A Woman’s World

Throughout my life I have often engaged in activities that are stereotypically male. Silly things like playing the trumpet. Why are the vast majority of trumpet players men? There’s nothing inherently masculine about the trumpet. Or things I can’t help like having a low voice which puts me in the tenor section of the choir. Other things I chose like playing on the boys lacrosse team in high school. And of course, my two chosen professions – ministry and farming – are overwhelmingly filled with men. Despite my buzzed hair and preference for men’s jeans (it’s mostly about the pockets!) I identify as a woman 100% and feel great frustration that the these activities and vocations I engage in are so difficult for women to gain a foothold.

 
Of my two professions, farming is by far the more difficult to navigate as a woman. Mostly it is little things like men asking to deal with my husband when arranging work, customers at the market who don’t know me yet ask if my husband is the farmer, men loading my truck with manure feel compelled to caution me that my truck will get dirty (conversely, women who load my truck never say this).

 
To be honest, there are physical limitations. I’m not ashamed to admit that in general the men I know are physically stronger and bigger than I am. I have never been blessed with much upper body strength. Most farm equipment is designed with these bigger, stronger men in mind. It doesn’t mean I can’t handle it, but it does mean I have to work differently. Bones is genius at coming up with mechanical solutions to aid our lack of brute force – pulleys and levers abound around here. We use round fence posts as rollers to move heavy objects. Ramps to push things up onto the truck. I can’t easily change out large implements on the tractor by myself or muscle a large tiller through unbroken ground. I can’t physically restrain a large animal or grab a 100 pound pig and toss it in the trailer. I can’t wield a large chainsaw and my shoulders can usually only last through one tank of gas wielding the weed whacker.

 

All of that means I have to work differently. The mechanical aids are wonderful, but it is more about being gentle. I use a smaller, walk behind tractor called a BCS. The implements are smaller so I can manage most of them. Even then, I try to use it sparingly. The rotary plow opens up new ground for making garden rows, but after that I use a broadfork each time I prep the row for planting rather than tilling. I can’t muscle my animals, so I spend a lot of time getting to know them, making sure they are comfortable with me, knowing their needs and natures. When it is time to move them, they need to move on their own, willingly, where I want them to go. Mostly this means leading them with a bucket of grain and a gentle call. When I need to load them on the trailer, again, grain and some gentle prodding, aided by them being familiar enough with the trailer to make it easy for them to willingly enter. Smart men do these things too, but my lack of brute force ability means I don’t have a choice.

 
The most challenging part of farming as a woman though is not being taken seriously. Part of it is because I farm differently than the large-scale, conventional farmers around me. The folks at the feed store, the farm service agency, the local suppliers and contractors don’t view me as a real farmer. My questions and ideas are dismissed. About two years in, I had a guy from NRCS come out to look at our place and help us come up with a conservation plan. As we walked around the farm I shared with him my dreams and plans for the operation. He dismissed most of them, not outright, not with hostility, but in subtle, dismissive comments about how that wouldn’t work here, or that I’m taking on more than is practical. The only project he approved was a high tunnel installation. He had to come back to inspect the high tunnel after its installation to approve the distribution of funds. In that year and a half since he’d been there I had implemented a number of the projects he was so dismissive of, even without their funding. A friend later told me that when he came to their place a couple of weeks later he commented on how I was the hardest working farmer he knew.

 
I have heard this time and again. Now several years in, folks come out to visit our place and marvel at the work that we have done here. So many admit that when they first heard our plans they didn’t think we could do it. Part of that is a reflection on our not having been farmers prior to moving here, but there’s also the reality that they wouldn’t have had the same feeling if I were a man. I take the compliment about how much I’ve Aaccomplished, but I also feel the undercurrent, the doubt that exists. As a woman, I have to prove myself above and beyond to be taken seriously as a farmer.

