For centuries women have been the backbone of food production.According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, women were, likely, our first cultivators. In the nomadic hunter-gatherer times, women would gather plants for food and leave the scraps and seeds, only to find the plant growing when they returned. This, in all probability, led to them purposely scattering the seeds, and so we took our first steps towards cultivated food production. In later years, after cultivation was a widespread practice, it was the men who labored in the fields for cash crops like tobacco, cotton, wheat, and corn, or in their professions. At the same time, women had the task of running the family farm, growing the vegetables and fruit to be used by the household, as well as feeding and caring for livestock.
Often, women were the ones who went to market, making, then selling the products they could spare. They sold extra eggs and butter, and the livestock and meats.
They were the market farmers!
Why then is it that these women are not considered farmers? They were farmers' wives(or just wives). Our history and literature books are riddled with male farmers.
Credit was very seldom given to women as the farmer since it was the women's job to be the wife and caretakers for the husbands and children, do the running of his household or homestead, which included food production to feed the family. All of the farming that women did was considered the responsibility of a wife.
In today's society, we seem to have forgotten that farming and food production was women's work. We forget that women are more than capable of this work. When we think about farmers, we mostly think of older men, in overalls, plaid shirts, and a hat, riding on a tractor. In history and literature books, in marketing material, even in nursery rhymes, it is the men who are farmers. We have been pre-dispositioned to the idea that "farmer" is gender-specific.
When you picture a farmer, what is it, you see?
There is a movement happening in the world today around women in agriculture. Most see it as new. Women Farmers. This is not a new fad. This is an awakening. A raising of women's' voices. A claiming of title and position. An opening of the eyes of the world. This is women saying:
"We are here. We have always been here!"
So I went to speak to a few women in agriculture here, locally, to see what they have to say about this movement and the female farmer.
Elizabeth Spellman, co-operator at Singing Springs Farm, Community, Farm, & Operations Director at Agrarian Land Trust, had this to say:
"I have always known women in farming, just from interning and working on the farms, and I am a farmer. There were plenty of women doing lots of work, so it never occurred to me that they weren't a part of it. I know they were all considered Farmers for sure. I am hearing, statistically, more livestock farmers are female now than before. Which is definitely a change that's happened over the past few years."
She has been involved in farming and agriculture since her early college years, having worked on and learned on farms from Vermont to California, from small farmsteads to H-2A farms, and now her very own farm in southwest Virginia. In those years, she saw first hand the prevalence of female farmers, especially on small farms with CSA models. Her experience has offered her a chance to see the vast diversity in the agriculture world today.
These sentiments were not unlike what I heard from Susanna Wheeler, Farm Director, New Roots Community Farm.
"When I began my first farm operation with some friends, I felt that people were surprised by our age more than they had been surprised by some of us being women. I do feel that a lot of people, especially those not connected with the farming community have a particular image around what a farmer looks like; their gender and age. But, I think women are claiming their space, you know. That's what's happening right now. There's a kind of movement around that, across various occupations where women's contributions have been minimized."
She became interested in farming and agriculture in her late teens as she discovered a connection between our food system and how it impacts the health and wellness of our communities as well as our Environmental situation. As the Farm director, she does everything form administration and budgeting to infrastructure building to working the lands, the same as most farmers today. She has also had the privilege of knowing a very diverse group of farmers.
As we have heard from these women, they are not alone.
They have learned from and worked alongside many women farmers all over the country. These women are farmers. They are working their lands and livestock, managing their businesses, marketing their farms, all while trying to make a difference in their local communities and for farmers, male and female, alike.
So the next time you are thinking about a farmer, remember, there are no age or gender constraints. Farmers are as diverse as the plants they are growing, and the animals they are raising.
We'd love to hear from you!
Have any questions, thoughts, or insights about women's roles in agriculture either past or present? Leave a comment below or let us know on Facebook or Instagram. #claimyourspace