When I was in graduate school, I became fascinated by the idea that women are socially and culturally expected to take responsibility for the physical and emotional feeding of families within the home, but the stereotypical farmer, who ultimately feeds all of us in a post-agricultural world, is a man. The stereotypical farmer is a real-to-life fact in the United States, where about 85% of primary decision makers on farms are men. In the Third World, however, women dominate food production and preparation.
In the United States, we socially “explain” the overwhelming number of men who own and control farms by accepting and sharing the idea that farm work is always physically intense–too physically intense for the average woman. We also accept and share the idea that farming favors the mechanically minded, as tractors and trucks break down with almost humorous frequency and something new–a potting table, a greenhouse, a caterpillar tunnel–always needs to be built. When the leaders of Ivy League institutions continue to spread the idea that women are not as capable as men at math and engineering, of course we’d doubt that women can successfully farm.
But that particular vision of a farmer and of farming is a skewed one that assumes to farm successfully every job must be done larger, better, faster, and only by a single male farmer.
I’ve seen a different kind of farming in the two years I’ve been involved in agriculture. The Well Fed Community Garden, where I’ve worked as an intern and volunteer coordinator in February 2014, is successfully managed and staffed by women. Our most consistent and helpful volunteers are women who range in age from twenty-seven to their mid-fifties. Together, we are not muscle-bound, particularly tall or enormously fit; we have children and knee injuries and shoulder injuries among us. Even so, we manage a very successful space which provides a restaurant with fresh, sustainable, local vegetables and also feeds its staff and volunteers.
We do this by farming cooperatively and sharing hard tasks. When it is time to prepare the soil with a walk-behind tractor, which can be a gruelling task, we take turns to prevent anyone from becoming too worn out. This also shares the skills of learning how to use different implements and complete different steps of soil preparation. When we need to carry a heavy load, like moving the chicken coop, we know that five of us together makes it an easy job. Those of us with knee injuries concentrate on jobs that won’t cause us pain; those of us who are taller or heavier lend our size where it is needed.
In general, we don’t assume we can’t do a thing just because it is immediately a challenge or because we can’t complete it by ourselves. We also don’t use chemicals or machines as the first line solution to our needs. Rather, we brainstorm and we ask for outside help when we need it.
This is not to suggest that women are perfect beings or that they possess the inherent skills of creating a community. Instead, what I’d like to suggest is that the way I see women farming–the way we at the Well Fed Community garden are learning to farm together–is an inherently different vision of agriculture from the conjuration of a singular male farmer riding high on a tractor. This kind of agriculture is inclusive, inviting people of a wide range of ability and knowledge to enjoy equal opportunities to participate and contribute to the way farm work is structured and completed.
It’s the kind of agriculture I fell in love with in the mountains of Virginia and the kind of agriculture I sincerely hope to practice when I begin farming on my own. It’s not the simplest way to do it, not the most straight-forward, but it yields the greatest rewards for me and makes the process as important as the end result.