Gender Equality and Sustainable Food: The Power of Women Farmers
Say the word “farmer” and who do you think of?
A man in Carhartts?
Well, it’s time to start rethinking the farmer image, because when it comes to sustainable agriculture, women are a big part of our future.
While globally agriculture is a male-dominated industry, there are a lot of women, and those women are the answer to questions of food justice and food security. In the developing world, women make up about 43 percent of the agricultural labor force – and they are responsible for 60-80 percent of food production in these areas – but a serious gender gap still exists because in many cultures, women are barred from land rights. Focusing on women’s rights and gender equality in these areas will not only benefit women, but the food system as well.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), if women had the same access to resources for production and marketing of crops as their male counterparts, they could increase agricultural yields by 20-30 percent. That’s enough to pull somewhere between 100 and 150 million people out of hunger.
In the U.S., while between 1982 and 2007, the USDA’s Economic Research Service found that the number of women-operated farms had more than doubled, there’s still a gender gap. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, 86 percent of the 2.1 million people responsible for day-to-day operations of farms are men. But there are more women coming to the farming world, and in a time when the total number of farms is declining, the number of women-owned farms and women farmers is on the rise. Today women make up about 30 percent of all U.S. farmers – and often, they take a more sustainable approach. Which means that when we think about a more sustainable world of food, not just at home, but globally, we have to be thinking about women.
And if we are going to think about women, then we have to start seeing them too. Audra Mulkern of the Female Farmer Project knows all about that. A talented, self-taught photographer, a couple of years ago, Mulkern decided to launch a projected devoted to documenting the world of women farmers. Inspired by the women farmers in her local Snoqualmie Valley, Mulkern has set out to tell the stories of female farmers. “I noticed over a couple of seasons of visiting farmers markets and farms that there was a marked increase in female interns. I started asking around and decided it was a story I needed to tell,” says Mulkern. Since launching the project, she has photographed women farmers in five different countries, becoming a big advocate for sustainable agriculture and food justice along the way.
As The Female Farmer Project’s About section states, Mulkern works to “share the stories of women farmers who are tasked with family, farm, and often an outside job, and are creating change in our food systems.” That’s an important factor to consider, especially when it comes to thinking about ways that we can better support the food system. These women, while playing an important role in bringing food to their communities, still face inequalities.”The women I meet talk about experiencing increased scrutiny over their operations as well as their inability to secure loans or grants because small women farms are considered ‘hobbies,’” says Mulkern.
Some of that may come down to our gendered thinking about farming. We’re back to the man in the Carhartt’s. For example, Beef Magazine (yes, that’s a thing) recently asked its community if it saw a problem with the term ‘farmer’s wife’. 79 percent of the people polled saw no problem at all.
What’s great about the work that Mulkern does, as well as other advocates for women farmers like the site Pink Tractor, is that it works to bring a face to farming, to show that it’s not just men. Because ultimately, farm work isn’t a man’s or a woman’s job. “Farming means a lot of things – but it always come down to stewardship. Farmers are stewards of the soil, seed and sea,” says Mulkern. “I’m always interested in finding the stories of those farmers. The ones who put more back in than they take. The provide sustenance to us, and to the earth.”
As Mulkern points out, for a sustainable future, we need to be seriously thinking about where our food comes from and whose growing it, and that means thinking of a diverse production system, she says. “One thing is for sure, we need more farmers and we need more gender and racial diversity.”
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