The Female Farmers Who Feed and Clothe Us
Who grew your food?
Who grew your clothes?
If we are to create a more sustainable, just world, these are questions that we must be asking, and in honor of International Women’s Day, I would like to focus a little attention to the female farmers around the world who are responsible for both.
As the organization Fibershed recently wrote, “the land that feeds you, is the land that clothes you,” which is why if we are going to talk about where our food comes from, we have to talk about where our clothes come from as well. Just like it took a farmer to raise the ingredients that went into the meal on your dinner plate, it took a farmer to raise the fibers that went into your favorite t-shirt and your favorite pair of jeans.
Certainly, a t-shirt doesn’t grow straight from the ground, but neither does a complete meal, and there is an entire supply chain that needs to be engaged in order to bring about real change. “It is so important to have designers (chefs) and shops (markets/restaurants) dedicated to helping and participating, and that hopefully over time, the average customer will pay more for the materials so the farmer can focus on farming and cultivating the best materials,” Kristine Vejar, the author of The Modern Natural Dyer and owner of Oakland’s A Verb for Keeping Warm, pointed out to me for a piece I recently wrote about female farmers changing the fashion industry.
But it does after all begin with the farmer, and if we are to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues regarding sustainability, female farmers. Because supporting women farmers is a key to sustainable agriculture, and currently we’re not doing a good job of it.
“As women have won additional rights over the last 40 years, farm policy has ironically made it increasingly difficult for them to achieve financial independence through farming,” wrote Nathan Rosenberg in a blog post on NRDC’s Switchboard. “If we continue our current policy trajectory–in which only the largest farms provide a decent income–then we’re unlikely to ever see a significant increase in the number of truly independent female farmers.”
Rural women produce half of the world’s food, and if you focus on just developing countries, that number rises to 60 to 80 percent of food crops. That is why it is essential that agricultural investments support these farmers; if we empower female farmers we address food security. Women who produce our food, or grow our fibers, deserved to be paid a living wage for their work. Here in the United States, female farmers are leading the way in terms of growing organic and sustainable food, but men earn up to 17 times as much as their female colleagues. If we worked to get women get the same resources as male farmers around the world, we could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger.
There are many inspiring female farmers out there, from Annie Novak of Eagle Street Farm atop a rooftop in New York (if you’re interested in rooftop farming, check out her new book) to Annie Salafsky and Susan Ujcic of Helsing Junction Farm in my native Washington State, who have been running a CSA Food Bank Program since 2001, ensuring that as many people as possible in their community have access to real food.
In the sustainable fashion and fiber movement, women are also leading the way. Women like Rebecca Burgess, the founder of Fibershed, are challenging us to rethink local fibers and our clothing’s footprint. La Rhea Pepper, an organic cotton farmer in Texas who is also the founder of Textile Exchange, a nonprofit focused on growing sustainable practices in the textile industry, is shaking up an otherwise toxic industry.
We are what we eat and what we wear, and if we focus on one, we must focus on the other. All of these women, and many others, are a part of getting us to rethink our relationship to what nourishes us and what clothes us.
Around the globe, whether it’s for food or fashion, there are many agricultural initiatives to engage and empower women. In Africa, Cotton Made in Africa works directly with women, and women’s cooperatives, to adapt sustainable cotton production training specifically to their needs, and training female cotton farmers to become lead cotton farmers. The International Women’s Coffee Alliance works to empower women coffee producers.
But this is only the beginning, and we need more programs that focus on the agricultural gender gap.
Whether we’re producing food or fiber, or both, farming matters and if we want a more sustainable, more just system, we must advocate for women. We must advocate for real food, real clothes. If we can get behind those two things, and support women in the process, that’s how we can truly start a revolution.
Interested in learning more? Here are additional resources related to food, fashion and gender:
Made By Women: Gender, the Global Garment Industry and the Movement for Women Workers’ Rights– a publication produced by the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Female Farmer Project – documenting female farmers around the globe.
Women, Food and Agriculture Network– a community of women committed to sustainable agriculture.
9 Female Farmers Changing Fashion – a roundup of women in the U.S. who work in fiber, all contributing to a more sustainable world of textiles.
Women Forging Change with Agroecology – The topic of the latest issue of the magazine Farming Matters.
Organizations Advocating for Equality in Agriculture – A great list from Food Tank.
Image: Audra Mulkern/Female Farmer Project