A Mother’s Day Salute to A Different Viewpointby Mary Fund
The summer after my father died some 34 years ago, I began sharing in the management of the farm. My mother, who had been a full farming partner was one of the most capable women I knew. She had by necessity become a pretty fair farm mechanic, milked cows twice a day for over 30 years, and had bucked bales --back when all hay bales were small and to the detriment of her back in later years. She dealt with bankers and bills, and cranky cows and sick calves. All of these were just part of the day to day necessities, but when it came time to visit the NRCS office to discuss needed conservation work, she was a bit hesitant. So I tagged along.
We studied the maps with our DC (district conservationist) and listened as he outlined where the terraces and new waterways would go. “These trees here,” he explained pointing to the woody draw in the map, “would come out so the waterway can be extended to the neighbor’s fenceline.”
We were horrified. That draw was home to a wild raspberry patch that, along with several others on the farm, had once provided us with 40 quarts of wild raspberries in one season. My mother and I objected. The terraces and waterways were built but the woody draw remains yet today—home to wild raspberries, morel mushrooms, and wildlife.
Women, I think, understand the landscape in a way few men feel they can afford to. It is not because we are uneducated or impractical, or that we don’t understand “real farming.” But my experience talking with women is that we see the farm in terms of relationships, in terms of family, and in terms of preserving a place for our children and grandchildren.
Many farmers and ag economists today would scoff at my mother and I’s “romantic” view of keeping that wild place in tact. With crop prices high and dollar signs in their eyes, many farmers are bulldozing these areas out so they can plant row crops. Grassy field borders disappear, and corn and soybeans reach not just from fence row to fence row, but from roadside ditch to roadside ditch.
But reservoirs fill with sediment. Ag chemicals are found in water supplies. Soil quality suffers from monoculture practices and an endless soup of chemicals. A stunning degree of biodiversity is lost. And we see farmers becoming an endangered species, as our young cannot afford to or do not want to replace us on the land.
Maybe a different viewpoint is needed.
I recently attended a local women and agriculture program. Women farmers are a fast growing segment of production agriculture, and women landowners own half of all farm land. With the largest growing segment of farmers being men in the over 65-age range, women will potentially be the owner/managers of more. The program was filled with wonderful information and advice.
One of the young women presenters talked about women’s roles and contributions to agriculture in terms of being the teachers, the insurance agents, the clerks at FSA and NRCS, and at co-ops, and yes as farmers in the field and in the barn. Another presenter recounted how a farmer came into the local conservation district office and said he wanted to plant some buffer strips. Why? Because his wife had told him “we are planting buffer strips!”
To that impressive list of ways women contribute to agriculture, I would like to add that maybe our most important role is to act as the conscience for our farms. It is not called Mother Earth for no reason.
Yes, a few more feet of cropland would make more money—at least this year or under these prices. But what are the costs? And what happens next year or under drought? Or a drop in price? What happens to our farms and our family histories and our children’s futures when we commodify everything- and lose it all in a profit taking gamble?
KRC also held a women and agriculture meeting recently. It was a small group who spent more time doing the talking than being talked at. We discussed conservation programs and practices, and farm experiences. But we also talked relationships. We talked values. We talked about the future. The number one issue for all of us was our connection to the land and what we would pass on to our children and grandchildren—and not one was talking about the value of an acre of cropland. Whether it be stories of hard work at harvest time, checking first calf heifers late at night, or eating that first ripe strawberry in the spring, this was the human or family face of agriculture.
Women are proving on a daily basis that we are not simply an auxiliary for the status quo. We can ask questions. We can do our homework. We can make informed management decisions. We can challenge a model that says “it ain’t done that way” or says we are being sentimental or romanticizing life on the farm. As the demographic shifts toward more women managing the land, we just may see a swing toward a more earth and family friendly model-- one that can also “feed the world”.
For the record, picking wild raspberries on a hot humid summer day in Kansas with hard biting ants crawling up your pant legs, and competing with skunks and raccoons (who both like raspberries a lot!) is definitely not a “romantic” exercise or for the faint of heart. But on my farm, it is an important connection between the land, nature, and my family.
Happy belated Earth Day and Happy Mothers Day to all you women farmers and want –to- be farmers!