Last weekend, I arrived in Nashville, TN to attend the National Farmers Union Women’s Conference. The conference focused on co-operation and interdependence, reflecting the reality that farming is a communal effort and centering the female experience of working in ag. 40+ women and non-binary farmers gathered in the union hotel just a couple blocks away from Nashville’s famous Broadway Ave, where live country music resounds from every bar. We were gathered from Wisconsin, Hawai’i, Oregon and everywhere in between. We were farming on as little as one acre to as many as thousands, some of us tending to honeybees, others to beef cattle, some growing in containers on our city porches, others hosting agritourism in pumpkin patches and corn mazes. Each of us had a unique story.
Throughout the conference, it struck me that the reality of farming as a woman* is tender! I heard over and over from attendees that they were so pleased to be in a female space, that they felt they could be themselves and discuss the difficulties of farming openly. And there were many tender moments throughout the conference. During a discussion about balancing family and farming, women reckoned with the sacrifices they have had to make in order to farm and balance parenting. One woman spoke about the difficulty of diverging from her father’s indigenous plant wisdom, leading to a fracture in their relationship and an inability to care for him fully in his old age. Farming is personal, and it encompasses so much more than a career – many of us live where we farm and cannot keep to regular work hours because we depend on weather and plants and animals depend on us. Farming is a reckoning with ancestral practices and a forging forward in uncertain environmental, economic, and political circumstances.
Some of these tendernesses are human, and to be expected. Under the best of circumstances, we cannot have everything in this life. Sacrifice brings us closer to our values and can make life sweeter. I feel this in the paradox of wanting to be near family and also wanting to be near the land – I sacrifice proximity to family for proximity to land, and in doing so I learn about myself. This is heartbreaking and beautiful; this is a natural part of life. I know I am lucky to have land access, and feel grateful to know that my relationship to land is so important, even as this sacrifice pains me.
However, much of the sacrifice we discussed is not so necessary. There is the reality of rural America emptying out as land prices skyrocket and farming becomes inaccessible to the next generation, leading to isolation and economic ruin in rural areas and young farmers with nowhere to farm. There is the devastation of our natural resources through water pollution, soil erosion, pesticide use, massive deforestation…the list goes on. Rural Sociologist Mary Hendrickson (she/her) spoke about the structure of our food system and the massive consolidation of seed companies, meat packing, and other food systems we rely on. This consolidation allows large corporations to extract profit from farmers and consumers, leaving our food system vulnerable, as we saw when COVID outbreaks in meatpacking plants led to mass euthanization of hogs and supply chain breakdown. This system is bad for the farmer, the consumer, and the planet.
In the face of these difficulties, it was inspiring to sit in a room full of women committed to building a climate resilient food system! Wisconsin Farmers Union members Kriss Marion and Danielle Endvick taught us how to get rooted in our why and share our story in order to effect change. The passion in the room was palpable as people shared their stories and enthusiasm for working with the land. I feel honored and emboldened to have spent time with elders and peers committed to this work. Together, we can build an inclusive food system that adequately feeds the world and supports a thriving rural landscape.
* As a trans non-binary farmer, I do not identify as a woman, and do not identify with women’s issues. I am in solidarity with women and recognize that women face specific and serious challenges in the male-dominated field of agriculture. I also acknowledge that this set of challenges is unique to women and differs from the challenges that I face as a trans non-binary farmer.