This is part of my Masters’ thesis: the abstract, introduction, literature review, and conclusion. I left out the boring parts (the excruciating data analysis and references), but you can read the whole thing here if you’re really
I wrote this thesis because I was interested in a big constellation of topics related to gender and farming. More people were becoming small farmers, and every year more small farms are run by women in a profession that is overwhelmingly (85%) male. This increase is happening at the same time consumer and popular interest in small farms and in local, sustainable, and organic food sky-rockets. It was hard to decide which part of those trends I wanted to focus on, because I found every aspect of it interesting. Do women farm differently than men? Do they sell their products to different markets? Were gender and organic farming related, and if so, how?
As I read research on women and farming, I noticed an interesting trend: A lot of it took for granted that female farmers are “obviously” more likely to use organic and sustainable techniques than male farmers–without statistically substantiating that relationship. Women are, indeed, traditionally responsible for both mitigating risk to their family members and for maintaining ties between family and community, but tradition has a habit of being restrictive and harmful to women seeking to define themselves as individuals, rather than merely extensions of their family. Much of this research argued that women in agriculture, by virtue of being more likely to use organic and sustainable methods, had the potential to reform the food system into something less harmful to the environment and more supportive of strong community ties. The very potential they cited, however, was based on unsubstantiated assumptions about the way women farm. If there was no statistical association between female farmers and organic methods, could we argue that women were going to remake agriculture?
Ultimately, I decided the best use of the data I had on hand (primarily the USDA’s Agricultural Census) was to ask whether the number of organic and sustainable farms per county was associated with the number of female farmers, once I controlled for a number of other factors, including proximity to cities and region of the U.S. I found that those numbers are correlated, which suggests that the increase in sustainable farms is statistically associated with more female farmers–meaning there is, indeed, evidence to support the association between women in farming and sustainable agricultural methods. While that might sound fairly obvious, science means using more than assumption to guide policy and action.
And those results are exciting, because if you’re involved in the local and sustainable food movement, chances are you want to see food systems in the US and around the world reformed to be more environmentally and socially healthy. And my thesis says, in a very long-winded and round-about way, that encouraging women to farm is one route to that transformation.
GREGORY, ANNELIESE MARGARET. Alternative Possibilities: Gender and Agriculture in the United States. (Under the direction of co-chairs Dr. Sarah Bowen and Dr. Brett Clark.)
Agriculture is a rigidly gendered field in which 85% of primary operators on family farms, those possessing the majority of farm decision-making power, are male (National Agriculture Statistics Service 2009). The division of labor between “farm” and “home” is strictly gendered, despite the necessity of female labor to sustain the farm as both a business and a household (Sachs 1983; Whatmore 1991; Meares 1997; Allen and Sachs 2007). Previous work in gender and agriculture suggests that gender beliefs and practices of farm operators is related to farm structure and agricultural practices, with civic and environmental implications for the community in which the farm operates (Peter et al. 2000; Hall and Mogyorody 2007). Sustainable and civic agriculture are theoretically associated with non-traditional gender ideology and practice (Chiappe and Flora 1998; Trauger et al. 2010)., but the existence of this association has not been tested on a national sample This paper tests the association between female primary farm operators and sustainable and civic agricultural practices at the county level, using 2007 data from the USDA Census of Agriculture. Using ordinary least squares regression, I find that civic and alternative farm practices are significant predictors of female primary operatorship, even after controlling for metropolitan proximity, region, county demographics, farm subsidies, structure, and size. These findings support previous work in alternative agriculture and gender, and suggest new avenues for research into the mechanisms of alternative gender practices and an alternative agricultural paradigm in determining farm structure.
Every morning as I walk to my office I’m challenged by a neighbor’s bumper sticker: “Who’s your farmer?” The implication of this question–that consumers should know where their food comes from and what goes into it, as well as cultivate a personal relationship with the individual who grows their food–is a central tenet of the local food movement, spearheaded by activists such as Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.
Sociologists of agriculture and critics of the local food movement have identified a number of ideological contradictions, one of which is how the movement constructs or challenges unequal gender relations (Meares 1997; DeLind and Ferguson 1999; Dupuis and Goodman 2005; DeLind 2011). What strikes me about my neighbor’s sticker is how the assumption of a single farmer subtly reinforces gender inequality within agriculture even as local and organic food movements supposedly challenge those dynamics (Meares 1997; DeLind and Ferguson 1999).
