Women have been contributing to American agriculture (often invisibly) for centuries. Now, they’re stepping into the profession’s spotlight in a new way.
When the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) surveyed more than 3,500 farmers under 40 in 2017, 60 percent of the farmer respondents were women. And in 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture found that 14 percent of principal farm operators were women, a nearly 300 percent increase since 1978, when it began counting women as farmers.
Before that, as “farm wives,” women’s work went unnoticed. “There are real implications from that,” says Audra Mulkern, who started the Female Farmer Project to call attention to how women were missing from agricultural narratives. “What have we missed because we haven’t heard women’s voices? What lessons did we not learn? What knowledge is missing?”
Mulkern is working on a documentary, Women’s Work, that she says will write women back into agriculture history—from Native American women cultivating crops to African women brought to the US as slaves hiding seeds in their hair to modern women planting and harvesting.
Meanwhile, Katelyn Massy created the online community Women Who Farm to connect women in agriculture and provide educational resources. “It’s so necessary that we celebrate women in agriculture so that other women believe that it’s possible for them to even get into it,” she says.
Especially given the many barriers to success they face—including unequal access to land and capital and lack of representation within institutions that affect policy. Food First recently launched a series called Cultivating Gender Justice to highlight gender-based oppression in the food system, and women in farming were front and center. The 2016 academic book The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture explains how a pattern of patriarchal inheritance has resulted in male control of American agriculture. Women, said author and researcher Carolyn Sachs, PhD, are more likely to have to find and finance their own land, a significant fact given that land access was the top challenge cited by young farmers in the NYFC survey, and that for women, obtaining the capital for farmland can also be more difficult.
Historically, they have faced blatant discrimination. In 2000, a group of female farmers filed a lawsuit against the USDA alleging that they had been denied farm loans based on their gender. In Love V. Vilsack, Virginia farmer Lind Marie Bara Weaver reported being denied a loan after refusing the advances of a USDA official. “He told me that women could not run farms. He also called me derogatory names, such as ‘honey’ and ‘cutie’ and made sexual advances towards me, which I rejected,” she said.
Attorneys from Washington D.C.-based law firm Arent Fox, LLP, attempted to turn the case into a class action lawsuit but were denied by the court. Instead, the government convinced the women to give up their legal claims in exchange for participating in an administrative claims process. At the end of that process in 2015, only six percent of the close to 54,000 claims filed (which also include Hispanic farmers alleging discrimination) were approved.
As women have plowed through the challenges, they’ve also started to change American agriculture, operating more diversified, sustainable farms compared to their male counterparts, said Dr. Sachs. “I think, ultimately, that women are transforming the food system,” said Food First’s Ahna Kruzic, “and as a result, women are transforming our economic and political system as we know it.”
Here, we share the diverse voices and experiences of women in the field.
Sidewalk Ends Farm, Providence, Rhode Island and Seekonk, Massachusetts
We’re a very seat-of-our-pants type of farm, always responding to land we have access to. We’ve never been in debt or bought a ton of infrastructure or land, for better or worse.
I want to start out by saying that the inherently femme nature of our farm is my favorite thing about our farm, and fundamentally it feels dishonest to start with the negative factors, because I feel like there are so many things about our farm that are enabled and lubricated by the fact of our woman run-ness. Our farm is really welcoming. It’s a queer farm; it’s a farm where trans people can feel comfortable being themselves in their bodies. It’s really important to me that we’re culturally the type of farm that we are.
There have definitely been tons of occasions of sexism in my experience as a farmer. I used to feel embarrassed that we didn’t have a tractor or that we’re unmechanized, and then a few years in, I was like, “You can make that decision!” Being women who have made these decisions to respond to ecology and not use machines and being mostly powered by our bodies and inspired by natural systems. The more experience I have, the more I feel empowered to make those decisions.
I’ve been involved in policy work for pretty much my entire career as a farmer and especially when I was younger, it seemed like it was easy to write me and my farm off as sort of an impractical joke. But it’s always very difficult to parse whether that’s our scale, our ethos, our joy, or whether it’s just the fact that we’re women, and that we’re young women.
I grew up on a farm, and I left and I had a career, and then I moved back to Iowa and met a man who was a farmer and we are now farming together. We have 420 acres. Most of the farmers around us would be farming probably the average of 2,000 acres, and they can do that because they use GMO crops and have the elevator do the application of the inputs like the fertilizer and the herbicides.
