Casaubon's Book

Ending “Farmer’s Wife” Syndrome

Fairly often, when someone comes to our farm to make a purchase or do a job, the implicit assumption is that they should talk to Eric. The first time I remember seeing this was when we were farm shopping back a decade ago – we met our first realtor and visited our first farm, and the realtor led me into the house and then turned to Eric and said “Let me show you the barn.” My husband’s very calm response was “Sharon knows much more about barns than I do, I’m going to take our son for a walk.” This was the beginning of my experience with “farmer’s wife” syndrome.

Now on virtually all farms I have ever visited, everyone who lives there farms. The children help in the barns, the spouses share the duties – even if there is a gendered division of labor much of the time, as on Amish farms, the harvest or peak canning season overwhelm this and everyone who is present pitches in. It should go without saying that no farm can have anyone who isn’t competent to recapture lost livestock, fix a fence, handle an emergency birth or a medical crisis – because some days one person isn’t there. Nor can all knowledge rest in one person – because who milks or picks the beans when someone is ill, giving birth, caring for a family member or making the money that most farms don’t provide to pay taxes and bills?

Yet we cling stubbornly to the idea that instead of a family of farmers, all equally engaged with the land, if sometimes in largely different ways, that a farm family consists of a “farmer” and a “farmer’s wife” – and that the female partner is necessarily secondary. Gene Logsdon has a great essay about both why this is, and how that presumption is being disrupted by the growing number of independent women farmers:

Women rarely did the plowing however, and that seems to be the key difference. Lots of plowboys, nary a plowgirl. In other field work, women did more than their share. (I have theories but will leave it to someone smarter to explain why women didn’t plow.) The notion that males were the real farmers probably was rooted in the hunting and gathering stage of civilization where men brought home the game from afar (adventure time) and the women did the rest of the work at home (boring).

At any rate, after the plow became the symbol of agriculture in America, the role of women in farming did recede from the public eye. Women were supposed to stick to the kitchen and leave the real business of farming to their menfolks.

This prejudice was astonishingly apparent even at farm magazines. As a journalist working for Farm Journal magazine, I often sat in farm kitchens interviewing farmers and their wives about their business. It was amazing how often the wives answered my questions much better than their husbands and how they so often did this by diplomatically and cleverly putting words in their husbands’ mouths. It was obvious that most successful farms got that way because the wives were smarter and more articulate than the husbands. But the wives knew how to keep the male crest from falling by seeming to defer to their husbands on every occasion. The wives knew they had to make their mates look like top operators so that they could borrow the money they needed to keep on going. Bankers were no different from farm editors. They wanted to deal with men: women weren’t smart enough to run a business like farming.

The answer to the question about why women didn’t do the plowing is anthropological – when tillage was done with digging sticks and handtools, in many societies women were the primary tillers of soil. But as anthropologist Judith Brown long ago observed, there is virtually no society in human history where women’s primary work is incompatible with the care of young children – and plowing behind draft animals is tough to do with a babe in a sling, and hard to do when you may have to stop and nurse, or chase a toddler away from the horse’s feet. Tractors are not good places to haul babies and young kids for long stretches either, and I know from experience you don’t fit well behind the wheel in late pregnancy. Moreover, in the era of chemical agriculture any number of things that are part of the farm experience are best not touched by women who may be pregnant or nursing. For most of women’s history, being pregnant or nursing was a normative experience for many years.

Most of us don’t have a baby every three years anymore, so there isn’t any reason why tillage or organic no-till agriculture can’t be done by women (chemical agriculture is still tougher for women of childbearing age, since so many things accumulate in body fat and breast milk). So is small-scale farming without large equipment – with the modern digging sticks. In the meantime, independent women small farmers are the only fast-growing segment of American agriculture – an entity that we all know is going to have to grow fast just to keep up with the aging population of farmers, and all the more if we are to remove the fossil fuel inputs from our agriculture and untie food and oil.

We have used language to write women out of agriculture – out of its history, out of its present, engaging in the “housewifization” of real agricultural work. The implication that the farmer’s wife is not a farmer, and is thus knowledgeable about only kitchens and babies (as important as those things are) is a diminuation, an act of linguistic violence that erases the multiple competences of farm women, partnered or not.