Contrary to the bumper sticker’s assumption of a single farmer and (his) fields, 96% of American farms are classified as family farms (NASS 2009). The farm household is assumed to consist of a heterosexual couple (NASS 2009) in which the male is responsible for the majority of farm decisions and the female functions in a support or reproductive role (Sachs 1983; Rosenfeld and Tigges 1988). The majority of family farms follow this pattern: 85% of all farms are headed by a male (designated as the “principal operator”) while women are overrepresented in the “secondary operator” category (Hoppe et al. 2010). “Who’s your farmer?” glosses over how the labor of agricultural products is differentiated by gender.
The gendered division of agricultural labor is attributed by Sachs (1983) and others to the increasing conventionalization and industrialization of U.S. agriculture (Rosenfeld and Tigges 1988; Brandth 1994; Saugeres 2002). The relationship between conventional agriculture and conventional gender relations is subsequently taken for granted and agricultural practices are constructed within sociology of agriculture literature as deterministic of on-farm gender relations (Peter et al. 2000; Hall and Mogyorody 2004). Problematic gender relations, which are implied to grow out of the ideology and practices of conventional agriculture (Beus and Dunlap 1990), assume a dichotomous relationship to equitable gender divisions of labor produced through, arguably, alternative agricultural forms ((Peter et al. 2000; Hall and Mogyorody 2004).
This assumption is implicit and pervasive in studies of alternative agriculture which question whether ideological orientations, which lead farmers to pursue alternative farming methods, might also support alternative gender relations on the farm (Meares 1997; DeLind and Ferguson 1999; Peter et al. 2000; Hall and Mogyorody 2004). A wealth of qualitative work suggests that a relationship exists between gender relations on farms and how farms are operated, but this assumption has yet to be empirically supported by a national analysis of farming within the United States. In my thesis, I provide an empirical assessment of this relationship.
Specifically, I predict that the practice of alternative (sustainable and civic) farming methods will be associated with nontraditional gender practice (which I define as women primary operators), in that counties with more alternative farms will also have more female principal farmers. This hypothesis does not ask whether female farmers are more or less likely than male farmers to utilize given alternative farming methods, or whether alternative forms of agriculture contribute to more equitable gender relations; instead, I ask whether the presence of alternative farming methods in a county predicts an environment in which farmers practicing alternative gender relations on farms—women as primary operators—are more likely to work. Previous qualitative findings suggest that organic agriculture in and of itself does not predict egalitarian gender relations, but that forms of organic agriculture which are less industrial may foster more equitable divisions of house and farm work between men and women (Hall and Mogyorody 2004). Using nonlinear OLS regression, I demonstrate that counties with more farms practicing alternative and civic methods of agriculture have higher numbers of female operators, controlling for all other factors.
Within this paper, I use the terms “sustainable” and “alternative” interchangeably to indicate farming methods that are pursued for their environmental benefits, such as the conservation of land and water. When discussing agriculture that is certified as follows the standards required by the National Organic Program (NASS 2009), I use the term “organic” to differentiate organic farms from those that use similar methods without certification. In order to distinguish between the environmental and social aspects of production which are assumed to be related to gender inequality in agriculture, I use Lyson’s (2005) definition of civic agriculture as that which is embedded in a community and the relationships and values of that community. Certain elements of civic agriculture, specifically the focus on local markets, arguably fall within the alternative agriculture paradigm identified by Beus and Dunlap (1990). I choose to highlight whether or not farmers produce and sell at local markets, rather than the environmental implications of production for local markets–in that consumers can directly ask farmers about their production practices–and consider this a civic method of production.
Early theorists studying gender and agriculture found a relationship between the farm’s gendered division of labor and the increasing industrialization of agriculture in the United States beginning in the late 1940s (Lobao and Meyer 2001). Sachs (1983) provides an excellent history and summary of studies in gender and agriculture through the early 1980s, concluding that “market-oriented, high-technology farming excludes women from decision making” (34). Subsequent research on gender and agriculture seized upon the interaction between farm methods and gender practice, arguing that the movement of women from the farm into the workforce alongside the growth in average size and scale of farms is evidence of the minimized role women play within agricultural production (Whatmore 1991; Meares 1997). Nowhere is this more evident than in the experiences of women who seek out agricultural knowledge from traditional sources such as land grant universities and extension agents: long-held perceptions of women as “farmwives” prevent farming women from accessing the best available agricultural knowledge (Trauger et al. 2008).
