Farm Women

On the way to town last week, I slowed for a pick-up truck to pull in front of me onto the country road. The sign on the back said “Hoof Care,” but it wasn’t the truck or the company of the farrier who grooms our friend’s horses nearby. A farrier could find lots of work in this part of the county, where ranches and farms line the side roads between small towns.

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As I followed the truck, my eyes fell to the sticker on the driver’s side bumper above the high wheels.

No Farms
No Farmgirls

I’d never seen that sticker before and it gave me pause. The logic was similar to the bumper sticker on my own car:

Know Farmers
Know Food

As I point out in my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, the homonym is also true:

No Farmers
No Food

But the truck’s bumper sticker seemed a little different—and certainly less political. I wondered in what context it should be read. I thought of the lascivious jokes about farmer’s daughters, the kind of joke that embarrassed my mom when she was growing up. Was “Farm Girls” an updated version of “Farmer’s Daughters”? Was the message a sexist reference to dating girls who grew up on farms and their supposedly loose ways?

What did it mean by “farm girls,” anyway? Did “girls” include grown-up women, in the infantilizing way it often does? I’m not one for calling female adults “girls” because I find it belittling, but I realize that women often refer to each other that way as a playful term of affection. Still, “girls” are rarely granted the authority that men have. I always referred to my female college students as “women” because I didn’t refer to my male students as “boys” and I wanted to encourage my students to see themselves as up-and-coming adults.

Still following the truck, I couldn’t see the driver because the headrest was in the way. I couldn’t even see whether he wore a cap or a cowboy hat, a possible indication of whether he lived on a farm or a ranch.

He.

Whether based on the sticker, business name, truck size, or residual prejudice in someone who should know better, I realized I’d made a gendered assumption about this truck and its driver. Maybe the person with the bumper sticker wasn’t even male. I had to find out.

By now we were on a four-lane road on the edge of town, with a stoplight ahead. I pulled into the right lane and up alongside the pickup as we stopped for the light. Glancing around to cover my curiosity, I peeked over quickly to see who was driving the pick-up.

The driver was a woman. Well, that put a different spin on “farm girls,” one falling in the playful “girlfriend” camp rather than the “farmer’s daughter” mode. “Farm girls” might even be read as a feminist statement, I thought, one asserting that farmers can be female as well as male.

But something about “farm girls” just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as “farmers” or even “women farmers.” If a woman wants to call herself a “farm girl” on her bumper sticker, that’s okay with me, but it’s not a term I’d like to see used in agricultural policy. It’s hard enough for women to get included in the term “farmers” in the first place. “Women farmers” at least lets us into the club.

I’ve been thinking about women farmers a lot lately, first of all because I am one, and second because the latest statistics from the US Department of Agriculture found that women are the principal operators of 14% of farms. Although the numbers of women farmers has decreased since 2007, the overall number of farms did too, with men and women leaving in equal numbers.

Here’s what the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network had to say about the USDA’s latest figures:

“Women were listed as principal operators of 288,269 farms nationwide in 2012, compared to 306,209 in 2007. The overall number of farm operators declined from 2.2 million to 2.11 million during that five-year span. Women continue to operate smaller farms than men, earn less income on average, and own a greater percentage of their farmland. This corresponds to the type of farms a majority of women operate: small-scale, diversified farms producing goods for direct sale, rather than the large commodity farms that tend to be operated by men.”

Women running smaller, diversified farms selling directly to consumers at farmer’s markets or through community supported agricultural farms fits with my knowledge of women farmers, the ones I’ve met through national networking and in my local area. Making less money than men probably corresponds to the type of farms women run. Big agriculture runs on big money, the kind needed for big machinery, big loans, and big risks. It’s also more likely to use chemicals or genetically modified seeds, to export to other countries, and to depend on federal crop subsidies. The women farmers I know—and many of the men—aren’t interested in that kind of farming.

In A Bushel’s Worth, I write about the women in my family who were farmers before me:

“My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were never called farmers. Even though they raised livestock and vast gardens to feed their families, even thought they worked in the fields, made decisions about crops, and kept track of farm finances, they were called ‘the farmer’s wife.’ ‘Farmer,’ in those days it seems, didn’t only refer to the work that one did but to the gender of the person doing it.”

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

I didn’t mention in the book—because I hadn’t learned it yet—that my great-great-grandmother Anna Dokken had a blank space under “occupation” on her daughter Josephine’s birth certificate, unlike my great-great-grandfather, Ole Dokken, whose occupation was listed as “farmer.” They had both come to the US from Norway to farm, but only one of them could claim the title.

As I say in A Bushel’s Worth, the face of farming is changing, and with it, the gender of that face: “With small-scale farming, farmers can build close relationships with people in their communities, putting a member’s or customer’s face on food as well as a farmer’s. This person-to-person contact is drawing women of all ages to farming, women who see a future for themselves in creating local food sheds and connecting everyone to the food they eat.”

JasperMyrasmith

My Great-aunt Myra farming with her father, my Great-Grandpa Jasper Smith

I’m happy to see women driving trucks and tractors and proclaiming their right to farm on bumper stickers, even if they do call themselves “farm girls.” But if a man had been driving that truck, would I have felt differently? Language, after all, exists within social, historical, and political contexts, as does identity.

But I think I would have chosen to give the driver the benefit of the doubt, to think that he—like she—valued women on farms, as well as farms themselves. It’s the “No Farms” part of the message that the pick-up shared with my Subaru. More farms, especially organic, small-scale, local farms—the kind women are most likely to run—is something I can always get behind.

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5 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

5 responses to “Farm Women

    • Thanks for that list, Rick. So many important women out there growing food for folks in ways that challenge corporate agriculture. Glad to see some familiar faces and some new ones too. I was just out working in the yard. Springs around the corner!

      From: Pearlmoonplenty Reply-To: Date: Tue, 4 Mar 2014 21:51:22 +0000 To: Kayann Short Subject: [Pearlmoonplenty] Comment: “Farm Women”

  1. johnmmartin

    That’s pretty impressive: driving a four horse team with your brother(?) standing behind you in a necktie. Looks like the mower was doing a pretty good job.

  2. I loved this! Such a superbly crafted essay with all the tidbits worked in so seamlessly…love the personal history you added as well as the facts and figures about women farmers today…can’t wait for the next post and am going to keep my eyes peeled for that bumper sticker now so I can see who’s driving…

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