The Female Farmer Project
local photographer chronicles the rise of women in farming
INTRO BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
PHOTOS BY AUDRA MULKERN
Mulkern had an idea. She went back to the farmers and asked them why they came to the farmers’ markets. She then combined their answers with her photos and, in 2011, self-published a book titled Rooted in the Valley: The Art and Color of The Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Markets. “I ordered a few copies and we sold 50 the first day,” she says. Partial proceeds went to benefit Sno-Valley Tilth, an organization and community of local farmers.
The relationships she started with her farming community continued, as the former event management and marketing consultant spent more time on local farms. “One day I looked around and noticed that all the farmers were women,” she said. “All the interns that summer were female, too.” Was this a coincidence, she wondered?
“We started talking about how women are nurturers and how this was being channeled through food.” Mulkern points out that female farmers had become relatively rare in the U.S. “The farms all got big—farming became about growing crops, not about growing food. Women tend to farm smaller plots. In Europe, women are expected to be farmers. In Africa, 80 percent of the farmers are women.”
“Farmers by nature like to be alone with their animals and their vegetables,” Mulkern explains. “But they want to know what the other ladies are doing when it comes to tractors, to loans, to land. They love reading about other farmers.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones interested. Mulkern’s work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Grist, Saveur, The Cultureist, GOOD Magazine, BUST magazine, and others. Her images are arresting, showing both the toil and the beauty of these intentional lives. “Other people get to see what the work is like and the true cost of food,” she says. The response has been overwhelming. She now gets invitations daily: Can you come to Montana? Wyoming? Northern California? Chile?
“I was a little nervous about how men would react,” Mulkern says, “because this project is so much about celebrating female roles. But every man who has reached out to me has told me about their mothers, their wives, their grandmothers.” Women have always been part of farming, even if they have not been the principal operators. “The men are thrilled to see this legacy honored.”
The face of farming is indeed changing. A 2012 survey showed that women-owned farms had more than doubled in number over the past 34 years (prior to 1978, census results did not record a farmer’s gender).
“People are now developing tools for female farmers,” Mulkern says. “There is clothing now made for female farmers.”
What is next for this mostly self-taught “farm-to-table documentarian”? “I will keep telling their stories until it’s normalized,” she says, “until we don’t call them ‘female famers.’ They’ll just be farmers.”
REDFEATHER FARM, DUVALL
“I believe all farmers are nurturers. Whether feeding a lamb by hand, midwifing for a pig, or singing to a tomato, we are all in the business of life. Anyone who pays close attention to a plant or animal day in, day out, rain or shine, and cheers it on toward growth is a true nurturer. I knew when I started raising livestock that I would join the ranks of family farmers who champion their animals’ life force, and essentially mother them through their days.”
LOCAL ROOTS, DUVALL
We aim to give everyone who works here the opportunity to take part in all aspects of our farm, from budgeting and crop planning to greenhouse construction and tractor maintenance. Over the last eight years, ten Local Roots employees have gone on to own or run their own farms. Once people move on, we are there to answer whatever questions arise. I’ve helped people with everything from Quickbooks to diagnosing plant health issues. Smartphones make it super easy! Someone can just text me a picture of their plants and I can help them figure out what’s wrong.”
GLENDALE SHEPHERD, WHIDBEY ISLAND
“There is a certain expression people get when they are truly loving the experience of eating something. It’s as if, for a second, all is truly right with the world and nothing could further satisfy them. Knowing that I am directly responsible for that brief respite and pleasure is incredibly rewarding.”
“Also, while lambing season is especially tiring at times, there is something truly joyous about seeing a group of lambs run around fresh pasture for the first time. They start out hesitant, but soon enough they are literally leaping in the air and generally loving life. Being their steward and seeing that simple fun that they get is another thing that will never get old.”
GROWING THINGS FARM, CARNATION
“We need to preserve our farmland and treat it as a natural resource just like we do with fish and animal habitat. A lot of people see farmland as potentially developed land and we are losing more each day not just to development, but to animal habitat, fish restoration projects, mitigation, and others.