What do you picture when you hear the word “farmer”? The image we are presented with in commercials and children’s books is of an older white male, perhaps wearing a plaid shirt and a mesh cap, often perched atop an old John Deere or Case tractor. And for the past 6 decades or so, this has been pretty accurate in this country. But the times, they are a-changin’. Women–along with immigrants from dozens of countries, young people, and other non-traditional farmers–are streaming into the field of farming, often from non-farm backgrounds, and changing the face of local food.
Women have been farmers as long as farming has existed. In some parts of the world, they are still the primary farmers. But here in the US, at least since the industrialization of farming in the mid-20th century, women living on farms were relegated to the role of farm wife. This role was critical to the functioning of the farm – bearing and raising children, gardening, cooking, putting food by for the Winter – but generally did not include actual farm production. As this trend has continued for decades, with the men holding all the knowledge of the farm business, and the women tending overall to live longer than the men, there has been a steady increase in farm widows without the knowledge of how to carry on the farm in the wake of losing their husbands.
At the same time, since the rise of direct-to-consumer marketing and organic farming in the 1990’s, there has been a steady increase in women as primary farm operators. Even with this influx, less than 20 percent of the operators of New York State’s 35,500 farms are women, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture (I’m looking forward to seeing this number updated in the 2018 census). I don’t have numbers for our region, but I hazard a guess that this figure is much higher in the Ithaca area. The majority of farms I can name are led by women, or at least led equally by a man and woman. So it’s not such an oddity here to be a woman farmer.
But even in this “enlightened” corner of the state, what’s it like to be a woman farmer in a field that’s still mostly dominated by men? Vendors often seem to think it’s “cute” to encounter a female farmer. I didn’t particularly notice this until seeing how their demeanor changed when they interacted with my husband. I’ve had equipment mechanics keep “forgetting” to work on my machine because they assume that I’m just doing this for a hobby. I’ve had clerks – even female clerks! – at the hardware store ask me what I’m picking up for my husband. Every farmer has stories of mishaps and mistakes, but I’ve become more guarded about sharing my experiences with older male farmers, as one family friend was very disrespectful after hearing a story of one hard lesson I had learned. Apparently for this guy at least, if you’re a female farmer, you have to do everything perfectly to gain the same respect that male farmers receive automatically.
In some ways, farming is ahead of the curve in terms of accepting women; there are other trades, like carpentry, plumbing, and electrical, where women continually fight to be recognized as competent, normal workers rather than as oddities who may not know what they’re doing.
This change is coming, slowly, but it requires all of us to be vigilant in recognizing the unconscious biases we hold. Culture is the water we swim in, and American culture, when it’s not ignoring farming altogether, has not provided us with many images to support the idea that women can be farmers. Many organizations are helping to change this. A quick skim through the latest Farm Bureau newspaper showed many images of women tending animals and operating farm equipment. My go-to farm mechanic is a woman, and half of my farm mentors are women. I’m so grateful for all the women who have paved the way and helped me realize my dream of being a farmer!