I look around me at the farm families I know and see women and men with a host of skills that step outside of gender. Sherri, who lives with her aging mother cuts hay for a living. Alice handles the thousand pound draft horses on their farm with skill and grace. The sheep are Rosa’s, not her boyfriend’s, as is the market garden. Louise milked fifty cows a day to her husband’s fifty and drove the tractor while he tossed the hay bales for forty years.

This started out as my farm, with my husband who was happy to give me credit, happy to do the heavy lifting, but not so interested in plants. It has become a project of two overlapping people with related interests and the ability to do one another’s work. The bees are his. The native plants and herbs are mine, the livestock are both of ours, the work is shared inside and outside as preference, pleasure and ability define. The daily applied science of agriculture is worked out between us. The pride in it is shared, and neither of us would demean our contribution by suggesting it comes primarily through the other, as “farmer’s wife” does.

The question of where the next generation of farmers is going to come from is an important one, because we’re engaged in an experiment with no historical precedent – for the first time in history, the majority of new farmers will have to come from off the farm – for decades we have been able to reduce the number of farmers by drawing off many and destroying farm cultures and communities, while still having enough to meet our needs, but the farm population is rapidly aging, the next generation of farmer’s children have already left the farm, and now we must ask who will replace them?

The answer so far is that women are a part of the answer, and I hope this will be the end of farmer’s wife syndrome and the emergent recognition of the fact that farmers come in many packages, and that a way of life is something that circles round and encompasses everyone who lives it.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Megan
    February 6, 2012

    A man walked by while I was shoveling (aged!) manure into bed after bed in our community garden and after watching for five minutes (without offering to to help…) he commented “you’d make a good farmer’s wife”.

  2. #2 Wow
    February 6, 2012

    If both were available, I’d pick the farmer’s husband too. If the farmer’s wife was visible, ask her, husband, ask him.

    It may be more because socially it’s not acceptable for a strange man to talk to a woman, and not particularly acceptable for a strange woman to talk to a man.

    But strangers of the same sex are fine.

  3. #3 Nicole
    February 6, 2012

    This could be summed up by saying, “There’s no such thing as a trophy wife on working farm.”

    If I ever feel the need to belittle the contributions of farm wives before they could even vote, I simply have to re-read the book a cousin write about growing up on a farm in the Great Depression. He writes about himself, but his mother is the one whom I am in awe of.

  4. #4 Brad K.
    February 6, 2012

    Sharon,

    Don’t feel bad about the realtor directing efforts to Eric. It might be just a sales tactic, direct the spiel to the easier mark. My own preconception is that many married women are more discerning about small details and small price issues than the men in their lives. Not always, I know. That means the car salesperson and realtor and such know that the man that lives for the workplace is less familiar with the manipulations that advertisers, marketers, and salespeople use to meet their quota or sales goal. The flattery, appeals to selling points, the assumed close, are less likely to distract the mother and wife from paying attention to the details.

    Another possible issue is body language and identity. We change our identities with marriage, we assume changed roles within our community. That is why a wedding (or handfasting or other ceremony) is properly a community event. If a woman’s identity is “Eric’s wife”, then the realtor is going to address Eric as ‘head of the family’. In some cultures, it would be improper to address the wife too directly, in the presence of the husband. I have some friends, an older couple, that act and are treated in just the opposite roles, the wife is seen as the one making choices, directing their attention and finances while the husband is quieter and hangs back, letting her do the talking and interacting.

    I grew up in farming country, and found it, at the time, difficult to separate the farmer’s wife role as member of the family from the farmer’s wife role as operator of the farm. Most of my neighbors then, and to some extent still today, see the family role as being the more important.

    @ Nicole,

    Not at all. Some farmers, male or female, do indeed become entangled with a trophy spouse, on a farm. Some trophies learn to work, some farms languish barely farmed. Some make a good family of their choices.

