Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Behind Every Good Farm” was written by Regina Beidler for the Spring 2006 edition of Rootstock.
Ask any school child to describe a farmer and you’re likely to hear of someone who cares for animals, drives tractors and is most often a man. However, since 1978 the number of women in agriculture has doubled. What are the roles of women on farms—and as the number of women farmers continues to grow, what impact will that have on the face of agriculture?
Women have always been integral in the lives of farms. Farming for many is more than a job; it’s a lifestyle that includes all the members of the family. Farming provides many opportunities for family members to work together, each taking on roles that display his or her particular interests and talents. I see this clearly reflected in my own family’s history.
I’m fortunate to come from a family of strong farm women. Both my mother and mother-in-law grew up on farms in Eastern Pennsylvania. My mother and her six siblings have begun to write about their memories growing up on the family farm including their memories of work. My grandparents farm raised beef, potatoes and tobacco for sale, and had a flock of hens for small scale egg production as well. Additionally, the family had several cows, other small livestock and a garden that all provided for the family’s own needs.
I asked my mother what specific memories she has of the roles that she, her sisters and mother took on the farm. She was quick to say that the work was very dependent on the season, and that everyone, men and women, assisted with all the tasks. At an early age the children were responsible for bringing feed and water to the peepy house where the young chicks began their life. Older chickens lived in portable rain shelters on pasture and also needed daily watering and feeding. By the time my mother was ten years old she was responsible for milking the cows, washing and grading eggs and assisting with unloading hay into the barn. The family planted between 15-30 acres of potatoes every year and at harvest time all the family members were expected to go pick up potatoes in the field behind the tractor that dug the potatoes from the ground. As a teenager, my mother transplanted young tobacco plants with her siblings and drove tractor when needed.
There is clear evidence of my mother’s upbringing to all who meet her today. She has a strong work ethic and a clear understanding of farming and food production. I have been surprised and impressed many times by her knowledge around topics as varied as equipment and cropping systems, and we have had the benefit of that as she works with us on some of the farm tasks we have on our own farm.
My husband’s grandmother has been a role model for many of the women in our extended family. She and her husband raised thirteen children on a 125 acre dairy farm. Grandma came from a family that dairy farmed, and she felt strongly that they too should dairy so that they could have the consistent income of a milk check. Her children talk about how much she loved animals on the farm and how much she enjoyed milking the cows. This family, too, had diverse animal populations in addition to the cows, including chickens, geese and sheep. All of these animals provided in some way for the family. Chickens produced eggs and meat; geese were watchmen heralding the approach of any car as well as providing down for pillows; sheep trimmed the edges of the fenceline and provided wool for blankets. Every year Grandma raised 100 turkeys which she sold at Thanksgiving and Christmas. This provided her with extra money to buy Christmas presents every year.
Grandma had tremendous resolve. At times, Grandpa would get frustrated with the farm and talk of selling the cows. Each time this happened, Grandma stood beside him, took on more of the milking and encouraged him so that the farm could continue.
As it ever was
“What do you do?” I’m often asked when people discover we live on a dairy farm. I explain that my husband and I work together caring for the cows, doing chores, cropping and taking care of the multitude of tasks that we face each day. What is more difficult to explain is that we are partners in the truest sense. Mutual encouragement, decision making and the sharing of a common life with our daughter are hallmarks of what we value about our life on the farm. Some of the joy of farming is having someone who shares it with you.
If women have always been so integral to farms, why is there increased attention to the number of women farmers today? A positive trend has emerged as the number of women who have decided to pursue farming on their own or who have taken over the primary responsibilities on farms continues to grow. Women from both farming and non-farming backgrounds see an opportunity to combine their values with a way of life, and in the process are pursuing a diverse and rich array of farming ventures. In many instances, these women value local food production and sustainable farming practices. These values are not particular to women, but add to the growing voice in agriculture that looks to influence the future in a positive way.
In his review of the book, Vermont Farm Women, Jeffrey Lent comments: “Implicitly, for generations farming women have enjoyed true equality, not only in work but also in the fortune and beauty as well as the grief and uncertainties of this life.” For those of us who live this life, that is truth.