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 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 Accomplished, 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 its 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.