Women across the country and South Jersey are assuming a more prominent role in agriculture, taking increasing responsibility as co-owners or turning gardening interests into small businesses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture found in 2007 that the number of women farmers in the nation increased by 19 percent from five years prior, and that is a trend expected to continue as the USDA compiles statistics for next year’s Census of Agriculture report.

The change is evident throughout the Garden State as well, as a number of new farms have opened in recent years with women as the principal operators.

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Missie Aprill, of Middle Township, opened Thimblefull Farms four years ago on the same property she co-owns with her husband, Gregg, that is also home to Leaming’s Run Gardens on Route 9.

She said that with the growing interest in locally grown, nutritious food, it is only natural that there are more farmers sprouting up to satisfy the demand.

“Helping provide really healthy food to people who appreciate and want that is a really fulfilling thing,” she said.

Jenny Carleo, Cape May County agricultural agent for Rutgers University, has been a major proponent of encouraging more women to get involved in farming statewide. She is one of the leaders of Annie’s Project in New Jersey, the state’s part of a nationwide effort to educate women on farm management.

Earlier this year, she helped organize and run three seminars tailored for farm women in three different parts of the state, including one in Vineland. This was the third year in a row the grant-funded seminars were held, and she plans more next year.

“What we’re finding is that when women are in a room full of other women, they’re more inclined to be more vocal and ask questions about things they don’t know,” Carleo said.

She also said that women have been heavily involved in agriculture for centuries, often helping their husbands run the businesses but not thinking of themselves as farmers. She said they are often referred to as “invisible farmers.”

Prior to 2002, the USDA compiled demographic information on only one operator at each farm, but it now does so for as many as three operators. That data shows that while women principally owned only 14 percent of all farms in 2007, they made up nearly a third of all farm operators in the country.

Locally, there are many examples of women taking the reins of various farm operations, whether literally as the proprietors at the dozens of horse farms in South Jersey, or figuratively by opening small flower, fruit and vegetable businesses.

Sea Salt CSA in Galloway Township, Willow Creek Winery & Farm in West Cape May and Rusty Acres Farm in Upper Township all were opened in the past couple of years by women. There are many more examples of local women who raise bees and sell honey, or who grow fruit and make jams.

Rusty Acres owner Stacey Davis, of Upper Township, said she started her organic farm after becoming interested in sustainable living while studying environmental science at Richard Stockton College. She said she also thought it would be a good experience for her three children to grow up on a farm.

“I’m a mom, so I really wanted to make nutritious food as well as provide the community with organic, healthy produce,” she said.

Aprill started working at Leaming’s Run after she met her husband. They married in 2000, and she retired from being a school secretary and began what she calls her “second life.”

Almost two years ago, when Gregg Aprill got a full-time position as groundskeeper at Cape Regional Medical Center, Missie Aprill became the full-time operator of both Leaming’s Run and Thimblefull.

She says farming is something that a lot of people fantasize about doing one day, with an idea that it’s mostly relaxing work in a pastoral setting. In reality, she said, it is far from glamorous, and she can see why many people have left the industry for easier lifestyles.

She jokes that if she were to go to a job fair and someone were to ask her how to become a farmer, her one-word reply would be, “Don’t.”

“Getting started takes a lot of resources,” she said, the most important of which is land, an increasingly scarce commodity.

The USDA has found that while the total acreage of farmland has declined in recent decades, the number of farms has increased, with a rising number of small farms.

Thimblefull takes up less than an acre of the 15 acres at Leaming’s Run, enough to satisfy from 10 to 20 participants in the operation, to which people pay a certain amount at the beginning of the season to have Aprill grow and provide fresh produce for them.

That means seeding, weeding, irrigating, shoveling truckloads of manure and constantly warding off pests from her organic fields — work that isn’t for everyone, but that has steadily grown on her and others like her.

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