Working as an international conservationist, Kellie Pettyjohn routinely found herself daydreaming.
Not about garbage patches of plastic debris floating in oceans or the number of animal species threatened by deforestation, but instead, of farming.
“After working in a cubicle and writing reports, my soul was dying,” she said.
Originally from Virginia, Pettyjohn studied journalism, anthropology and geography in college. She didn’t have any type of agricultural background before dropping her dream job for greener pastures in Montezuma County. In 2010, she moved to Mancos to volunteer on a working farm.
“I never left,” she said.
The next year, Pettyjohn secured a lease to turn a nearby barren pasture into her own field of dreams. Owner and operator of The Wily Carrot Farm, an organic certified naturally grown garden, she purchased the 2-acre property earlier this year.
“I thought it would be better to be poor, dirty and happy playing in the soil,” she said.
From 2002 to 2012, the number of women-owned farms in Montezuma County increased from 133 to 243, an 83 percent spike, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture census data.
As a minority wholesale provider to restaurants across Southwest Colorado, Pettyjohn said changing the perception that food should be cheap has been a huge hurdle. Area chefs have grown accustom to paying less from larger multinational suppliers.
“There’s been a lot of educating people about what good food is and its value,” Pettyjohn said.
Saying that local produce lasts longer and tastes better, Pettyjohn said it helps that consumers are demanding local food supplies.
“People enter restaurants, and they expect to see a list of farms where the produce is coming from,” she said.
A board member on the new Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative, Pettyjohn said the co-op has opened even more doors through shared transportation, for example.
“There’s no way that I could make the commute to Telluride,” she said.
Planning to attend the Four States Ag Expo this weekend, Pettyjohn said she wished organizers would offer tailored programs to small-scale farmers, rather than catering to larger, commercial farms.
“Small farms add to the local economy, too,” she said.
According to the USDA, 13 percent of all Montezuma County farms surveyed in 2012 contained 9 or fewer acres. Nearly two-thirds included farms between 10 and 180 acres, and about 1 in 4 farms were 500 acres or more.
As a small-scale farmer with no agricultural background, Pettyjohn said she has faced a tremendous learning curve, from erecting greenhouses to effectively managing her business. She said the area’s arid climate and shortened growing season added to the challenges.
From the perspective of a small-statured woman in a male-dominated industry, Pettyjohn said the physical toll on her body was the most strenuous aspect of farming.
“I hate to admit it, but I’m not as strong physically,” she said. “Thankfully, there’s a close-knit farming community in Mancos that I can rely on for assistance.”
Pettyjohn said she continues to receive resistance for her decision to abandon her college education to become a farmer. Her grandfather believes anyone with multiple college degrees should be leaving the rural lifestyle, but the challenging aspects of farming are too rewarding and liberating, she said.
“From a female perspective, I want to convince women that farming can be a viable option,” Pettyjohn said. “We have a nurturing spirit within us, and we should take advantage of that and grow for our neighbors.”
“It keeps me connected to the community,” she said. “This little spot of land has a bigger connection. It gives my life meaning.”