Throughout history, men have been depicted as leading the charge on everything agriculture. This includes discovering companion planting, and innovating seeding and harvesting equipment and methods. It also involves standing next to all format of livestock and being behind the wheel of every implement and piece of machinery.
But where, in all of this, were the women? Why are they not depicted in images and written in history books? They too toiled in the fields, milking the cows and harvesting the garden crops. Like so many things in history, the role women have played in ag—both big and small—has been swept under the rug or has had claim laid to it by men.
In an effort to highlight just how indispensable women have been—and continue to be—to farms and farming, Audra Mulkern has created a platform to celebrate the female farmer and everything that entails. It celebrates female contributions to work/life balance, working dual jobs both on and off the farm, nurturing roles and so much more.
The Female Farmer Project was created to tell the stories of the women who play pivotal roles in moving agriculture forward. These women celebrate the blessing of caring for the earth and its creatures.
A Move in the Right Direction
Mulkern, a former Microsoft employee, bought rural Washington property in 1999 (pre-internet!) to detox from the corporate world. Driven and focused at work, she craved a connection to the natural world that wasn’t fulfilled when she was in her office.
At the top of Mulkern’s wish list? Living on land where she could see grass and trees, hear the birds and feel more tied to her community.
“I wanted the veggies [we ate] to be in eyesight for my family,” she says. She wanted to fully understand where her family’s food comes from.
“I was actively pursuing food grown in my community, but I was struggling to find it. There were no farmers markets back then!” she says. “I found it incredibly ironic that I had to drive through the farms—with people in the fields!—to the city to get vegetables that were grown in my community to feed my family.”
Soon after the Mulkern’s relocation to rural Washington, a local family that owned Full Circle Farm began a farmers market delivery service. They used Mulkern’s home as a dropping point for weekly fresh veggies. Families would then stop by to pick up their produce.
Though Mulkern desperately wanted to tell the story of this innovative method of food delivery, it was the very beginning of blogging.
“I was so interested in highlighting these farms. But I couldn’t do it while working full-time as a consultant with two small kids,” she says. The drive to celebrate local food, however, never strayed far from Mulkern’s mind.
The seed had been planted. All she needed was the right time and environment for it to begin to grow.
The Female Farmer Project
When farmers markets began on the West Coast in earnest, Mulkern frequented many of them. She browsed the food and the goods farmers brought to the markets.
It was during one of these shopping expeditions that she had a realization. Every, single person behind the tables laden with healthy, beautiful, nutritious food was female. Once she saw it, she became fixated.
Why was every grower interacting with the public female?
She would wander through the various produce stalls and tables, listening as the women passionately explained to buyers where the came from and the farming practices that produced it.
Mulkern spent a lot of time visiting with market vendors in 2009 and 2010. Innately a people person, she was genuinely curious about how these women became involved in farming and how they strategically managed a farm, a family and often an off-farm job.
While getting to know the farmers, she began snapping pictures of their produce with her phone. “It’s art,” she says.
Mulkern loved to scroll back through the colorful photos she had taken and began to ponder how she could engage more people in discovering, and appreciating, the production of their food. “People have an appetite for understanding and appreciating their food,” she says.
She just had to figure out a way to harness this inquisitiveness.
Do Something About It
As Mulkern became more familiar with and vested in the regular vendors at the farmers markets, she couldn’t figure out why she still paid so much attention to gender of the vendors.
She asked an artist friend of hers, “Why am I paying so much attention to this? Why are there only women here?” He told her she needed to pursue it.
That reinforcement that she was on to something was just what Mulkern needed to hear. And The Female Farmer Project started to form.
“I learned that if I’m paying attention to something, I need to do something about it,” she says.
To offer images to better connect consumers to producers, Mulkern learned how to use a nice camera instead of just snapping shots on her phone. She took photography lessons from a girlfriend who encouraged her to tell a story through the images she took, not simply use them as supporting roles.
“I truly wanted it to feel like a tribute to farming. There’s heartbreak and hardships, rituals,” she says. “I wanted to show the grit and the grace through my imagery.”
Mulkern also took writing classes to ensure she could honor the stories she told. Along the winding path that The Female Farming Project has taken, Mulkern has met some of the most powerful, kind, endearing women whose stories are both triumphs and heart wrenching.
Her project expanded to encompass more volunteer team members and platforms in an effort to tell the stories as many places as she can.
A Project for Posterity
As Mulkern cultivated more stories, female farmers have begun to seek out her as well, to have their stories told.
“They are interviewing me as much as I was interviewing them,” she says. “I am really a traveling storyteller. I met them [the women] where they were.” This means a heavy reliance on social media to connect with women in various parts of the country and world.
