Young Female Farmers Farm in Oconee County, Georgia
Meet Margo Candelario, one of the five women behind the family run @youngfemalefarmers farm in Oconee County, Georgia. Three generations of women own and operate this farm based business: Clarice Scott (Margo's mother), Margo, and Margo's three daughters Camaryn, Cheyenne and Trae. Young Female Farmers offer fresh produce, homemade pies, breads and desserts and wildcrafted apothecary products.
Young Female Farmers was built out of necessity after the tragic and unexpected death of Margo's husband Phil in his early thirties from a heart attack. Several years before his passing, the young Candelario family relocated to Georgia from New York City. Margo's husband liked the beauty and quiet of Georgia, it reminded him of his hometown in Puerto Rico, and he didn't want to raise his daughters in the Bronx.
The transition from New York to Athens was not easy for Margo. Having left a successful career on Wall Street she was taken aback by the blatant racism and sexism she faced when attempting to find work in Georgia. With a last name that sounded Italian in origin, she was offered a position over the phone only to arrive for the final in-person to wait for over an hour in the lobby until the secretary returned to tell her that the position had already been filled. She came home feeling upset and defeated and Phil said, "You stay home, I'll work."
Although a major departure from her previous career path, Margo relished the extra time she got to spend with her daughters. At 32, pregnant with her daughter Trae, Phil collapsed in bed and later passed away from a massive heart attack. Phil was a vibrant and healthy 34-year-old and there were no warning signs or early indicators of heart problems. It was an absolutely devastating loss. Margo was left heartbroken, with three little girls to raise and no income coming in. She first started painting to support her family but that transitioned into baking. She started selling homemade sweet potato pies and cakes made from cherished family recipes at farmer's markets. This business allowed her the flexibility she needed as a single mother of three.
Clarice Scott, Margo's mother, decided to retire from her long career working on Wall Street and moved to Georgia to be closer to her daughter and her granddaughters. Clarice built a vegetable garden and the garden continued to grow and expand. Spending time out in the fields growing food was therapeutic and helped provide healing energy for the grieving family. This food haven planted the seed of an idea. Having already been active members of the farmer's market circuit, selling produce in addition to the baked goods made perfect sense. The farm business began in 2006 when the family began expanding her mother Clarice's garden into a full grown farm.
"My mothers garden spearheaded our business branching into growing and selling produce. When Young Female Farmers began it was a Sweet potato pie and pound cake business. I grew up in San Bernardino California which was a military town with transplants from all over the world, bringing their knowledge of growing food and animals to feed their families because of limited incomes. My extended military families all had gardens out of necessity.
This early connection to gardening and self-sufficiency made farming full time feel possible for Margo and her family. They ramped up quickly and began selling their goods at farmer's markets. While selling their produce at market seemed initially like the best route to take, they began to notice a pattern of shoppers ignoring their booth and buying from white farmers instead. This racism and prejudice made Young Female Farmers think outside the box on ways to get their produce to the people who needed it. They made it their mission to help provide access to fresh produce to underserved communities. This mission required taking their goods on the road to serve the communities who needed it. Margo moved their selling operation to a cherry-red concession-style trailer in 2017. With the flexibility of mobility, they were finally able to reach a wider customer base, but their pivot wasn't without challenges.
"For some communities where fresh produce within the home is common, the trailer gives the option of convenience and variety with the notion of fresher food coming from a local farm. For communities that are labeled food desert, education becomes a necessary component, along with vegetables that community members recognize. Fast food has replaced the space in our brains that at one time required informed decision making. The ideology of convenient food has made our society robotic and when a group of people are subjected to organized living conditions, then their thinking becomes like the organizer. Fresh produce is not in the forefront of their minds, but escapism is. Vegetables have never been on the list of fun foods that offer comfort."
Margo and her daughters started offering meal and preparation ideas for more unfamiliar produce varieties and healthier recipes for typical Southern comfort foods liked okra and green beans. Connecting and engaging with their customers has been a key component of their success. It took a while to build a loyal customer base for their mobile market, their perseverance and hard work has paid off.
In 2017, Margo's three daughters were recognized as #5 on the list of Huffington Post's "30 Women Under 30 Changing Food." Young Female Farmers has also been featured on NPR and Food Tank. The Candelario sisters have been an integral part of this family-run business from the beginning. They've worked in the fields, conversed with customers, written recipes, helped with marketing, accounting, etc. Cheyenne and Camaryn, now in their late twenties, work full time jobs off-farm but are still there to help when needed. Clarice, Margo and youngest daughter Trae continue to keep the farm running. Last year, Young Female Farmers welcomed their 4th generation female farmer, Margo's granddaughter Reese. Margo hopes that Reese will carry down the tradition of growing, eating and appreciating fresh food.
