Farm-conference season has begun. For me, this means five conferences in six weeks. It’s a little overwhelming, considering I’m still trying to farm and write while all of this is going on. It’s revitalizing, too, to both my farming and my writing, because I get to meet people, learn about issues, and see some very exciting initiatives that are improving food systems across the country and around the world.
The conference to kick off this crazy run was American Farmland Trust’s Farmland, Food and Livable Communities meeting, all about protecting farmland, keeping farmers on the land and bringing new farmers to the land. I attended sessions about agricultural conservation easements, farmers and “environmentalists” working together (even though farmers are often environmentalists, I think), young farmers, and food-systems planning. I chose these because I have plans to write about many of them. [in the title] because we cannot forget the farm family and the business are inextricably linked.” And how true is that!
Then there was one I went to kind of on a whim, and it turned out to be the most insightful: New Perspectives on the Next Generation of Farm Households, focusing on childcare, eldercare and healthcare’s effect on the farm family. There, moderator Jill Clark, assistant professor at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, said, “I purposefully use the word households
I thought of several farmers I know who are trying to make farming work—whether their whole family has been farming for generations or they are the first to give this a go—while trying to balance family, starting a family, having a social life, working off the farm and more. I know at least one farm family that has stepped away from farming because their little family needs more attention than the couple could give while farming full-time.
“How do we define a farmer?” asked presenter Shoshanah Inwood, assistant professor of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont. In the farming community overall, the person with the tractor-driving skills gets valued over the person with the farm-marketing skills, who gets valued over the person who is responsible for childcare, eldercare, and keeping others healthy and fed. In reality, the person who is running to town to go to the pharmacy isn’t any less valuable than the person who is harvesting the garlic. They’re both essential to a healthy farm community.
Looking at the results of the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, there is an increase in the number of women farmers in some areas of the country, but a decrease in the number of women operators overall. With women being traditionally being the primary caregiver for children and the elderly, a shift in thinking and in community support needs to occur to allow more women farmers to take part in their own farming dreams.
Inwood points out the need for healthcare, child care and insurance are principles commonly considered in general workforce development. The agricultural community is slow to adopt this thinking, though. How many hobby farmers would be more involved in their farming enterprise if at least one member of the farm household didn’t have to work off the farm to afford insurance and child care?
In a 2014 survey Small and Medium Scale Farm Growth, Reproduction and Persistence at the Rural-Urban Interface conducted by a team that includes Inwood and Clark (still so new the results haven’t fully been examined yet), the No. 1 factor influencing farm-management decisions is the ability to make a profit. The No. 2 is time to spend with family. Farming is an appealing endeavor partly because of the ability for the whole family to be involved (which isn’t always a good thing or a welcome thing, but that’s a subject for a whole other blog entry).
At the same time, nearly 75 percent of on-farm injuries to kids are not related to farm work. Inwood points to a lack of childcare options as a factor here. Her survey showed half of women with children 18 or younger say childcare is problematic, citing difference in philosophy or lack of availability, affordability or quality. “How do we build a community around these issues? We need a social support network,” Inwood says. Again, witnessing this every day myself, I couldn’t agree more.
Also in the session, farmer Michelle Howell of Halfway, Ky., spoke about her experience balancing life as a mother of four, CSA farmer, community advocate, writer and farmers’ market creator. The support network that she and her husband/fellow farmer, Nathan, benefit from include each other, their children and the two families who are leasing land on the farm. Listening to all she has managed to do in her family and in her business and her story of struggling to find herself and her place within her farm and family was inspiring. Yes. There are families on farms in communities making this work.
I know I usually use this weekly blog space to bring to light a farming issue that’s making headlines or a food issue that’s politically charged, but here’s something we can all rally around: A real need for real farmers to access real help—not farming help, but family help. Creating community for farmers of all kinds. Making it easier for farm families to stay on the land. Promoting childcare and healthcare for people who are growing food or who want to be growing food.
Please tell me: What kind of community support do farmers in your area have? What kind of support do you have that’s allowing you to farm? I’d like to start a dialog about this for women and for men who are struggling with the work-life-farm-family balance.