Is it time for a new definition of “farmer”? Or just some recognition?
In Post #2 in this series, we heard from women on the reasons why they don’t use the term “farmer”.
Many women told me that they aren’t a farmer because they don’t own land, machinery or animals. Or because they do only a small portion of the total farm work required. Others have said their off-farm career or role as a mother takes precedence.
But why can’t women use multiple labels? Why are there so many real or perceived restrictions around using the term “farmer”?
Gender plays a role
Personally, I think gender does play a role in how women use labels that have been traditionally reserved for men, and a few women pointed to gender norms and expectations (past and present) as a reason why women choose the terms they do.
“I feel that women in general do not get the support, wages, or recognition they truly deserve, thus, by me stating I consider myself a farmer it shows some recognition in hopes other women will come forward as well to identify as farmers. Women have been doing a very significant amount of farm work with no recognition for generation, and only now are they being 'counted' and included. But we can't be included if we don't speak up.” - PJ Bailey
“I was raised in a very traditional Mennonite family, and both my parents worked very hard on our farm. My dad has always used "we" when talking about farming. For example, he would say "We brought the corn in," even though it was he who did the combining. But, I know he valued and appreciated all the things my mum did so that he could get into the field. I remember coming across some awards for hog production in the 80's. Two were awarded to just my dad, but the third had both their names on it, and I think that was my dad wanting again to acknowledge that they were partners in farming. My husband was also raised in a traditional Mennonite family. The situation there was different in that the women in his family were not really recognized as being part of the farm. My husband has always been very respectful and appreciative of what I do, but I have felt like an outsider, as he farmed with his dad, who operated with these traditional views. 20 years later, as my father-in-law has stepped away from farming and my husband is calling the shots, things are shifting in terms of us getting to "we are in this." I should have advocated for myself better within my extended family. It's just that it after so many years of being considered "the help," the new title feels awkward, and I guess I need to embrace the fun fact that I was born a farmer and have always been one! Just need to get that message to the little voice in my head that says I should defer to the men!” – Shelley Ann Enns
“Generally speaking, women have played major roles in family farm businesses for generations. In my opinion, they have not identified as farmers because it wasn't the social norm for women to be known beyond the wife and mother roles related to family. This went on in careers outside of agriculture as well. Now, as more women make the choice to farm, those who are already on farms will think about how they identify within their farm business. It empowers them to value their role on the farm and to see themselves as farmers.” – Joan Craig (I feel the need to point out that Joan is my mom since our opinions are so aligned – I am my mother’s daughter I guess.)
An ever-expanding job description
Joan also pointed out that our definitions of a farmer are evolving beyond the traditional image of a farmer in, let’s say, 1950. Today, while some farms are moving to a more corporate model there are people choosing to hobby farm or start their own backyard gardens, chickens, etc. There are also urban farmers and farmers who must work off the farm to earn supplemental income. The definitions aren’t cut and dry.
The job description of a farmer is also much more complicated and demanding than ever before, but society (including the agricultural industry) hasn’t been fast to update the job descriptions beyond tending to animals and crops.
Like any business owner and entrepreneur, the “other duties as assigned” requirements are ever-expanding. Here are a couple of reflections from women I spoke to:
“I think the term encompasses so much more now than it ever did too. The business of farming is so much more now than sitting on a tractor, or milking cows and planting grain.” – Katie Keddy
“I try to encourage other women to own the "farmer" thing. I think we're game changers when it comes to the success of our industries. The connection between women and the buying and preparation of food is huge. We need to connect that to the families/people that produce the food and I think women farmers can play a unique and important role in that.” – Sarah Sache
“I do the books for the businesses, I bring meals to the field when needed, I will feed calves when everyone is busy in the field, and my income is needed to allow for our farming operation to be as successful as it is. However, even as I write this I can’t seem to convince myself that I should add farmer to my title; I assist in some duties around the farm. The odd part is, if another woman whom had a similar role to me introduced themselves as a farmer, I would not think twice about if they should use that name in their title. I would think, yes absolutely.” – Alisha Doan
Do titles even matter?
I think Shelley Ann, sums up the importance of the terms we choose for ourselves in how we influence the next generation of farmers:
“I had a career in the ag industry before my husband and I had kids. I've since quit that job to do all kinds of jobs that the farm couldn't function without, but still haven't called myself a farmer. Only recently, when my growing children tell their friends I’m ‘Just stay at home’ have I realized they have no idea at all what it takes to keep a farm running smoothly. I do want my kids to know that they can be farmers if they want! I have 2 girls and a boy, and they need to understand that we work as a unit here; we are all farmers.” – Shelley Ann Enns
Beyond the influence of children, I think titles also have an important influence on our own self-image.
I know in my own work (off a farm), job titles do often matter in how we view ourselves and how others treat us. Many of my friends and colleagues have negotiated title changes without a significant salary increase because of the weight they placed on that recognition.
What if more women called themselves farmers?
It seems to me that agriculture is a bit of an exclusive club with rules of admittance. We each set individual parameters on who should get to call themselves a farmer: how much time they need to invest or make in profit, how many acres they need to own, what type of farming is actual farming.
There is a real sense that the label “farmer” is something women and men have to earn. But we don’t have a good goal post, and it seems that as an industry we often end up disempowering people by restricting their use of terms, rather than broadening the options.
I would argue that an industry as small as agriculture should enable more and more people to use the term “farmer” rather than restrict its use. With empowerment and emotional investment comes confidence and advocacy. Something most would agree agriculture needs more of.
Changing our own internal dialogue is hard, but we often tend to be better at identifying and encouraging the strengths in others. So, let’s work at enabling people, especially women, to use whatever terms they want and acknowledge them when they aren’t giving themselves the credit they are due. In turn, we’ll hopefully have more women identifying as farmers and an industry that’s better at acknowledging the significant contribution these women make.