There she is

Female farmers gain visibility

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Peter Butler

On any given day, Becky Ravenkamp wakes up and checks the weather. She analyzes it carefully, taking note of fog or moisture, because one of her jobs is to decide whether or not to change the days’ plans. Too wet and they can’t harvest the crops. Too hot and they can’t run some of the heavy machinery.

At Ravenkamp Farms in Hugo, Colorado, Ravenmkamp is a farmer. After checking the weather and coordinating her plans with her husband, his uncle and the other farm hands, she gets her kids up and ready for school, checks email, checks on the cows, drives an empty semi-truck to the harvesting field and trades it for the full truck, drives the filled truck back. She’ll weigh the truck, start the tractor to run the auger, unload the semi-truck of grain, weigh the truck. She’ll use the skid steer to move totes of grain into the shed or onto a waiting truck to be shipped. Then she’ll head back to the field, move the harvesting equipment to a new field, stay there, run the grain cart until around 9 p.m. before jumping on the next truck back home to check on the kids, eat supper, fix something to put in the slow cooker for the next day, clean the house, check emails. Gets ready to do it again tomorrow.

Ravenkamp is one of over 20,000 female farmers in Colorado, a number that has been rising across the Centennial State for the past two decades, at least according to the National Census of Agriculture, which reported a 39 percent increase between 1997 and 2002

But many, including Ravenkamp, are skeptical about the perceived increase in the number of women farming, which, at the outset, seems like a triumphant applause in the context of the traditional image of women relegated to household domestic work.

The truth is, women have been farming alongside men, toiling through long, sun-drenched days, lifting heavy loads and taking care of crops and animals, plus children, since the prehistoric Agricultural Revolution that transformed Southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent.

“Even pioneer women always worked along their husbands to get work done, because there was so much work that had to be done on the farm,” Ravenkamp explains. The traditional masculine farming stereotype, she says, wasn’t necessarily cemented until the 1900s, as the dawn of advertising creeped above the cornfield horizon and the white male riding his industrial tractor stole the show.

From there, “Social norms, chivalry, nostalgia and historic record created and kept ‘man’ as the farmer image,” Ravenkamp says.

According to the 2012 Agriculture Census, 30 percent of farmers across the nation are women, with some states like Arizona boasting almost half, but, as Ravenkamp says, “Statistics can be shades of gray. For example, look at who’s name is on the land title. Not all women are listed, so even if they’re working just as much or more than the husband or man, it might not be known.”

The census’ large jump from 1997 to 2002 can likely be attributed to a change in 2002, when the census included room for multiple people to claim ownership and operation rather than just one. For the first time, this enabled the majority of farms run by a man-and-woman partnership to officially acknowledge the woman’s role in farming operations. 

Kate Petrocco, a farmer at Petrocco Farms in Brighton, Colorado, with 10 years of experience managing the family’s operations, wants to challenge the “traditional ‘farmer image’— a single guy up at 4 a.m. with a pitchfork,” she says.

“That harkens to children’s books, when people are first forming their ideas of what it’s like to be a farmer. Women farming is nothing new, but no one cared before.”

The ideation of the one-man farmer isn’t helping the woman-farmer’s case, and according to Petrocco it is also counterproductive when trying to understand where food comes from. “People will come to our farm and take pictures of my father-in-law, who looks like a farmer with a straw hat and a button up shirt, but what they don’t see are the 300 people that come to work everyday that feed, weed, harvest the crops that allows my father-in-law to farm because we have so much acreage.”

She adds, “I’ve had kids come to the farm for tours and burst into tears because I don’t wear overalls.”

For Ravenkamp, the recent appearance of significantly more woman farmers shouldn’t be perceived so much as triumphant, but perhaps as missing the point. She believes the acclaim should also be directed toward the generations of women who kept their roots fiercely tied to the land, even as the glory was constantly diverted to men.

Kayann Short, author of A Bushel’s Worth and operator of Stonebridge Farms, Boulder County’s first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, echoes both Ravenkamp and Petrocco’s sentiments and skepticism.