My partner has always grown corn and soybeans, but he’s always grown non-GMO, and that makes him unusual. We’ve decided to diversify the farm because we know it’s the right thing to do. Food sovereignty and agroecology are principles we really truly believe in, and anything we can do on this farm to further those practices and policies and ideas is what really makes it worthwhile. We put in an apple orchard and some hay ground where we may get some livestock, and then another 80 acres of row crops that, if all goes well, we’ll be certifying organic for the first time this summer.
I go with my partner to the local co-op when they have their annual meetings and they always have a speaker who starts out with a sexist joke, and it’s ridiculous. A couple of years ago I almost stood up and said something, but I didn’t. We have this term called “Iowa nice.” I did notice that the men in the room didn’t really laugh. I think attitudes truly are changing, but it’s slow. I’m on the board of the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network. It was started in Iowa by some women who recognized the need for women to connect and learn from each other. That allows me to connect with other women in farming outside of my community.
Foxtrot Organic Farm, Saint Charles, Illinois
Our property is 12 acres, and we are cultivating about six. We’re very much a diversified market farm, so we grow about 130 varieties of things—everything from vegetables, fruit, herbs, cut flowers. We’re working on mushrooms right now. We do our market stand Wednesday and Saturday, we do a CSA of 30 people…this year we sold out in an hour. We’re really excited for the demand. We do supply local restaurants, bakers, and wholesale accounts. We’re very hyperlocal; we sell everything within a 10 mile radius of our farm.
Illinois is very much a traditionally commodity crop type area, so we’re surrounded by corn and soybeans. I remember chatting with some of the veteran farmers from around our area. At first, I was pumped to chat with some of these farmers, and they really didn’t believe that I was involved at all with the ag part of it. They drove past my plot, and they were like, “What are you growing even? It looks like you’re just growing weeds.” I was like “No, that’s a cover crop.” They were all stunned to hear that I knew what I was talking about. They were definitely making fun of me and pretty openly…I’m not sure if it was based on my age, industry, or gender.
I started the first Illinois chapter of the NYFC, the Chillinois Young Farmers Coalition along with two other women. In our first year, I identified that I needed some young beginning farmer camaraderie, and especially other women to talk about [things like] “What boots do you wear?” Because so much of the farm clothing and tools are made for men. It’s difficult to find things that fit. We also raised a bunch of money that we’re going to be able to use for programming and educational opportunities. So many beginning farmers have college debt. We want to offer cheap ways to get educated. In commodity crops, those guys are like fifth-generation farmers, and they’ve had all of these people to relay this information.
Foxtrot is especially passionate about going into high schools and talking to both genders about sustainable ag. One of the biggest things I can relay to young women is [agriculture] comes in all shapes and sizes. My grandmas on both sides, and my aunts, and my mom—I’ve had these strong women in my life that have always pursued a small-scale permaculture type of homesteading with perennial crops, with apples and pears and asparagus. So I grew up around gardening, and it wasn’t until college that I realized that market farming, sustainable agriculture—it’s just a big garden. There are just a bunch of additional components—it’s the sales, the business, the community activism, the environmental studies. When I learned more about environmental sciences and the impact humans are having on the globe, I realized this can make an impact. It’s not an easy way, but it can work.
Rise and Root Farm, Chester, New York
I started with gardening in 1985. I had a backyard in the Bronx. Then I got involved in community garden work and really, activism. Initially, it was more so about reclaiming land and beautification; it wasn’t really about growing food. And then I just started to look at what we were growing and what was in the surrounding neighborhood when it came to food…that’s where my activism really started, and I started doing a lot of community organizing work, not only with food but other issues affecting my neighborhood and realizing how food played a role in terms of those intersections.
Then, I was getting in the food movement and speaking in terms of food justice and urban agriculture and meeting young farmers. In 2008, we had a women’s retreat, 40 of my friends from all over who had been working in food and social justice. What came out of it was we all wanted to farm one day.
We started farming in 2015. We leased three acres of land in Chester, NY, and I can’t tell you how it’s a privilege to just be out there in the field and growing food and having that connection to land. It’s a gift from the universe and a gift from our ancestors. Accessing land for women is a big challenge, and for women of color, a bigger challenge, and for women who are LGBTQ, a bigger, bigger challenge.
When Lorrie [Clevenger] and I would be at the Union Square Greenmarket [in New York City], people would think that we were the hired help. We have a poster of the four of us, a big banner of who we are. We’d tell people, “No, we’re the owners. Here we are!” And they were very very surprised. At Union Square, it’s rare to see black farmers, and black women farmers?
United States Congresswoman, North Haven, Maine
I went to College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and I was able to study with Eliot Coleman. It really introduced me to all of the great things you could do as a farmer. So then I became a farm apprentice, and after I left college I started out on my own. My first farm, really, was about 1975 and I had three milking cows and 100 chickens and a dozen sheep and two acres of vegetables. That was where I got my start. I was married but my husband was a boat builder. He helped with the haying and with the milking, but basically I did it myself, and then I had an apprentice who would come and work every summer, so it was usually just two or three of us. All of my apprentices, by the way, were women.