These studies of the gendered division of labor on conventional farms led to questions about the gendered division of labor within the alternative farm family (Meares 1997; Peter et al. 2000; Hall and Mogyorody 2009). The alternative agriculture movement attracted a great deal of interest from sociologists of agriculture and gender, who argued that the ideals of alternative agriculture constitute a paradigm distinct from that of conventional agriculture (Beus and Dunlap 1990). Would, then, those who participated in alternative agriculture demonstrate alternative gender ideologies and practices (Meares 1997; Peter et al. 2000; Hall and Mogorody 2009)?
Three distinct research areas in the sociology of agriculture are engaged by this question: Gender in agriculture, gender in alternative agriculture, and civic agriculture literature.
The growth of the sustainable/alternative agriculture movement throughout the 1980s, culminating in the Organic Foods Act of 1990 and in the National Organic Program of 2002 spurred further questions regarding agricultural practice and gender (NASS 2009). The sustainable/alternative agriculture movement is generally agreed to represent farmers and consumers whose values and practices focus on harmony with nature, diverse agricultural methods and crops, local consumption and investment in community (Beus and Dunlap 1990; Lyson 2005). The use of this political ideology to shape practice implies that practice influences structure. The belief that conventional farming methods are environmentally, medically, and socially harmful is used to encourage farmers and consumers to change their behaviors in order to reap far-reaching benefits to the quality of food, economy, and community life (Appalachian Sustainable Development 2011). When questions of gender equality are considered within the ideological framework of sustainable agriculture, farmers, analysts, and consumers project the perceived benefits of alternative farming practices for individuals and communities onto gender relations as well (Peter et al. 2000; Bell 2004, Trauger et al. 2010).
The literature pertaining to gender and agriculture and gender and environment is broad and varied. Ecofeminists such as Ariel Salleh (2009) and Vandana Shiva (1989) argue that the exploitation of nature for profit, such as through unsustainable methods of agriculture, mirrors the oppression of women by men, and that those processes are often one and the same. Scholars in environmental sociology critique ecofeminists for gender essentialism, arguing that while men and women may relate to the environment in different ways, understanding the processes which socialize those beliefs and behaviors is essential to studying and hypothesizing differential outcomes for the environment (Banerjee and Bell 2007). A survey of literature on environmental risk by Davidson and Freudenburg (1996) suggests that differences in perception of environmental harm by men and women may be due to different levels of trust in institutions. Men and women with children, however, appear to have similar levels of concern regarding environmental risk.
Some evidence of interesting interactions between alternative farming ideology and practice and gender ideology and practice exist. Wheeler (2008) finds that among faculty in agricultural education programs, gender-equitable beliefs are positively related to acceptance of sustainable agricultural practices. Peter et al. (2000) discuss the presence of a community-oriented dialogic masculinity exhibited by male farmers practicing alternative agricultural production methods. Hall and Mogyorody’s (2007) work on organic farms run by heterosexual couples reveals more equitable gendered distribution of farming, home labor and decision-making on organic farms with less mechanistic techniques and more explicit devotion to alternative agricultural ideals.
Other scholars focus on the networks and ideals held by female farmers, revealing civic orientations in addition to ideology favoring environmentally-friendly farming practices (Chiappe and Flora 1998).Civic agriculture is defined by the “embedding of local agricultural and food production in the community” (Lyson 2005), and involves practices such as direct marketing and community-supported agriculture as well as the reduction of potential environmental hazards on the farm. The goal of those who participate in civic agriculture, in opposition to conventional agricultural production, is to reap economic and social benefits for the local community in addition to supporting the farm family (DeLind and Ferguson 1999; Lyson 2005). Studies of civic agriculture find that measures derived from civil society are positively related to measures of agricultural sustainability (Lyson 1998).
Trauger et al. (2010) find evidence of a strong community orientation among female farmers, which is consistent with theories on civic agriculture, as well as theories that argue that women are socialized into a relational nexus (Hartsock 1983). Chiappe and Flora (1998) argue that community is a significant feature of alternative agricultural practice for female alternative farmers
By establishing the presence of statistically significant relationships between where alternative farming practices are conducted and their impact on the presence of female primary operators, I seek to continue the work of Allen and Sachs (2007) by furthering issues of women and food in the material realm, as well as illuminating county-level structures that influence the participation of women in agriculture as full farmers.
