Reconsidering the family farm as a feminist farmer

I have spent a decade celebrating and defending the family farm – usually in the service on anti farm consolidation or systemic inequalities (economic in nature) in our agricultural system. At a base level I am still in love with most of those ideals and believe strongly in justice that they should bring. However in the wake of crisis I am questioning the assumptions of equality on a personal level. The political is personal and the personal is political and patriarchy and systemic family exploitation (in a negative way) are also embedded in family farm culture.

The beliefs - I do believe we should have system of distributed wealth on the land and everywhere in our society. I believe safe and just food is more likely to occur from a broad network of farms not single entities and I believe this throughout the food system from input suppliers to meat processors.  I believe intergenerational support and work can be wonderful and is sometimes necessary (although passing on “womens work” to grandma might be a bit insulting to expect). I should say that I would like to live in a world where a family can provide the majority of all labor on the farm – including emotional, parenting, household, physical, and distribution and marketing work. I want prices paid to farmers to be good enough that we can have lazy days and choose to let 300 kohlrabi die when the irrigation stops working because we want to stay at a lake with our kids. The problem with this ideal is that it currently requires too much of women who want to farm.

The assumption that family farming is both internally and externally just in its basic form is problematic at best. While many family farms means broadly distributed wealth the family farm also is a formulation that brings with it the baggage of individual families and often in farm patriarchal systems of abuse of people and animals. Even in everyone’s favorite  Laura Engle Wilder book “Farmer Boy” there is a level of abuse and violence as part of daily life that lives on in family farms today partially because they are independent of normal work HR departments or bureaucratic worker protections. Family farms can be beautiful for children and do teach the value of hard work but often the focus on work within the real consolidating capitalist agricultural system replaces childhood learning and exploration and can be stifling making children’s needs come last. I realize now that talking about the problems of the family farm cannot and should not undermine questions of justice but is essential toward actually realizing justice (ignorance is not bliss).

Like the well trained sociological Marxist that I am I continue today to believe that economic inequality is the root of many of society’s ills but I also as a feminist and anti racist and now a rural dweller understand how many systems of inequality intersect to create forms of power that are more than just economic. Like many of my ah-ha moments over the past year I have realized that gasp .. these aren’t just academic understandings… they are personal. Sexism and misogyny are embedded in the family farm  – in some strange ways I was personally fighting fights of the 1950s at home while also touting an ivy league education, a graduate degree and honestly running the emotional and physical wheels of the farm. Lots of articles have concluded that it is impossible to “have it all” without losing your shit as a woman in modern society. I would posit that trying to do it on a farm is even crazier. I have not one friend who tried to hold down a 50-80 hour a week job with three kids with her with no childcare, and to clean to house during breaks. There is something specific about how the farm demands certain sacrifices historically that also allows people to sacrifice far more than they should – especially women. Life is crazy with kids but it is even crazier when you are trying to do intense physical labor while managing the emotional needs of a family and farm crew with a three yearold on your back and a baby nursing you… and unfortunately that is so not an exaggeration. In fact I have strangely fond memories of riding on a waterwheel transplanter with a tractor with no creeper gear (meaning I had to work insanely fast) pregnant and nursing a 2 year old. I liked feeling like superwoman but also maybe this situation shouldn’t be structurally required by the family farm.

The family farm in all its historical glory is unfortunately embedded in systemic patriarchy more so than other forms of work because the lines between spousal and intergenerational relationships, work and household are so tightly bound. In many ways this produces the possibility for something beautiful and supportive… BUT it also reproduces and powerfully pushes people into roles and behaviors that can be damaging because of the power of the beautiful images. Fighting for equality in basic ways, farm work not being one of them, was part and parcel to my life on a family farm. My house was never clean enough, I was never the mother I wanted to be, I sure as hell wasn’t the wife others wanted me to be, my cooking was rushed, bed times and meals chaos, and downtime was not a reality. I worked to avoid accusations of not working and worked to avoid the other responsibilities I didn’t want (like mopping the floor or feeding 12 people lunch). The issue with the family farm’s work cycles (no seperation between home and office and field) is also complicated by the fact that I love farm work. I love weeding. I love being outside, I love farm crew folks, I love team work and beautiful vegetables. So we have a system where escape into work is the only justifiable escape.


So how do we think about justice with or without the symbol of the family farm. As an ideal type or model for work the family farm has some important features – the biggest one being that many small businesses on farms create a diversity of land management and care that lessens negative environmental impacts on the land. You have more kids in schools, a group of farmers to cooperate and care of each other and to support local businesses. These are all great things. You have people who take care of the land because its productive capacity not just speculation on value underpins their livelihood… I also tend to think smaller scale agriculture is a kinder form of agricultural on people and the land. Small scale, many farms, reasonable prices and living these are ideals.

How does this intersect with family – I have to say there is so much to write here If we are heterosexual we need spouses who are entirely comfortable with us not being the symbols of the family farm but being farmers ourselves. We need the notion of the family in family farm to include LGBTQ families and permutations of family that are entirely intergenerational, do not include children, or include chosen not just biologically created family. We need women to understand and provide less emotional responsibility and a system that supports us leaving it to adults to take care of themselves in all ways from wearing sunscreen to handling frustrations in the field. We need psychological care. We need honest mansplaining-free training. Stacey my neighbor and I have been talking about putting together a series of workshops for new and continuing farmers focused on power tools, guns and butchering, tractors operation and repair, “hard farming skills” because may of us learn from horrible teachers with family baggage on unsafe and semi functional machines – and when men see women flounder they often push to take over rather than encourage them as they would another man.

In short - Equality means lobbying for reasonable policies and supports for childcare (rural pre-school not just semisketchy in home daycare), subsidized after school activities and rural transportation for kids under 16, universal healthcare so we can farm without another job, educational support focused on hard skills for and by women, free and farm calendar possible self-care activities from yoga to therapy and meditation, well trained farm sitters, great housekeepers.

And on a personal level, I still fantasize about farming with a partner in life and love, which in my case means a certain reincarnation of the family farm but perhaps a more conscious enlightened one. I want to date (maybe even marry) and farm with someone who is a feminist in their daily actions. I want a farm partner – life partner because I want to share that most beautiful portion of life with. I also need a “farm wife” and by that I mean a personally and state sponsored team of people to support me.