Tour de farm: A cross-country bike quest for the female farming perspective
Reports of women swelling the ranks of U.S. farmers apparently strike a chord. Readers greeted last month’s Grist article about this country’s nearly 1 million female farmers with cheers: Some saw the piece as good news, others as a delayed recognition of a long tradition of hard work. For fellow female farmers or foodies, it’s encouraging to know you’re not alone. And those of us sadly devoid of green thumbs but in awe of badass women in general can still find inspiration in these farmers’ stories and root for them to succeed.
Which is why I got a little jealous hearing about Lake Buckley’s and Caitrin Hall’s plans for the summer. The two fresh college graduates — Buckley studied environmental science and studio art at Oberlin; Hall majored in cultural anthropology at Vassar — have been friends since high school in Northern California, and are now in the middle of a cross-country bike quest to meet female farmers and hear their perspectives. I got in touch with them by phone as they rested at the Doyle Family Farm outside Riverton, Wyo. They told me about what they’ve learned from the women they’ve met on their journey so far.
Q. Why did you decide to take this trip?
A. Caitrin Hall: Lake and I have been really good friends since high school, and we were going to be graduating from college, and we kind of looked at each other and asked, what is the next adventure going to be? And we thought that biking across the country would be a pretty epic feat. Then we set about thinking, what will sustain us on that three-month journey when we’re dead tired? We realized that a mutual shared passion of ours is food and food justice. So we wanted to talk to small-scale farmers and especially female farmers about how we might shape a more just food system — because we wondered if women might have something special to contribute in that regard. Also there’s been a huge increase in the number of female farmers recently, and we wanted to explore that.
Q. How did you identify and connect with farmers you wanted to visit?
A. Lake Buckley: We knew that we had a kind of finite time for this project, about three months, so we knew that we had to take a pretty direct route across the country — following I-80, more or less. So we looked for female farmers along that line and the route kind of came together from there.
CH: It was a lot of trolling farmers-market organizers and local harvest websites. The more people you talk to, the more people know people, and so we got a lot of recommendations. Once we got our foot in the door with one person who was active in a certain area, it was really just like fireworks, meeting more and more people.
LB: While we were planning the trip, we noticed that our entire list of female farmers that we were going to go see were white. And we had been looking in these rural areas for farmers because our assumption was that farms are in rural areas, and through that were confronted with our own whiteness and blindness in that regard. There [are] racial [and] structural barriers to accessing land for blacks, Latinos, and others — [people who are not] white males. So we started looking more in urban areas for farms.
Q. Tell me more about the patterns you’ve seen in terms of institutional barriers, for women of all colors.
A. LB: The themes that we’ve seen have been kind of regionally dependent. We’ve noticed, for example, in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, females faced a lot more structural discrimination and sexism in regards to land access and also farm loans. They have a cultural understanding there of what it means to be a farmer. If a woman is feeding 200-plus people but she has a farm that is a vegetable farm, then it’s not considered a farm. And that lends itself to a lot of structural discrimination.
CH: I’ll relay a story that was told to us by a farmer in Solon, Iowa. Basically, she walked into her local farm agency, [to see] her local farm agent who she’d known for awhile, and she wanted to apply for a cost share through a program called EQIP. That basically is where the farmer comes in and he says, OK, I need a tractor, and the government, through the EQIP program, will help pay for that tractor. And the EQIP program is specifically for small-scale farmers, so she was perfect for it. But the agent gave her so much trouble, because she is growing vegetables on five acres instead of corn and soy on 5,000 acres. On a certain level he didn’t believe her that she’s a farmer, and he said something like, how many vegetables are you growing there in your garden, missy?
He sent her away and made her come back a lot of times with more and more specific paperwork, made her jump through so many hoops, and also just [made] belittling comments like “missy” throughout the entire process. Finally, on the day that they granted her the cost share, she was sitting there in the office and this typical male farmer comes in and wants a loan for a skid loader, and he’s approved right on the spot.
