What women (farmers) want
Pennsylvania's Women in Agriculture Day highlights the growing number of female farmers and how they're changing the face of the agricultural community.

By Genevieve Slocum

Women farmers are in the minority everywhere, and welcome the opportunity to connect with others in the same boat.

March 15, 2007: The program heading for Pennsylvania’s Third Annual Women in Agriculture Day, “Celebrating Agriculture’s Women Entrepreneurs,” really said it all. The women who spoke at the conference, a diverse array of entrepreneurs, civil servants and policymakers, had faced many challenges but had clearly been empowered by their involvement in agriculture, and were there to celebrate their skills and experiences. Their energy and dynamism were palpable as they traded insights, practical advice, and personal stories with wry humor and passion. Many of them were truly entrepreneurs.

The day, created by the Pennsylvania Women in Agriculture Network (PA WAgN http://wagn.cas.psu.edu), celebrated the unique perspective women bring to agriculture without separating the female endeavor from universal business principles. Many of the speakers, from Marianne Fivek of the Penn State Extension to Karen Powell, a spokesperson for theUSDA's Risk Management Association, sought to empower the attendees with pertinent, useful information. Rather than being solely an activist organization promoting abstract ideals, PA WAgN anchors those ideals in down-to-earth information sharing.

As civilizations advanced to agriculture, men often were the agriculturalists—a powerful role given that a storable food supply was a form of capital.

Women farmers are in the minority everywhere, and welcome the opportunity to connect with others in the same boat. Taking a stereotypical gender-role perspective, women are traditionally the “communicators,” the networkers, the sharers, while their husbands are the competitive individualists.

Lynda Farrell, one the Southeast regional WAgN representatives, commented that in hunter-gatherer societies, women were the gatherers. Building a communal pool of wisdom about where and how to find the best fruit meant a more successful "harvest." Men were the hunters, which required silence, solitude and stealth. As civilizations advanced to agriculture, men often were the agriculturalists (but not always, e.g. in many African cultures)—a powerful role given that a storable food supply was a form of capital.

Adding value

Whether or not we can use this to draw parallels to today’s gender roles is up for debate, but it was definitely reflected in the progressive mood of the conference and the emphasis on community and sustainability. Women want financial security, but not through an input-intensive, disconnected form of agriculture. Needs assessment surveys put out by PA WAgN revealed— aside from workshops with relevant and specific content and opportunities for social support—constituents wanted to know more about direct marketing of value-added products.

The emphasis on "values-added" implies these female farmers don’t want to simply sell raw commodities like corn or soybeans, which are basically just industrial building blocks, but they want to be in control of an integrated production process.
The emphasis on" values-added" implies these female farmers don’t want to simply sell raw commodities like corn or soybeans, which are basically just industrial building blocks, but they want to be in control of an integrated production process, from planting the seeds to putting the jar, can, package, or craft on the shelf and talking it up to customers. Many of the speakers recognized producing organically was by itself a form of adding value.

Farmer and activist Cheryl Rogowski argued in her keynote address that women bring a deep understanding of how to intuit and respond to the consumer’s needs and the desire to establish a mutual relationship with the consumer. They bring perhaps a deeper understanding because they are also on the consumer end much more frequently than men.

Engaging with the consumer not only builds a sturdy, loyal customer base, but commands higher prices, and, by eliminating the middle man, returns to the grower the majority of her profits. She and many of the other women present genuinely want to serve their communities—to give their customers access to wholesome, minimally processed foods, and provide a window into how their food is produced. The women who go for the direct marketing approach tend to be the women who care about quality over quantity, diversity of product over uniformity, and collaboration with the consumer.

In our culture of convenience, this role for female growers may seem obsolete, but it is actually something many out-of-touch consumers long for. As Amy Trauger writes of canning in the PA WAgN newsletter, “In a culture so fast-paced it’s almost (but not quite) living in the moment, this wait for seasonal foods to make an appearance and the slow and sometimes tedious work of storing up nutrition for later seems almost awkward and unnatural . . . The fruit in the rows upon rows of glistening jars when I’m finally finished seems impossibly preserved—almost immortal. To open them seems profane, requiring a ritual, something beyond simply eating.” She values the social context of food production and consumption, and the relationships and rituals that have traditionally bolstered it where the formal economy has not.

