A More Feminine Food System: Farmer Jane (a Book Review)

A More Feminine Food System: Farmer Jane (a Book Review)
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Originally published at Ecocentric.

Let's try something. Picture for a moment, dear reader, a farmer. It doesn't have to be a farmer you know, assuming you are lucky enough to know a farmer. It could be a farmer you've seen on television, in a movie or read about in a book. It could even be an imaginary farmer, a composite created from the pop culture images you've ingested over the years.

Ok. Got your farmer in your head? What does he look like?

Just kidding -- surely, the title of this post gave away my intention here and skewed the results of this little exercise. But really, most of us probably picture a typical farmer as an aging white man in overalls, when in reality, there are many people of color who tend land, though not without even more difficulties than the white male farmers who're struggling to stay afloat (the Latinos we call "farmworkers" -- who've come to the US in droves, mostly as a result of US policies that pushed them, however indirectly, off of their land -- have a rich agricultural tradition, as do black farmers, many of whom have lost their land as well, in part because of discriminatory practices in USDA lending).

And of course, women of all races, in the US and abroad, are farmers, too. In fact, women grow the vast majority of the food supply in the Global South (PDF). Stateside, they make up the largest group of new farmers (see the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture -- PDF).

And yet, even within the "sustainable agriculture" movement, or the "good food" movement, whatever you want to call it, there is a lack of attention paid to these female agrarians. Of the talking heads that filled the screens of Food, Inc and Fresh, fantastic movies both, most were male. Both featured the well-spoken Joel Salatin, perhaps the most famous livestock farmer of our time, who, rumor has it, refuses to take on female interns at his farm (I heard this through a friend whose friend applied, an online search will find many articles making the same claim). To be honest, as a writer who considers herself a feminist, I've probably been guilty of writing more about men than women, too, and have probably hopped on the usual suspect bandwagon a few too many times .

Enter Temra Costa's new book, Farmer Jane. A compilation of profiles of farmers and food activists, the book groups the women it profiles by what they do -- though most likely do several, if not all, of these things -- into six chapters (Building new Farm-to-Eater Relationships, Advocates for Social Change, Promoting Local and Seasonal Food, Networks for Sustainable Food, Urban Farm Women and The Next Generation of Sustainable Farmers), each with a "recipe for action," and ends with a handy appendix full of resources and essays on topics like genetic engineering the upcoming Farm Bill.

With all due respect to the "farm moms" featured in Monsanto's Mom of the Year contest, Farmer Jane paints a more dynamic picture of women farmers, many of whom don't adhere to the "typical" farm stereotype, who instead focus on their creative approaches to food production and marketing, as well as the politics that influence their work (otherwise known as our meals). Many of them are indeed mothers and wives, but if Costa doesn't focus on that, it's because she's busy telling us about their work, just the way that most reporters or filmmakers don't concentrate on the offspring of their male subjects.

A few of the dynamic women farmers profiled in Farmer Jane:

  • Nancy Vail, who entered into a creative partnership to fund Pie Ranch, and, inspired by the shape of her land, used it to her advantage, luring youths out to her farm with the promise of pie.
  • Erika Allen, who incorporated her knowledge of art, knowing that in order to sell urban farming to a town like Chicago, it had better be aesthetically pleasing, of Growing Power Chicago.
  • Deborah Koons Garcia -- the filmmaker who knew to use media as a tool for education, with whom Costa now runs a radio show called Queens of Green.
  • Denise O'Brien -- the farmer/activist perhaps best known for her (close) run for Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa, profiled here for founding Women, Food and Agriculture Network.
  • Jessica Prentice -- author, chef and business owner, and coiner of the term "locavore."

Farmer Jane earned a lukewarm review from Washington Post's Jane Black, who bemoaned the dearth of Midwestern Janes profiled and wrote as if the ones who did appear in the book were "usual suspects" like Pollan or Salatin:

"The women Costa talks to have already got plenty of press. There are others, no doubt, who need it."

I'm not so sure about this. I mean, yes (of course), there are lots of other Farmer Janes out there who deserve attention, but not one of the women Costa profiles are household names, unless your household is in Berkeley or Brooklyn and your family deeply entrenched in the local/sustainable food movement. Also, if you clicked on the link to the USDA's 2007 census at the end of the third paragraph, you may have noticed that the majority of women who farm are doing so, in fact, in New England and in the West.

So Costa's picks were probably a fairer representation than Black suggests. That said, I do wish Costa had chosen to profile more women of color and perhaps a greater diversity of ages. And while I'm being critical, I must say that I had a hard time getting into Costa's writing -- the book read like a directory and in my opinion, failed to live up to its subject. I also wished, content-wise, that she'd written more about the history of women in American agriculture (for example, the Women's Land Army) and the obstacles, societal and political, they've faced. I'd like to have seen more about the current state of affairs for women in farming, like say, Rep. Rosa De Lauro's Equity for Women Farmers Act. I would like to have heard more about the fact that when women -- farmers or not -- are empowered rather than disenfranchised, good things tend to happen.

All of that said, Farmer Jane is the first book I've heard of on the subject, and for that, I'm grateful and excited and hopeful for the conversations it may inspire. For would-be ladies of the land like Jane Black and myself, Costa may seem to have underplayed her hand here, but by and large Farmer Jane is a good seed. Here's hoping it takes root among the media.

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