FarmHer Refaces the All-American Farmer

"When you think of a farmer, you don't automatically think of a woman." Marji Guyler-Alaniz, the photographer behind FarmHer said. Yet she knew that women were farming -- it just wasn't being reinforced to the public through stories or photos.
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By Tove K Danovich
Originally published on Food Politic.

"When you think of a farmer, you don't automatically think of a woman." Marji Guyler-Alaniz, the photographer behind FarmHer said. For 11 years working in a corporate agriculture business in Iowa, most of her coworkers had been men. Yet she knew that women were farming -- it just wasn't being reinforced to the public through stories or photos.

This image says so many things to me. She has the cattle rope around her should so you know she is dealing with livestock. Her sun-bleached hair is back in a braid so she can work. Her shoulders are strong. Julia was one of four girls that I photographed as they loaded their livestock in to the Iowa State Fairgrounds. I was impressed from the minute I met her. To me, this image portrays Julia perfectly; a smart, capable, hard working and proud young woman. -MGA

In February 2013, Guyler-Alaniz spent Superbowl Sunday like many Americans-settled around the television at home with her family and friends. During one of many flashy commercial breaks, a black cow grazing in a flat, frozen field appeared on screen. After eight seconds of silence, Paul Harvey's voice filled the room, repeating a speech he'd given to the Future Farmers of America in 1978. And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, "I need a caretaker." So God made a farmer.

Guyler-Alaniz initially loved the commercial. With a $3 million budget, it had been beautifully made. There was something heartfelt about farming, familiar, simple. But upon remembering the commercial later she realized that most of the images were of men, by men. Even worse, female farmers were missing from agricultural imagery everywhere.

The commercial was both what she knew most Americans saw when they thought of farmers -- craggy men wearing flannel and dusty hats, their fingernails blackened by dirt -- and only part of the modern face of farming. By March, she knew she had to tell more of the story.

She woke her husband up in the middle of the night saying that she needed to start photographing women farmers. "It's not a real money maker," she said, "But we need to have these images of women." It was the only way she knew to change the all-American face of farming from that of a man to one who could be any gender.

I love this image because it shows the affection, care and concern that Lois has for her goats. Lois owns and operates her "micro dairy," milking about 15 goats. Meeting Lois and watching her go through her morning, milking her goats and making cheese, was amazing. I love this image because I think it shows her gentle nature with the animals and theirs in return. The colors, lighting and the way her hands are just bring the image to life for me.-MGA

According to the last USDA Agricultural census, released in 2009, changes were already happening in the fields. Since 2002, the total number of female operators had increased 19 percent while the number of total farmers had only increased 7 percent. In title, women now controlled 14 percent of the nation's 2.2 million farms.

Because the USDA only requires one name to be on the title to any farmland, the number of women who are part of a farming partnership through marriage is underrepresented even if many of them could be considered principal operators. As the price per acre continues to climb -- land in the Corn Belt increased by 15 percent in the last year alone -- it's becoming more difficult for anyone who was not born a farmer to become one.

In the four Midwestern states where agriculture is primarily practiced at the largest scale, women make up less than 10 percent of all operators. The average size of a female-operated farm is 210 acres and $36,440 in sales compared to 452 acres and $150,671, making it difficult for most female farmers to subsist without a source of off-farm income.

Over the years, new organizations like the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network have helped create community and advocacy for female farmers. One of the founders of this group, Denise O'Brien, was one of the early supporters of Guyler-Alaniz's project "Without talking to her I would have eventually found more people but that connection really gave it a jumpstart," Guyler-Alaniz said.

O'Brien offered to talk to WFAN's current executive director on Guyler-Alaniz' behalf. Soon after, the Network sent out a blurb to their members asking that anyone interested in being photographed for the project come forward. "I thought no one was going to respond," Guyler-Alaniz' said. "I thought it sounded a little sketchy -- someone wants to take pictures of me for what reason?"

Luckily, the future FarmHers were more trusting. Initially some wondered if they would be charged for the photographs, much like the aerial photographers who go door-to-door hawking photos of farms in the Midwest, but any skepticism was quickly brushed aside.

In the process of photographing female farmers go about their daily chores, Guyler-Alaniz' has the opportunity to talk to them about their lives. "I had forgotten or lost track of how good of communicators women are," she said. This same impulse to share with each other has made it easy for word to travel from one woman's farm to the next, bringing new faces to FarmHer.

The way I met Carolyn is just one of the many things I love about FarmHer. A different woman who I was documenting earlier that day told me about Carolyn. A quick phone call and a few hours later and there I was, following yet another strong, smart FarmHer with my camera. Carolyn raises heritage turkeys on the farm where she works and lives. In this shot she was in the loft of the barn, talking to me about her turkeys and her business. For me, this image really defines my vision of Carolyn; it is bright and full of life. Like many of my images, you know it is a woman just by glancing but it isn't right there in your face. -MGA

Guyler-Alaniz says that a lot of her project has been eye-opening. "As a woman watching what other women are doing, you realize that they're strong, they're smart, they're amazing -- pulling their weight in every shape and form." She's watched women -- some young, others not -- cut down entire trees with chainsaws, load cattle into a trailer, and farm using any number of philosophies. "They're not afraid to just jump in and do what needs to be done and I think that's an agriculture thing."

As more people have gotten excited about food and farming, Guyler-Alaniz expects the number of female farmers will continue to increase. The next agricultural census has an expected release sometime in early 2014 and many are looking forward to seeing the impact of last five years on agriculture.

"Overall I take the documentary-style approach to what I do because I want it to be real," Guyler-Alaniz said. While people are always interested in the face shots, she's less interested in what the FarmHers look like, "It's more about what they're doing or how they're working," she said. Because a farmer's wealth is measured by physical labor -- planting and harvesting -- or the physical growth of their plants and animals, work and a day's chores are the best way to show that female FarmHers are our nation's all-American farmers too.

All photographs in this article and captions courtesy of Marji Guyler-Alaniz. You can find more of her images on the FarmHer website.