Social and environmental values

Our agricultural system has been traditionally male-dominated, but the trend of farm consolidation and loss of smaller farms have created a chance to partially remake the infrastructure, a space which women have jumped to fill. Although Pennsylvania has lost 2,000 farms in recent years, it has gained approximately 1,000 managed by women. Organic farming in particular is a niche that may be easier for women with non-farm backgrounds to break into, since conventional farming is more capital-intensive, large-scale, and difficult as a start-up if one is not already a landowner.

Rogowski, who has a CSA in the Hudson Valley, notes the demographics of her own workforce have shifted dramatically over the years, from predominantly male and Puerto Rican (employed by her parents when she was growing up) to a female majority.

The unskilled male labor pool now gravitates to higher-paying jobs in landscaping and construction, while women frequently fall into slightly lower-paying service industry jobs. Rogowski finds that small-scale farm production favors female labor since there is less physically demanding work involved than there might be on the larger scale. Her challenge, she says, is to maintain loyalty and to build equitable, mutually beneficial relationships. Her first step to ensuring a democratic workplace is to never ask her workers to do anything she is not willing to do alongside them.

Many women who come to agriculture as entrepreneurs aren’t simply products of traditional rural culture, but bring “a feminist culture to food production.”

Rogowski is the recipient of the 2004 Macarthur Foundation “Genius” award for proving the survivability and viability of small farms and for her work in reaching out to the community. She started a low-income CSA geared to local senior citizens and other disadvantaged neighborhoods, with a reduced price scale for shares. She has also created a radio program in NPR format to discuss the importance of family farms and local food. Her work reflects a consciousness of both social and environmental justice, and the skewed value systems prevalent in our society.

She farms on “black dirt,” an extremely rich soil formed by deposits that were once the bottom of a glacial lake. Despite the astounding 60 percent to 80 percent organic matter content of the soil, the land is far more valued for holding up foundations, commanding six figure bids from developers. Like many of the speakers at the conference, Rogowski understands the importance of placing social and environmental value (which frequently does not carry a price tag) ahead of economic value. The market value of land does not, for example, reveal the irreversible harm of building on a finite and particularly rare resource like black dirt.

Rogowski's words of wisdom for building public awareness (through free advertising channels such as press releases) are very telling: “Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn, but be gracious. Claim what you have done and what is your own.”

Organic is a market dictated more by conscious, principled decisions than cost and the invisible hand of self-interest, on the part of both producer and consumer. Beginning organic farmers, particularly those from non-farm backgrounds, tend to be more educated and motivated primarily by ideological reasons.

Elaine Lipson’s 2004 article in Ms. Magazine, “Food, Farming…Feminism?” makes the point that many women who come to agriculture as entrepreneurs aren’t simply products of traditional rural culture, but bring “a feminist culture to food production.” It is more likely the whiff of economic opportunity rather than the “notion that it is an essential tendency to nurture or harmonize with nature that makes women opt for organic or sustainable farming,” she argues.

Valuing health and wellness

We use toxic chemicals and chemical “cocktails” we don’t fully understand and which lurk in the environment and human tissue, most alarmingly in women’s breast milk.

Dr. Paul Hepperly of The Rodale Institute gave a presentation which highlighted the essential differences between men and women and what this implies for women’s role in agriculture. Hepperly emphasized health awareness as one of the major reasons women should care about and get involved with improving agriculture. We use toxic chemicals and chemical “cocktails” we don’t fully understand and which lurk in the environment and human tissue, most alarmingly in women’s breast milk. The hormone most frequently mimicked is estrogen, as he also pointed out.

The female perspective in this arena is invaluable, Hepperly argued, both because of these biological concerns and because women bring a balanced point of view to the table, completing the male-female yin and yang. Men have traditionally been the ones who try to dominate nature, while women balance this attitude with sensitivity and caring. It makes sense, in this light, to see women as the audience to address when it comes to the health and wellness side of food production.

One of Hepperly’s most important points was that health care should be preemptive, through a nutritious and wholesome diet, rather than retroactive and pharmaceutically-based; that health should not be defined by pathology or the absence thereof, but by balance and proper nutrition. This is a more holistic, cultural-specific notion than pure reductionistic science. By peppering his knowledge of biology with the wisdom of eastern religions and metaphysics and emphasizing gender-specific environmental issues, Hepperly shined the spotlight on the potential for a more feminine agriculture. One woman commented, “Wow, that was one biology lesson that didn’t put me to sleep!”

