Alternative Possibilities: Gender and Agriculture in the United States

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 lame interested.

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.

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Birds & the Bees

Don’t get your hopes up—this is not that kind of blog. Does anyone know the origins of that euphemism? I suspect it references bees just for the alliterative and metric qualities of the word. Bees are decidedly undersexed creatures. Up to a million of them living in those boxes, and the queen is the only … Continue reading Birds & the Bees