On Being a Woman in Farming

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“I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.” – Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love

I deal with microaggressions every day, the flotsam and jetsam of sexism floating into the nooks and crannies of many interactions.

Unspoken assumptions such as the complaining urban neighbor telling me I should talk to my manager about that noisy spray rig (girls are not in charge!). Parts guys (almost always guys), when they don’t just ignore me, arguing that I want the incorrect part when I’m holding the bloody hydraulic hose in my hand and reading the numbers to them (girls don’t understand mechanical stuff!). Men, intending to be chivalrous, literally taking tools or projects right out of my hands – or assuming I’m not strong enough to lift that bag of feed (girls are weak!). Once I had a one-armed man argue with me that I couldn’t lift something out of the bed of my truck since I was a girl, never mind arm count logistics. Traveling abroad and visiting vineyards, our vintner informed an owner that RSV’s farmer was a woman and the man asked incredulously, “Couldn’t you find anyone else?”*

Farmers are already a small portion of the population. The need for farmers to have access to networking and resources – such as help with farm planning, finances, and training – is important in helping them run successful and sustainable farms. Add being a woman in farming to that mix and it’s even more of a necessity – women being invisible within the farming subset, often written off as the “farmer’s wife” or the “farmer’s daughter.” Women’s unique experiences – the good and the bad** – remain unheard.

Which is why at the recent EcoFarm conference (a fabulous gathering by and for farmers, often with a focus on “ecological” and organic) a women in sustainable ag workshop drew 70 women and the mixer afterwards even more. As I looked around, I wondered how many normally spent time in a room of only women, especially women farmers. As we introduced themselves, a recurring theme was “I am the only woman on this small farm with a bunch of guys and I’m sick of it.”

It’s the reason behind the start of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN). According to WFAN: “Women own nearly half the farmland in the US today, but are rarely represented on the boards of policy-making bodies and often encounter communications barriers when accessing information from agencies and institutions.”***

Due to the work of groups such as WFAN and others, the issue of recognizing and supporting women in farming is starting to leak into mainstream consciousness. Unfortunately, these gains are plagued by the same microaggressions and sexism I deal with every day, for example a recent article in The Atlantic that used biological determinism as a reason why women should farm (because girls have nurturing in their genes!). Reducing women to their biology (again) wouldn’t be sexist, would it? (For those unclear on the concept: yes, it’s sexist. This response, which The Atlantic refused to publish, eloquently sums up why.)

The production of food is not the sole province of one gender any more than the consumption of it is. We must recognize women’s voices in the symphony of farming. It takes all of us, in all our diversity, to make sustainable the successful growing of food.

 

 

*And then there’s work clothes – just try to find actual heavy duty work clothes made for women, even from giants like Carhartt. It’s impossible (okay, there’s one pair of pants). The women’s lines are poor quality and the styles are laughable (girls don’t like to get dirty and have to look cute for the boys!).

**At the women in ag workshop, a woman mentioned that sexual assaults and rapes are an unmitigated danger for women participating in WWOOF. This mars what should otherwise be a wonderful program.

***It’s not only in the U.S. that women in farming need support – overseas farming women have the least access to land and resources.