she eventually met up with Brandt.

Brandt studied environmental science in college, then worked at two farms prior to joining Little Seed. “I feel like I wanted a job where I was outside and physically doing something to make something that I could use to sustain my own life.” Jones marvels at Brandt’s physical prowess. Brandt actually does CrossFit after a day on the farm.

The partners’ path from Little Seed Gardens to owning and operating Ironwood is easy to track. They formed an LLC, and each ponied up $2,000—just, says Jones, “to feel like we all had skin in the game.” Then they took out a big capital loan via The Carrot Project, a group of New England–based investors that help farm and food businesses access financial support through banks. But even with this assistance the women of Ironwood will be personally (and financially) exposed if the venture fails.

Growing Pains

As with many start-ups, the first year of Ironwood was hard. Not only were they planting their first crops, they were also building the infrastructure—irrigation systems and green- and fieldhouses—that they use today. Jones was heavily pregnant with tow-headed Elsie, who now toddles around the farm with her father, Jonathan Taee. That year, they deferred their own payment: Brandt needed to work another job to get by.

Brandt was farming full time at Lineage Farm, at that point, located five minutes from Ironwood. This meant two full-time jobs involving heavy labor. “Luckily, I was also falling in love and so I was really excited. I feel like maybe that gave me some energy . . . also, it was just really inspiring to be building our own thing.” Still, she admits, “There were some really tough emotional times.”

Says Jones, “I was fully pregnant, working full time out here on my own. I was carrying irrigation pipe around on my own. I was doing a lot of tractor work on my own. Harvesting a lot, on my own.”

“One day I had to harvest 550 bunches of kale by myself. I was, like, ‘OK, what time do I need to start? Because it’s going to be 90°.’ I know that this is going to take me at least four hours, and we didn’t have a harvest cart. So I had to drag a tank out there, and then I dragged the hose out and filled the tank. I picked as fast as I could. And then it was, like, dunk the kale in cold water. Pack it. And then when I get to a certain number of boxes, carry it back to the cooler.” Jones pauses, remembering. “What came out of that first year, for me, was the feeling that I could do anything.”

Women harvesting Hudson Valley grown tomatoes at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.Women harvesting Hudson Valley grown tomatoes at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.

For Women, by Women. Though Brandt and Jones are equal opportunity employers, the vast majority of those applying for work at Ironwood are women.

Hudson Valley farm dog at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.Hudson Valley farm dog at Ironwood Farm in Hudson, New York.

All creatures. Birds, a kitten and this relaxed dog call Ironwood home.

The decision to be a woman-owned farm was not political, shrewd marketing, or even particularly intentional. Women workers make up the majority of those seeking employment at Ironwood: It just sort of happened. Contemplating how it worked out, Jones wonders, “But that’s an interesting question . . . I mean, if one of us was a boy, would the farm have a different value? Or vision at its core?”

Jones laughs. “I mean, we invite men to apply for work here. We don’t put out ads saying, ‘only seeking females!’”

The women bristle at the idea that operating a women-owned farm makes them unusual. “I feel that women have always been at the center of agriculture,” observes Jones, “maybe not in the forefront in people’s minds in our society, but women have been a part of food production for forever.” She continues, “Just because they’re not out flexing their muscles in front of the barn, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”