“I wanted to build a platform where their stories could be heard,” she says. “It’s crucial that these stories not get lost. These women tell of their farming history if they are multigeneration farmers or explain what drove them to farming in the first place. No two stories are the same, yet each is important.
“The ability to record the unique reasons why these women feel so tied to the farm and the products it yields is important to understating how feelings toward farming have shifted and changed over time. While once seemingly dominated by large, corporate farms, many people now seek out small and midsized producers in an effort to feel more tied to food systems and life cycles.
“Listening to them explain why they farm is oral storytelling. My dream is to turn these interviews over to the Library of Congress or the new Smithsonian Women’s History Museum. The women who grew and labored over our food need to have their place in history.”
A Not-so Recorded History
Women have “counted” since the very first census in 1790. (It had only six questions!). But the type of information recorded about them—and their roles on- and off-farm—has changed.
The first six censuses recorded only the name of the head of household (typically male) and the number of people within the household. No other identifying data was recorded, including names.
Censuses also often overlooked the income-producing work women did, deeming it not of enough value to record. Much of the work women have done, including cleaning and assisting neighbors, piecework or taking in boarders, went unnoticed.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why women weren’t mentioned in agricultural chronicles. This despite the fact that they often worked side-by-side with their husbands and sons.
“If you aren’t counted, it’s incredibly hard to gain traction in an industry that is primarily dominated by men,” Mulkern says. Sadly, this glossing over of women’s past agricultural contributions has had lasting financial ramifications for female farmers.
“Many of the women I meet are first generation,” Mulkern says. “They didn’t inherit land from their dad. So they lease land as they start out and are reluctant to put major investments into infrastructure right away. They want funds to be able to invest in things that are portable, like wash stations and mobile processing units.
“These women tend to be polyculture [a form of agriculture where more than one species is grown in an effort to imitate natural ecosystem diversity]. So they aren’t heavily focused on one plant or product.”
Because of this, these women ask for bank loans much smaller than loans the larger farms seek. “Let’s say she goes in and asks for a $30,000 loan,” Mulkern says. “The banks are also dealing with the big guy who gets a $500,000 loan for seed. They [the banks] tell these women a $30K loan isn’t worth their time or that they don’t fund hobby farms.”
This difficulty in obtaining funding means towns and cities lose local businesses.
“It’s truly a missed opportunity,” Mulkern says. “These women would transfer skills and knowledge from one generation to the next,” but they find little to no support for their efforts.
Female farmers seek ways to diversify the economy and help the environment (all things a town should be supportive of), all while fulfilling a desire to get their hands dirty. Too often, though, they encounter nothing but resistance.
Another topic near and dear to Mulkern’s heart? Mental health, an issue The Female Farmer Project seeks to highlight.
Farm women face all the same issues male farmers do. But they have the added possibility of facing discrimination in everything from their funding source to their ability to purchase equipment necessary to run the farm.
Record debt, unpredictable weather and massively fluctuating crop prices leave many farmers feeling helpless. Add to this the isolation many farmers face and the invisible, unpaid labor many female farmers often shoulder (such as domestic duties and mothering) and it’s easy to see why some people reach a breaking point.
Two-thirds of female farmers work off-farm jobs in addition to their farm—not just for income, but for health care.
This is yet another reason The Female Farmer Project is so important. It connects farming women to each other. It lets them know that they aren’t alone, they are heard and they are seen.
The project recognizes and applauds their efforts to tend livestock, process meats and veggies, and nourish others.
Observable Common Traits
Women share some traits no matter their crop. “If you go back and look at the writings of poets and explorers, they focus on systems and how they [the people] hook into them—not conquering them,” Mulkern says. “It felt more like an observation of the system as a whole.”
It’s this quietness Mulkern sees in every female farmer she highlights. “Women farmers spend time just sitting with their herds. I have met women who sing to their tomatoes [and] listen to their livestock.
“Through that observation, they gain an intuition that often mirrors motherhood.”
Through the Female Farmer Project, Mulkern seeks to write women back into the agricultural history of the United States. Her project celebrates the integral roles they played and recognizes the important skills they employ to create a much-needed shift in the agricultural space.
You Can Nominate a Female Farmer!
The Female Farmer Project is a multiplatform documentary project that uses stories, essays, photos, social media and podcasts to tell the stories of women working in agriculture. A documentary titled Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers, is also in the works.
Do you know a farmer who would be a perfect fit for the Female Farmer Project? Mulkern and her team are always on the lookout for women who are making important change in the food system. Visit femalefarmerproject.org to nominate yourself or a female farmer to be featured, to write a guest essay or to be a guest on the podcast.
The Female Farmer Project can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and most podcast platforms.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.