“So are you his wife?”
“Uh.. No. I’m his daughter.”
Many agricultural meetings I attend with my father are full of aging men. A few with their spouses. Some with their sons. At one convention, I overheard a farmer introduce another farmer to his son-in-law. “Learning the trade, is he?”
It makes for short lines in bathrooms and ridiculous encounters like the one above. Some people cannot figure out what a woman my age is doing at these meetings. “So, no brother, then?”
Yes, I have a brother!
Gardening is a stereotypical female pastime; farming is just on a bigger scale with bigger tools and greater yields. Why is it so hard for some people to see women as leaders (or even potential leaders) in the farming industry?
I’m not one to readily concede that gender determines ability or profession. But since I started farming more this year, I have had to acknowledge I won’t be winning at arm wrestling Evan or Aaron. But it’s not like I’m trying to, either.
Farming has advanced enough where it’s not all physical labor anymore. As my cousin Kathy and friend Danielle urge: women can do it! And some are. In 2007, USDA Agriculture Census determined that 14% of farm operators are women; however, in the midwest region, only 10% of farm operators are women.
In this farming community, women are stay-at-home moms, insurance agents, dentists, secretaries, and teachers. Don’t get me wrong, we need these people too! However, the salt-of-the-earth, good ol’ family farmers are decreasing and commercialized factory farms that have little consideration for local responsibility and potential for disrupting our greater economy are creeping in, buying up land from the recently retired. What does this mean for the future of farming? For the future of food?
When the culture encourages only 50 percent of the population into a profession, the probability is less that those positions will be filled than if 100 percent of the population were exposed to the opportunity.
Girls need more women farmers as role models in order for them to consider farming. This means more children’s books with protagonist female farmers, images of female farmers on billboards and other advertisements, women farmers as guest speakers in college classrooms and industry conferences. Girls may not be attending these industry conferences themselves (although I did witness a father with his grade-school-aged daughter at one recently: way to go, CA!), but their parents are attending, and parents have an equal—if not greater—influence on what their children choose to pursue than our public school systems.
Over the summer, I was having lunch with the farm guys (my dad’s employees), and I overheard the following conversation at the next table that got under my skin:
Farmer H: “How’s the harvest going over there for you?”
Farmer N: “Oh, have a lot to do yet. It’s going to be a long one.”
H: “Well you have some kids, don’t you? Just have to wait a few more years for them to grow up and put them to work.”
N: Guffaws, “all girls.”
H: “Yeah. Maybe they could drive [grain] truck for you someday.”
N: “Girls?! I don’t think so.”
This, I might add, was right around the time when I was learning to drive semi-truck for my own father.
Whoever those girls are, I feel for them. Clearly, their father cannot see beyond gender stereotypes, even when he is desperate for extra help.
Be it a lofty comparison, old traditions of European royalty come to mind. King Henry VIII went through six different wives in pursuit of a male heir to his throne; daughters were disappointments to him.
Although some come into farming on their own, traditionally, farming is something you are born into; it runs in the family—not much unlike birth to British royalty automatically makes one royal.
To further this analogy: in present day, Elizabeth is the beloved Queen of England, but yet this unknown farmer jerk won’t even consider letting his daughters drive grain truck.
Fortunately, for me, my own father is open minded and has had me operating machinery since junior high school. I also have the honor of working with a great team of guys who are very accepting and encouraging. Each of them has taken time to teach me new things because they are confident I can do it myself once I have learned how.
My parents not only involved both me and my brother on the farm, but they also encouraged us to pursue other interests, even if it meant we wouldn’t return to the farm in pursuit of those other interests. They wanted us to want to return to the farm.
My brother now lives in New York, working in the financial sector, and has little interest in farming. Good for him. But had my father relied solely on my brother to farm, our family’s legacy of farming in this region, which dates back to the late 1800s with my great-great grandfather could have abruptly ended.
This is the fate many family farms are suffering in a giant world of opportunity. Let’s work to double our chances to preserve the ones that are left.