Q. That’s interesting that growing vegetables is not seen as “real farming” in some places. Is that a common stigma?
A. LB: I think it is, and it’s also reflected in the structures that these farms buy into. There’s no crop insurance for vegetable farmers like there [is] for corn and soy. So I think it’s kind of a built-in prejudice also.
CH: It kind of turns political, too. Here in Wyoming, it’s interesting, because a lot of the homesteading and responsible grazing practices cross a lot of political boundaries. Essentially, old-school ranchers and land conservationists are trying to do the same thing. But politically, there’s just totally different language for it. So “organic farmer,” or “environmentalist,” here in Wyoming, are like bad words. And yet, minus the linguistics, these ranchers have relatively exquisite practices, because they can’t degrade the land because it will destroy itself; it’s not as fertile and forgiving as in the Midwest. So yeah, the political language gets in the way of people who are actually doing very similar things.
Q. What kind of support do you think is key for female farmers to succeed?
A. LB: I think there [are] a lot of different levels [on which] support is needed. There’s the infrastructure level; there’s also the support of the community — there needs to be a market available. If you’re able to pay more for your food, then that is a huge piece of support.
CH: I think communication between female farmers and landowners [is key]. While [we] said earlier that a lot of the problem is that women don’t have access to land, often the case is that women own a ton of land — in Iowa especially, they own more than half of the farmland. But, because they’re girls, they have legal control over it, but they don’t have social control over the land. And that results in their uncles, brothers, neighbors — the “real” farmers — kind of bullying them into whatever land practices the farmer wants to make his operation most profitable.
So what really incredible organizations like the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network are doing is they’re organizing these women. They’re getting the female landowners together and they’re talking about their values, and they’re talking about what they want on their land. And the women are like, what? You’re asking me what I want? Getting the women together in an all-female space to talk about the issues and to talk about their values and to find strength in numbers — I think that coordination and that social organizing is just crucial.
Q. Overall, have the women you’ve met been new farmers or people coming from a farming background?
A. LB: Mostly new farmers. We definitely have spoken to some women who have been in this movement way before it was cool, for the last 30, 40 years. But another theme that has been interesting with our new farmers: Some of them grew up farming, and were not interested in pursuing that type of life when they were young, and they went and took up marketing careers and jobs in the city and then ended up returning back to the farm. But then there’s also been a handful of mid-20-year-olds who are embarking on this new kind of lifestyle and have no family background.
CH: That’s a slight difference, I would say, between the older farmers and the young farmers, is that the older ones tended to have had other jobs, made themselves a safety net being marketing people or real-estate people or something, but always [had] that farm dream in themselves somewhere. Whereas the younger generation, Lake’s and my age, they’re going for it right off the bat.
We had one farmer named Susan Jutz in Solon, Iowa — she held up Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and she said, these are the worst books that have ever happened to me. Because these young folks come in with this super romantic vision of what it’s going to be like on the farm, and it’s actually extremely hard work.
LB: One thing that the older farmers have chimed in about is the fast turnover rate for young farmers, which is generally one to five years, and some of them attributed that to [young farmers] not having [had] careers and not developing the business mind. Because to sustain yourself with farming you need to treat it like a business.
Q. What other common threads have you noticed among the women farmers you’ve met?
A. CH: We find that women tend to think a little more relationally, in terms of systems and how the different parts fit together in the big picture. That has repercussions both on the flow of their farm, if they have animals and plants working together, [and] also in terms of economics — that, alright, perhaps I’m not gonna get rich on this, but in the long term, it’s better for me and it’s better for my community.
I think a huge theme since day one [of this trip] has been learning what it is to be generous. Everyone we meet — farmers, strangers who see that we’re biking across the country — everyone is just so incredibly open-hearted. The farmers feed us the most delicious food; people give us things just because they want to be a part of the journey. Just the basic human goodness that we have been so blessed to encounter really uplifts me. And the funny part is, they all warn us about the weirdos out there, but we haven’t met any.