"I hope that farming interest and knowledge innately transfers through DNA because what I’ve observed over the past 40 years is a blatant disinterest in fresh food. I use the word blatant because there is no shame or embarrassment in not being able to identify what I consider common vegetables - ie: tomatoes, cucumbers, asparagus, okra… My knowledge of these foods didn’t occur because I grow food, but because I was exposed to these foods as a child in my community. They did not come out of a can but were prepared nightly for dinner. Both of my parents worked, so the idea of limited time was not a reason. If the world continues on the path of food sovereignty ignorance, then Reese and her generation will be popping pills that are stamped with the word "Salad” on it."
Family-run businesses aren't for everyone but Margo feels extremely blessed to be able to work alongside her mother and kids each day. Margo advices anyone considering building a farm business with their family to really sit down and evaluate your goals, your approach and the roles that people will play in the day-to-day operations.
"Everyone must ask themselves WHY? And the end result is to benefit whom? Once those questions are answered honestly then everyone involved must be 100% committed to every aspect of the business, meaning the decision of what to grow, how to grow it (conventional or organic), how many seasons to grow, advertising and marketing, target market, niche market, and venue. There is so much business involved in agriculture that gets in the way of the simplicity in planting seeds, which can cloud your end goal."
Now, their 14th year in operation, Young Female Farmers have made it through the inevitable hurdles most small-scale farmers must navigate. Although running a farm business has it ups and downs, Margo couldn't imagine doing anything else. Young Female Farmers doesn't operate in the colder months because the intensity of the physical labor isn't sustainable year round. A talented writer and artist, Margo teaches and does freelance writing in the off season to supplement her income. In 2009 Margo's children's book "Looking to the Clouds for Daddy," was released. The book is a tribute to her husband and helps teach kids how to cope with the loss of a parent. Margo is a self-confessed high energy person, she rarely sits down. With a lot of plates in the air at all times Margo seamlessly jumps from one task to the other. The pace of farming, freelancing and running a small business suits her but she does wish she had more time for making art.
"I don’t grow food year round because I don’t have the mental and physical fortitude. The winter is when I focus on other ways to support my income. I offer cooking classes, writing workshops, and classes on farm planning and preparation. My painting and drawing is reserved for personal expression, unfortunately there isn’t a lot of time for that but when I find the time I really enjoy the outlet."
Looking back on her farming journey, Margo's advice for young farmers starting out is:
"New farmers, whether selling from their home site or a market, need to find a niche. Never expect to compete with farmers who've been selling at markets for several seasons. They have studied the ebb and flow, what time people come and leave and what they’re truly there to purchase. Many markets invite lookie loos and produce handlers. After several passes around the vendor spaces, the customer seeks their favorite farmer to purchase the cash crop items. How a farmer becomes a go-to is by being transparent and engaging the customer with conversation."
Thank you Margo for sharing your family's story with us!
You can follow Young Female Farmers on Instagram @youngfemalefarmers
What are the best crops you recommend for new growers to try out, especially for those with limited space?
Bush beans, Bush variety cucumbers, Purple Hull peas, Tomatoes, Sage, Rosemary, Basil
Are there any stigmas or stereotypes about farming you’ve experienced and would like to dispel?
Farming is a man's job. People of color don’t own land so they don’t have a relationship with growing food for themselves. Growing in raised beds or fenced areas is not considered farming its gardening.
What do you think are the main obstacles standing in the way for farmers just starting out? Do you have any advice, networks, or organizations that you can recommend aspiring farmers?
The biggest obstacle continues to be our gender and color, and not necessarily in that order. There are several organizations and farmer networks in every agricultural town but they have not shown interest in accommodating our needs.
What fundamental things do you think need to change in order for America to have an equitable, accessible, cleaner, and more sustainable food system for all?
Parents must do their part in educating their children about spirituality, respect for neighbor and nature, mental and physical health, and justice. It's virtually impossible to unsee something seen or learned. But for the babies born today, we can shape their minds into something that resonates love and acceptance.
How has Covid-19 affected the work you do? How have you been coping with the changes and adjustments you have had to make these past few months?
The pandemic has increased our sales in herbal roots and tinctures. People are increasingly more interested in prevention and supporting their immune systems. We have wildcrafted yellow dock, dandelion and we’ve recently discovered elderberry so in the fall we will be busy harvesting for teas and tinctures.
You’ve posted some content about foraging wild foods as well. What is your relationship to foraging and herbal medicines? What are the easiest and most beneficial plants you recommend for people to get started with, and how do you determine if a plant is safe to pick?
The easiest plants to identify in my opinion are Dandelion and white clover. Every part of the Dandelion can be used and white clover grows in most lawns. However there are some good apps that help you to take a picture of the plant and it will identify the leaves and disease if it has that.
Are there any crops, varieties, creatures, etc. that you specifically love to work with?
OKRA! Most varieties thrive in our soil. It’s related to the Hibiscus so it has a beautiful flower and the health benefits of the fruit are endless.
Do you have any favorite Okra recipes you’d be willing to share?