Short reckons two recent shifts in agriculture practice and theory have moved the spotlight away from the male-dominated image of agriculture, making it appear as though there are more women. First, she credits the return to smaller scale farming after the industrial, mono-crop boom, and second, to advancements in farming technology.

“Women have been involved in agriculture for along time in this country,” Short says. “But the shift [to the male-dominated image] came when agriculture became industrialized and mechanized, and farms became farms focused on exports, a way that was very divorced form the consumers of those agricultures.”

Women, Short says, were never as interested in mono-cropping or industrial farming as men, so when agriculture shifted toward large-scale operations, many women stayed at their family-style farms. This helps explain why the average woman-operated farm today is still about a third the size of male-operated farms, according to the 2012 Agriculture Census.

“It’s a question of scale as much as anything,” Short explains. “I don’t know any women farmers who aren’t organic farmers. This ethic of service and farming for service instead of for production is where you find women farming coming from.”

Smaller farms, those typically run by women, rarely rely on high-cost advertising because local farms can often survive simply via word of mouth. Larger industrial farms, typically run by men, can produce extensive advertising campaigns, which in turn have the potential to disseminate the image of the masculine, all-male farming team across a broad range of viewers.

In this way, the woman-as-farmer image has stayed relatively free from the national agriculture limelight as the man-as-farmer became standardized, cemented in children’s books and TV commercials.

As push-back against industrialization and mono-cropping ensued, family-style farms have slowly made their comeback and CSA programs have popularized. This has brought the image of the woman farmer out into the public, perhaps for the first time.

Add to that the farm-to-table movement and, “People [are growing] more invested in where their food comes from, they want to know the backstory behind it all,” Petrocco says. And a lot of the time, that answer is going to be: women.

This feminist inertia has been amplified by innovations in farm technology, which has changed the scope of women’s ability to do more physical tasks.

“Less need for physical force allows more petite women to do those kinds of jobs,” Ravenkamp says. “When I was growing up, we used small 50-pound hay bales to feed our cattle. We’d pick them up … and move them ourselves, stack them, and feed our cattle. My grandma — 90 pounds soaking wet — I never saw her chuck a bale. I don’t even know if she could have. On our farm today, we use a loader to pick up 1,500-pound loads of hay and feed our cattle that way. If my grandma were still alive today, she’d be able to feed them.”

She adds, “Technology added efficiency to man hours, meaning farms could rely less on manpower. So then the men would continue to do the work in the field, but it freed women up to also go inside. And you can’t forget that work inside the home is just as important for a household farm to run.”

Alongside the shift toward family-style, localized farming systems and technological innovations, Ravenkamp believes that time will also help the case for women famers.

“As the age of farmers changes, things will naturally change,” she says. “The young men that are graduating high school now are growing up with the [21st century] mentality that girls can do what boys do. So as those young men and women enter into agriculture, I think that old, traditional mentality will naturally phase out. When I was young I heard other men make comments to my dad about how I wasn’t a man, but I don’t hear people talk that way about my daughters now. And this isn’t necessarily unique to agriculture.”

Meagan Schipanski, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s department of Soil and Crop Sciences, agrees. “In terms of the student body,” she says of the agriculture classes she teaches at CSU, “At least 50 percent are women.” In fact, women’s enrollment in the soil and crop sciences degree program jumped from 29 percent in 2010, to 45 percent last year.

“Still, if you go to a crop consulting meeting, you still see mostly men. But there are still more women than before,” she admits. “But, as someone who does do a lot of crop research with mostly male farmers, there has been nothing but respect and positive attitudes [between us].”

This rejuvenation of the woman farmer is sparking change across the entire industry.

“What I do see as a real change now is that we are seeing more women in industry positions — agricultural consulting, selling seeds, agronomists. As soon as a few really competent women broke into industry positions, it opened the door for other women to follow in their footsteps. And I appreciate the work that these women have done, knowing that it would be challenging,” Ravenkamp says. “By the very nature of being mold breakers, it frees up women farmers to be mold breakers all over.”

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