 

The lectionary text for this past week included Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen, a decidedly feminine image, especially given it’s juxtaposition with Herod as a fox. In the face of death threats and violence, Jesus chose to describe the Divine as a loving, vulnerable embrace. The opposite of what one would expect. And he did this often, upended the expectation, turned the imagery inside out to show us a better way.

 

I’m not saying that female farmers are better. I know some pretty awesome male farmers. But perhaps, looking at the ways we female farmers upend the expectations and approach farming with a wholly different stance might open up the agricultural world to new ways of feeding and caring for this world.

Touch

KIMG1955

It happens every time, I schedule all the pigs of market weight (225-250) to go to the butcher on the same day. Usually that’s around 4-5 pigs. We talk big about getting them familiar with the trailer and easy to load, but loading day always seems to catch us by surprise. I’ll save the crazy loading stories for another day, but the result is almost always the same – we fail to load all the pigs. This last time one female got left behind. I’ll call her Miss Piggy. I considered just keeping her, adding another sow to our breeding program, but that didn’t really fit with my plans. I rescheduled Miss Piggy for three weeks later at the butcher and left her in the pen by herself. Something you should know about pigs is they hate to be alone. The next morning I found her in the pen with Wendell, Mickey and their piglets. Not wanting her to get pregnant, I moved her to a pen well away from Wendell. She stayed put for about 2 days before I could tell she was getting antsy to find some fellow porcine friends. About that time the piglets, now just over 2 months old, kept escaping from mama’s pen. Knowing it was pointless to try to make them stay put, I decided they must be done nursing and opted to lock them in the chicken coop for a short time while I figured out a better plan for them. Miss Piggy must have smelled them nearby and decided she could no longer be alone. She busted out of the pen where I was keeping her. When I went to feed the piglets in the morning, I found her lounging outside the coop. As I opened the door to feed them she rushed in as well. I left the feed bucket and went to get more feed, resigned to just leaving her with the piglets. When I returned, rather than joining in the tussle of the morning feed, she was snoozing contentedly while piglet after piglet climbed all over her. She was starving for the touch and companionship of another pig.

 

This morning I could hear Jake coughing heavily from his bedroom. It was still too early to wake him, but I went up to check on him anyway. The poor guy was restless from coughing and breathing heavy from a fitful night of sleep. I laid down with him, elevating his head against my chest and wrapping him tightly in my arms. His coughing stopped and slowly the pace of his breathing changed to match mine. As I felt his body relax into my embrace, I thought of Miss Piggy and the desire for touch and companionship. I also thought of those who don’t get to experience a loving touch. How hard it must be to go through life without that closeness to another or worse, to only experience abusive touch.

 

The stories of Jesus healing the lepers comes to mind. Jesus reaching out to touch another, violating the norms and even religious laws of his time. Which was the greater healing – the healing of the leprosy through the divine touch or the restoring of dignity and humanity through a simple human touch? I know where Miss Piggy comes down on that question, the hunger of her belly could wait until the hunger for companionship had been sated.

The Weight of Snow

I wrote this after a big snow before Christmas.

We got almost of foot of snow yesterday. The kids and Bones were both delighted as the snow brings fun and time off from school and work. I’m not a fan. Freezing temps alone make caring for the critters harder. Their water needs refreshing throughout the day either by breaking the ice on the surface or hauling water in buckets from the house. Most of the critters also hate the snow. They hide in their huts, shivering and crying for more hay and bedding. Since the ground is covered, they can’t graze or root around for acorns, so I fork hay into their pens and bring them extra grain to stay warm. A light dusting of snow isn’t a big deal, but trudging through almost a foot of snow carrying five gallon buckets full of water is no small feat.