I think there were far less women doing what I was doing at the time, and you know, you’d tend to notice it more if you were going to buy a tractor or a piece of equipment or livestock. People would kind of look at you sideways or didn’t take you seriously, so I felt I always had to try a little harder, be tougher or more knowledgeable, you know, to prove to the person that I knew what I was talking about. And especially because I was a small-scale organic farmer, and that didn’t fit the mold either.
I remember having my second child, and I was running a farm stand. I was lucky—I had no complications and I think I was back on the farm like a week later. And I remember a couple of customers coming up to me and saying, “When are you going to have your baby?” I was like, “Oh, well, she’s in the house, you want to meet her?” It was like people were so sure, “Well, you’re pregnant, won’t you have to be in the hospital? Or quit this?” I used to think about women on the wagon train. They just had to jump off, have the baby, and get back on. If you were farming in the 1700s out in the middle of nowhere, nobody said, “Hey, you had a kid, why don’t you take a year off?”
I’m sure women still encounter all kinds of things that make them feel like someone doesn’t take them seriously, but the good news is that there is just a huge percentage of women going into farming, so a lot of our young farming population is women, and Maine is a state that I think has a much higher percentage than other states in the country. So I feel like particularly in Maine, you just run into so many women who are running the farm or are doing it in partnership with someone else, and I think that’s changing things. And I think we should be doing all we can to encourage women in this undertaking, because we need a lot more young farmers, and if women are going to be the ones to do it, that’s great.
Heart and Soil Organics, Gabriola, British Columbia
I started farming six years ago on leased land with my husband…carrots, tomatoes, salad greens, arugula, winter squash. We start planting in the field March 1 and it can be year-round with season extension techniques. We can have perfect beets in the middle of December.
We had taken a few farm tours but we had no experience at all, so it was kind of figuring it out as we went along. We had a lot of failures and successes. I wouldn’t say we’ve perfected it, but we’ve started to figure out how to prepare the soil. It took us six years. Trying to make a living as a farmer is challenging. You have to learn quickly; it’s kind of sink or swim.
Women Who Farm first started out because I wanted to share my story, because I found that farming was so transformational in terms of my life and how I changed as a human being and the skills I learned. I felt so deeply empowered by it. Then, I realized so many other women were having the same experience. I made a Facebook page and put a post out asking women for their stories. People were sharing, and it started growing, and I received my first submission from Alaska, from a woman who was farming up there on top of permafrost. I kept asking for more submissions and stories came in from Indonesia. My plan is to create a book of collected stories of women farming around the world.
Now it’s grown into something that’s not just about sharing our stories. What I’d really like to bring the project into is supporting women who farm, getting resources for them, like how to access land, grants, where to get internships. There’s so much information you need when you start farming, and it’s so hard to find it. I personally struggled with that. Our intention behind Farm Finder is to show globally the impact of women in agriculture around the world. We’re trying to get women to list their farms on the online map—it looks like Airbnb. We want it to both be a visual so you can see the impact of women farmers all over the world, but as it continues to grow, we want it to become a place where people can find farms and farmers markets and food hubs so they can eat more locally.
Evermore Farm, Westminster, Maryland
My husband and I both come from a dairy background. We got out of dairy, and we’ve been at this grass-based livestock farm for 12 years. I also worked in economic development in agriculture. We’ve always had a connection to ag.
I think the public perception of our differences is greater than the actuality. We are partners from the standpoint that we can each do each other’s jobs but we’re each better at some things. John does the fieldwork and repairs. He’s better at it than me. I handle the livestock and marketing, because that’s my strength. It’s not so much women and men but the perception of interest and abilities, the recognition that women have full ability. It’s a little like, “Yeah, women can farm and they always did.” They’ve always been there; it has not been as visual. There’s also a perception that women are only growing flowers and produce, but we’re growing everything. Women in livestock is a big deal.
I work with Annie’s Project on the farm business management series, and what we’re finding is in the Midwest, [women] weren’t taken as seriously by the equipment dealers or the bank or FSA. But the younger generation of women… they’re much better equipped businesswise and are much more accepted right out front. The greater divide is slowly melting away.
The use of the Internet has leveled a lot of the field. You can go online for almost anything, you can move funds around. Farming is a business however you want to cut it. What I do find is that women are often more willing to tell the story. The women are more engaging from the standpoint of raising the story up and understanding how to talk about not just production, but consumption.