Breaking from "traditional" values

Newly elected state representative Barbara McIlvaine Smith brought a political and feminist perspective to the discussion. It is the norm, often the birthright, for men to be politically powerful, she contented, but women (and especially farmers) are more likely to step up out of a grassroots, populist conviction about a particular issue.

PA WAgN has over 750 members, a number which could soon mean political clout on the scale of an interest group.

With her farming roots, later endeavors on a family farm, and feisty political involvement, McIlvaine Smith is a new kind of role model and provided a connection to politics for the women present. Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff reinforced the importance of politics and the sense that our leaders are listening to small farmers and women farmers in particular. PA WAgN has over 750 members, a number which could soon mean political clout on the scale of an interest group.

There were many notes of promise and innovation throughout the program. Kim Tait who runs a diverse retail outlet at Tait Farms covered the importance of responding to consumer trends driven by novelty. The consumer is always attracted to a “new and improved” yet familiar product, she said, but the timeless underlying values of convenience and nutrition should always be on the radar.

Roxanne Christensen, coauthor of SPIN farming, a learning series which details how to grow commercially on under an acre, that urged women respond to the market with innovation and creativity. SPIN farming, designed for limited urban land, requires very few off-farm inputs, utilizes close local markets (which tend to be especially diverse in the urban landscape), puts out little waste, and maximizes the available land with high-value crops (such as salad mixes) and intensive relay cropping. The layout is designed for minimal labor, equipment, overhead, and startup infrastructure costs. (See Small is beautiful...and profitable for more on SPIN farming in Pennsylvania.)

Barbara Gerlach of the Farm Vacation Association emphasized the unique opportunities in agro-tourism, from U-pick festivals to petting zoos and rodeos—mixing entertainment with consumerism to draw customers to the farm. (This is a common technique in the mainstream economy, a way to get consumers to spend more time—and, thus, more money—in consumer spaces. Think Cabela’s stuffed game-animal exhibits.) Yet on farms, this serves an additional social function byf building rural communities and connecting like-minded consumers.

The burgeoning feminine

The Women on U.S. Farms Research Initiatives at Penn State (http://agwomen.aers.psu.edu), one of the links listed on the WAgN website, gives some insight into the demography and background of female agriculturalists. A 2002 study by Amy Trauger, “Some Observations on the Regional Distribution of Principal Farm Operators” divides women farm operators into two categories—those who grew up on a farm, were perhaps widowed, and are carrying on the farm legacy; and then those of the “back to the land movement” who intentionally choose agriculture as a profession and lifestyle after living an urban or suburban life.

Female farmers thrive as leaders and entrepreneurs in the more progressive, non-traditional regions where they have the opportunity to start from scratch.

As far as geographical trends, the regions with higher densities of female operators tend to also have higher population densities, are more politically liberal, and have more-diverse, less-commodified, smaller-scale farms. In other words, female farmers thrive as leaders and entrepreneurs in the more progressive, non-traditional regions where they have the opportunity to start from scratch. Given the historical background of agriculture in this country, that should come as no surprise. Yet over a 20-year period from 1980-2001, women’s involvement in decision making on farms across the state increased to a level that approached their spouses/partners. Their decisions included whether to buy or sell land, rent more or less land, and whether and when to buy and sell major farm equipment.

The number of women who held off-farm employment during this period also doubled, which, aside from the necessity factor, may reflect a burgeoning market for female breadwinners and benefit-winners, and the diversification and economic viability of female skills (see Fern Willits and Natalie Jolly, “Changes in Farm Women’s Roles, 1980-2001,” http://agwomen.aers.psu.edu/changesabstract.html).

There is no doubt that women’s roles on the farm are expanding. They may always have performed an integrated array of tasks, but these are now taking the shape of leadership and responsibility and reaching beyond their traditionally invisible, under-the-economic-radar-but-crucial scope. Women of all stripes are responsible for this shift in visibility and power, and the PA WAgN group is but one cross-section of that constituency. Both the bold entrepreneurs and the women who help women, whether they work for an NGO, the government itself, or the farmers on the ground sharing tried and true advice, are on the rise.