 
Last night, as it began to get dark and the snow turned over to sleet, I became worried about the high tunnel plastic giving way under the weight of snow. We ran a small propane heater in the tunnel hoping the little bit of heat would encourage some shedding of snow from the tunnel’s peak. It was moderately successful at shedding from the lowest parts of the tunnel, but the peak was heavy with snow. Just minutes earlier I watched as our wash station roof (admittedly poorly constructed) collapsed under the weight of wet snow. I didn’t want to see our $10,000 tunnel follow suit. So, with a long pole covered in some cushioning at the very end, I set about knocking the snow off the tunnel. Standing inside I could reach all the way to the 15 ft peak with the pole and shake the plastic enough to get the snow moving. Big swaths of snow cascaded off the tunnel creating huge piles on either side. Inside, the warmth of the heater had created a layer of condensation on the plastic which rained down on me with every thrust of my pole. It took over an hour to shake down the bulk of the snow weight. Soaking wet from the condensation rain and my arms shaking with exhaustion, I finally had to concede that I couldn’t get all the snow off. Perhaps I had lessened the weight enough to prevent collapse. We left the heater running, hoping to keep the sleet from forming a sheet of ice on the tunnel overnight. The next morning, the tunnel was still standing and most of the remaining snow had slid off in the night, its way paved by the clearing I had done.

 
Every weekend Bones asks me if I have anything on my list to get done on the farm over the weekend. I always respond that there is always something on my list. I can’t imagine that my farm to do list will ever be complete. Completion isn’t even really the goal. Each season brings a new set of chores, a new project, a new harvest. Every season has more work than I can accomplish. In many ways, farming is an exercise in becoming comfortable with the incompleteness of the world. I keep a to do list, because it keeps me focused, not because I have any hope of crossing off every item. Today, my list contains an array of building projects and fencing repairs that I put off till winter. But there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ll have to wait while I spend more time with tending the animals, knock the snow off the high tunnel, and bake some cookies with my kids. I could feel anxious about all the things I can’t do today, but that does me no good and the job still can’t be done. The truth is, it will never all be done.

 
Meanwhile, clergy friends of mine just went down to the border to provide support and advocacy for the migrant caravan. I have watched their actions online. Leaving home, spouses, children, jobs, they put themselves in danger to stand up for the most marginalized among us. I watch their actions with a mix of admiration, grief and guilt. Should I go too? Should I be putting myself on the line like that, using my voice and my body to stand up for another? But who would take care of my animals? Who would feed and water them in this storm? Who would keep my high tunnel from collapsing? Who would tend my kids?

 
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I think about the enormity of the world’s problems. I want to be engaged in making the world a better place. That’s why I farm. That’s why I am in ministry. That’s why I am involved in my community. I can’t do it all though. You can’t do it all. I take comfort and encouragement in this passage from the Talmud.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From The Talmud, 303.

 

I am responsible for the things in my sphere of influence. Raising my kids to be thoughtful, faithful, engaged citizens of this world. Tending the critters and land in my care in a way that honors the them, conserves energy, regenerates the landscape, and provides healthy food for my community. Sharing what I know about how to grow food, how to feed people, how to care for our earth through a more gentle and respectful form of agriculture. Feeding people in my community both in body and in spirit. Being an engaged member of this small town, rural community where I live, supporting the business and individuals here, participating in the civic life to help improve conditions for my neighbors, supporting the school system, being a voice for those on the margins of this community. These are the weights I can bear, the weights I can work to relieve. Focusing on this does not relieve me of caring about the world, of being informed and engaged, of providing financial support to organizations of individuals working in other areas. It is however, the work I can do, the work I am called to do. My producing food allows another to focus on the work of advocacy. Sometimes I look at my fellow clergy folks who put their bodies on the front line at the border, in protests, on the streets, on the steps of our nation’s capital and I feel a twinge of guilt that I am not there. The truth is, I put my body on the line every day. I put it on the line of producing good, clean food. I put it on the line of feeding my community. I put it on the line of standing up for those on the margins of this community. I put it on the line of providing support and comfort and hope to those around me. We need each other and all the ways each of us puts ourselves on the front lines each day.