I’m never quite sure what to say when people ask me what it’s like to be a woman in agriculture. It’s a lot of things; which, I imagine, is akin to being a man in agriculture. It’s all at once easy, difficult, tiring, exhilarating, thankless, rewarding, frustrating, motivating and… overall, kind of awesome. Sometimes it’s cold; sometimes it’s hot. It’s virtually always dirty.
The truth is, I don’t consider myself all that much different. It’s like when people ask me what it’s like to be a small farmer or an alternative farmer. There was a time when I was hyper aware of the ways in which I diverged from the majority, but as I’ve become more confident in myself, my grasp on this industry and my experience both in and outside of it, that hyper awareness has largely melted away.
Sure, sometimes it’s lonely. Being a female producer is different than being a farm wife or an agribusiness employee, and there are very, very few women who understand and can relate to that experience. Which means I don’t have the same community and camaraderie that my male counterparts do.
And sure, sometimes it’s infuriating when I’m obviously passed over because of my gender. I’ve had men enter the room, shake hands with every other man in the room and act as though I’m not even there. I’ve had men want to buy pork, but then insist I give them my husband’s phone number rather than just talk to me about it. I’ve had every head in the room snap around in shock when I’ve spoken up at conferences. I’ve been given detrimental advice that I know for sure would never have been given if I were male. And I’ve been ignored by vendors, even had them turn their back on me to address The Man, because they think I’m not a decision maker.
I don’t mean to discount any of the very real hurdles that stand in the way of female farmers in the developed world. I am, at times painfully, aware of them. But they’re an incredibly micro way to look at what it is I do.
I produce food in the best way I know, with the best resources I have, on the scale and in the way which works best for my situation. It’s what we all do.
Which is why I have a hard time answering this question. Because not only does focusing on those differences and difficulties rob focus from what I think is a very powerful similarity, it also vastly overplays their importance.
Because for every man who walks into a room and ignores me, there is always at least one who calls him out for it. For every close knit group of men I don’t quite fit in with, there is always at least one who goes out of his way to keep me in the loop. For every time heads snap around in shock that I am there and speaking up there is always at least one among them that comes up later and thanks me for saying what he’s been thinking. For every vendor that ignores me, there is a man who asks me again for the name of that vendor so he can avoid spending his money with them, too. For every man who insists on talking to someone else, there is The Man who tells him he’ll have to talk to me or go without.
And most of all, because for any given time I’m doubted I know I don’t have to scream about it from the rooftops. I can quietly do what I do and allow the work to speak for itself; it always does. Because while all of this is deeply cultural, it is not systemic.
I can own land and pigs and tractors. I can go to the bank and take out a loan. I can go to school, conferences, book stores, and consultants to further my education. If I reach out to an extension worker they will almost always give me the same time and effort they would my neighbor. And if there is legislation that is making it difficult for me to do business I can contact my elected officials and pressure them to do something about it. Which is not the case for too many female farmers around the world, even when they make up the majority.
I’m reminded of the 23 year-old daughter of one of the most wealthy men in her northern Tanzanian village, whose eyes lit up when asked about farming, who told me she loved growing crops more than anything, but whose face fell when she was asked if she would be able to continue farming their family land when her father was done with it. “No,” she answered. It would go to her brothers; brothers who didn’t even tend the crops now. Her father confirmed her assertions, laughed incredulously when asked what would happen to his daughters.
I’m reminded of the women’s honey-bee co-op in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, whose biggest triumph wasn’t the unbelievable feat they had accomplished simply by coming up with the money to begin their honey business, but in convincing their husbands that they could take the honey they produced to market themselves. Marketing a product they funded and produced themselves was not a given, it was a privilege.
And I’m reminded of the Tanzanian Minister of Agriculture’s pompous and self-righteous response when questioned about what would happen to what he called he and his wife’s family farm if he died or they were divorced. (Note: if you ask a high-ranking African politician what would happen if he were theoretically divorced everyone in the room will gasp. It’s taboo; I didn’t care.) In true political form, with many more, and very vague terms, he told me that she would get nothing. Systemic oppression of women isn’t contained to only those who are poor.
So I guess, if you really want to know what it’s like for me to be a woman in ag, the answer is not all that difficult: it’s a lot of things, but mostly it’s filled with opportunity.
Opportunity to do what I love without systemic road blocks in my way, and opportunity to use my voice and experiences to help those for whom being a woman in ag is infinitely harder. By 2050, we will need to feed a world population of more than 9 billion people. A major part of accomplishing that feat will be through helping farmers in developing nations learn to produce food in the best way we know, with the best resources we have, on the scale and in the way which works best for their situation. But it’s a powerful similarity we will only be able to share if more than half the agricultural workforce isn’t prevented from accessing land, stock, crop inputs, resources and education.
So I guess, if you really want to know what it’s like for me to be a woman in ag on this International Women’s Day, I will say, it’s not too bad. And if you could help me make it not too bad for millions of other women in ag, I’d be most appreciative. It doesn’t cost a dime.