Through this analysis of farming methods and gender of primary operator, I challenged the assumption of the popular local food movement that “Who’s your farmer?” is the right question to transform the U.S. food system. That question obscures the labor of the family farm and in doing so supports gendered assumptions of who does farm (productive) work and who does house (reproductive) work on U.S. farms. By buying locally and knowing who our farmers are, goes this logic, consumers can hold farmers accountable for the agricultural methods they employ. Within sociology of agriculture literature, agricultural methods are associated with agricultural ideology and gender practice, such that practitioners of conventional agriculture represent conventional ideology (Beus and Dunlap 1990), which leads to the perpetuation of traditional, unequal gender relations (Sachs 1983). An extension of this assumption, then, is that alternative agricultural methods will be associated with alternative, non-traditional gender relations. I tested this assumption empirically by looking at farmers who embody non-traditional gender practice—female primary operators, an overwhelming minority within agriculture—and whether or not their presence could be predicted by measures of alternative, sustainable, organic, and civic agriculture.
While “Who’s your farmer” might be the wrong question, it is not a useless question, and the results of this study establish that methods of production do, indeed, influence gender relations, in that more female farmers can be found where more alternative methods of production are practiced. This study demonstrates that (with the important exception of number of CSAs per county) sustainable, organic, and civic methods of agriculture are found to be predictive of higher numbers of female farmers per county.
Theoretically, this study uncovers an important assumption about agricultural methods and gender relations, one which is implicit throughout the majority of gender and agriculture literature. Though this study contributes to substantiating and supporting this assumption—that agricultural methods contribute to the shape of agricultural gender relations–the study also suggests that more work remains to be done in elaborating on the mechanisms of these relationships. In addition, this study suggests that how methods construct gender relations is a question of structures and institutions rather than individual action. Addressing gender inequality within agriculture, and how inequality is constructed through agricultural methods, also requires an examination of how institutions such as land-grant universities and the USDA contribute to these constructions. That this study finds significant effects at the county rather than individual-level is further evidence of larger, less understood processes at work.
The limitations of this study suggest directions for interesting future work. Previously discussed issues include the temporal misalignment of demographic and agricultural data from 2000 and 2007 as well as the lack of available data on the most rural counties in the United States. The future availability of 2010 US Census data as well as the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, however, present exciting opportunities for expanding this cross-sectional project into a longitudinal study of changing patterns in alternative, sustainable, and civic methods and their relation to female primary operators. A longitudinal study would also clarify the direction of this relationship: while this study and others (Hall and Mogyorody 2004) imply a causal relationship between agricultural methods employed as predictive of how gender is practiced, a longitudinal study would make explicit the direction in which the relationship functions. Specifically, a longitudinal study would demonstrate when counties gain additional female primary operators or farms utilizing sustainable and civic methods. Rarely is the mechanism by which ideology, gender, and labor become associated explored within gender and alternative literature, and a longitudinal study would provide grounds for assessing how those relationships develop. Most significantly, while this data suggest the number of female principal operators increases where sustainable and civic methods of agriculture are utilized, it does not explicitly connect female farmers with these practices. With the availability of individual-level data, a multilevel modeling approach could be utilized to understand whether different processes function at the individual and county-level in determining the distribution of female primary farm operators.
Interviews based upon these findings would illustrate how female farmers interact with institutions and their communities, how they negotiate economic and social barriers, and whether their civic and community ideals and practices better enable their farms to survive in a challenging economic atmosphere. How and where female farmers distribute their agricultural products is also an important research question, as this project demonstrates that female farmers are more likely to operate in more metropolitan counties. What aspects of metropolitan counties make female farming more likely, or, vice-versa? Do the arguments made by these results hold for the most rural counties? What are the characteristics of businesses female farmers are more likely to work with—are they more likely to be locally owned, female-owned, small, or large, or are female farmers more likely to market their own products than male farmers? The completion and improvement of this project points to fascinating questions regarding the interaction between gender, institutions, and ideology in agriculture.
Focusing on county-level patterns rather than individual-level data allows for a broader understanding of the spatial and structural factors inherent in how agriculture is gendered and racialized. Recent revelations of discrimination against female and Hispanic farmers in distribution of USDA farm loans suggests that institutional factors interact with individual farmer characteristics to shape who participates in agriculture as a principal operator and where they are capable of operating in the United States (USDA 2011).
These results also point toward important future work with serious implications for farm policy, such as allocation of subsidies and loans. This study suggests potential avenues for augmenting diversity, such as investment in venues for direct agriculture sales and alternatives to commercial chemical applications. Substantiating the theorized links between gender diversity, community-oriented farming, and ecologically sound agricultural practices on a county-level lends validity to previous theoretical work on gender differences in farm organization and practices.