Emma is a farmer and the owner of Kneehigh Farm, a 100% women-owned and operated vegetable farm in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is passionate about reinvigorating our relationship to the land, and empowering women in agriculture. We have had so much fun getting to know her over the years, it's our pleasure to share more of her story with the Handyma'am community!
What got you interested in agriculture?
My first exposure to growing food on a production scale was through the program, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which I participated in the summer after my senior year of high school. I travelled solo to different farms and homesteads throughout the Pacific Northwest, and eventually landed in a remote village 5 hours north of Vancouver, BC. The families who lived there tended abundant gardens and orchards, raised animals, constructed strawbale homes, and reared their children. I was inspired and astounded by this experience of being nearly autonomous from civilization. At the time, I held a deep-set fear of the impending apocalypse. I decided that rather than live in a state of helpless anxiety, I would at least learn to grow my own food and hone my survival skills. I enrolled in a year-long permaculture program in Bolinas, CA at the Regenerative Design Institute, where I obtained my Permaculture Designer’s Certificate and sharpened my awareness of surviving in and with nature. Having grown up in California, I was constantly surrounded by fresh, seasonal produce and spent most of my free time outdoors, so I knew that I needed these elements in my life to feel happy and engaged with the world. After a half-hearted stab at community college, I decided that a career path in academia was not for me, and to instead continue working on farms, gleaning experience to influence my own future farm business.
"Farming is not just my job — it is a way of life, and I learned early on that in order to enjoy my life, the experience is more important than the destination."
You are originally from California, what originally brought you east and ultimately plant roots?
I was visiting my best friend at Oberlin College in 2009, and was intrigued by the college farm there. I decided to move to Ohio the following summer and volunteer in exchange for housing. Over the next couple years, I travelled throughout the east, volunteering on different farms such as Braddock Farms outside of Pittsburgh, where I was exposed to urban agriculture and the very real concept of food deserts. Eventually I found my way back to Santa Cruz, CA, where I landed my first paid farming job at Freewheelin’ Farm and lived for 6 months in a tent, hugging the California coast. That season really solidified my resolve that I wanted to farm as my full-time career. I applied to a farming apprenticeship & incubator program in Emmaus, Pennsylvania at The Seed Farm. This experience ultimately gave me the knowledge and confidence I needed to run my own farm, as well as the opportunity to rent land, equipment, and storage space at a subsidized rate, allowing me to begin with minimal investment. I launched Kneehigh Farm in 2013 on 1.5 acres, supplying a 25-member CSA and local restaurants. I stayed at that site for 2 years before moving to our current location outside of Pottstown, PA. Here, I rent land and housing from Lundale Farm Inc., and have continued to grow my business and deepen my roots in Pennsylvania.
"Learning about indigo’s history, interacting with the plant, and working through the complicated and very witchy process that yields this precious blue pigment brings me unparalleled joy."
What crop or product are you most proud of?
The crop I am currently most proud of is indigo. It is not a food crop, as are the rest of the crops we grow, but is what I call my “passion project”. Growing indigo is a very recent endeavor for us. We decided to grow it after being inspired by the same best friend I followed to Oberlin, as well as the work by Sarah Bellos in Tennessee, who is actively working with growers to convert farmland previously planted in tobacco into domestic indigo production. Learning about indigo’s history, interacting with the plant, and working through the complicated and very witchy process that yields this precious blue pigment brings me unparalleled joy.
You are predominantly a vegetable farmer but have recently dipped your toes in fiber — tell us a little bit about that shift and how you see Knee High evolving in these two sectors.
Aside from indigo, we also planted an experimental ⅛ acre of flax this year for fiber. This small plot was a trial to observe how flax grows in our region and experience the entire process of linen production from soil to cloth. This project is spearheaded by Heidi Barr, a local linen textile maker who is dedicated to revitalizing domestic linen production in southeastern Pennsylvania. We are in the process of consulting with the co-founders of the Regional Fiber Manufacturing Initiative, a branch of Fibrevolution and the organization Fibershed, located in Oregon. RFMI is 8 years deep into implementing a linen manufacturing strategy in the Willamette Valley. It is our goal to do the same in southeastern Pennsylvania, by constructing a processing mill and contracting small grain farmers to incorporate flax into their crop rotations. It is our belief that “fibersheds” (regional fiber systems) are having a huge resurgence, as people start to realize the devastation that our global textile industry has on the environment and people.
We love that your work force is 100% women! Tell us about what led you to want to operate this way and how does the dynamic differ from other farms you have worked on?
When I started Kneehigh Farm, it was just me, with occasional help from partners or friends. In 2017, the farm had grown so much that I needed to hire a full-time crew. It turned out that the most capable and interested applicants were all women. That first season, after working with only women, I knew it was exactly the work environment I wanted to cultivate. From that season on, we have been proudly 100% women-run and operated. It brings me joy to see other women feel confident in their strengths and abilities, and take on leadership roles that are oftentimes delegated to men. It is important to me that the farm can be an example of a successful women-owned and operated farm, so that other women can recognize this career path as a viable and fulfilling option. Many women who are interested in pursuing male-dominated careers (especially in the manual labor category) have felt shame or ineptitude at some point. It is more important to me that the work environment is one that we all enjoy being in, rather than focused solely on producing and selling the maximum amount of product. Farming is not just my job — it is a way of life, and I learned early on that in order to enjoy my life, the experience is more important than the destination.
"It is important to me that the farm can be an example of a successful women-owned and operated farm, so that other women can recognize this career path as a viable and fulfilling option."