  5. #5 Dragoness
    February 6, 2012

    this is an interesting piece.
    impoverished migrant farmers, children, women & men & the elderly work the fields.
    it is expected.

    certainly during our slavery years in the US, slaves of either gender were required to do it all as well.

    i wonder if this is a “class” issue, or a “caste” system…

  6. #6 Lori Evesque
    February 6, 2012

    I work for Tillers International, a non-profit which teaches animal powered agriculture around the world- here in the US and abroad. We have found in many of our oxen trainings around the world that women are integrally involved in plowing, tilling, and all aspects of agriculture. The women take part in trainings when pregnant, with babies strapped to their backs, and with children nearby. Out of necessity, due to the stresses of AIDS, war and other causes, the men aren’t always around. Women ARE farmers around the world and this will continue to be the case. Thanks for talking about this important aspect of agriculture!

  7. #7 Dragoness
    February 6, 2012

    hello Lori!
    how exciting!!

    i give to orgs like yours on the greater good network.
    “keep on keepin’ on!”

  8. #8 Cactus Wren
    February 6, 2012

    I can remember when this song was first printed in Sing Out! magazine:

    http://www.elyrics.net/read/l/lems-kristin-lyrics/farmer-lyrics.html

    “I am a farmer, I been one all my life
    Call me a farmer and not a farmer’s wife.”

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    February 6, 2012

    For several years after my birth (I don’t remember it) my father took on a live in ranch hand to free my mother up to take care of me.

  10. #10 KA101
    February 6, 2012

    Reading this reminded me of Ms. McEwan’s fairly thorough photo essay on women farmers throughout the world. You may have seen it already–it’s a few years old now–but I thought I’d leave a link.

    http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/10/female-farmers.html

    Thanks for your time and consideration.

  11. #11 wondering
    February 6, 2012

    Rant:

    This attitude shows in our laws as well. In Canada, if a female farmer dies, the farm maintains its farm status for tax purposes without intervention. If the male farmer dies, it is assumed to no longer be an operating farm, and you lose tax status unless you intervene. It happened to one widow (my mother’s friend) who made sure that all the other women in the region knew when they needed to know.

    The funny thing is that we would classify mom as a “farmer’s wife” and not a farmer, because her actual occupation is nurse. However, my younger sister had been running the farm for several years before my father’s death, so the same problem applied.


    On another note, I don’t understand how it is harder to plow with a kid strapped to your back then it is to seed, hoe, harvest, weed, etc with a kid strapped to your back. It’s all hard.

    (Also, it took much convincing to get my parent’s to change their wills from “farm goes to eldest son” to “farm goes to the daughter who has been working on it for the last 15 years”. It was a hard transformation for them to make.

  12. #12 Nicole
    February 6, 2012

    Thank you, KA101. So many of those pictures are fabulous, and what you see over and over again is pride in their work. It’s the exact same look you see in the rancher/cow hand pictures of the US West.

    But the Brazilian mother with (her?) two girls is my favorite.

  13. #13 Greg Reynolds
    February 6, 2012

    Amelia started a farm with her husband a few years ago. Last year she worked for me. She had never driven a tractor before. It turns out she was a natural, not that she didn’t get stuck a time or two plowing, but she figured that out pretty quickly. She also did a great job cultivating too.

    I think the reason that women don’t plow is because it is fun. There is something very enjoyable, satisfying about watching the sod roll over in neat slices and getting the plowing apart/together, or the beds, just right. My guess is that the old guys kept that job for themselves.

    She hates being refered to as ‘Nick’s Wife’.

    Greg

  14. #14 afrika mangosu
    February 7, 2012

    I think the reason that women don’t plow is because it is fun.
    But the Brazilian mother with (her?) two girls is my favorite.

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    February 7, 2012

    Lori, Wondering – It isn’t that no one can do those things with children, the point is that it is less safe. Judith Brown’s article on the history of anthropology and the division of labor notes that the categories of work tranditionally taken up by women have a number of common elements – they are interruptable by a nursing infant or a roaming toddler, they are comparatively safe (that’s not say that cook fires aren’t dangerous), and they allow for the limitations that childbearing and rearing do. Just as women have by necessity taken their children on their backs down into mines, it is true that women can plow with babies, but it is also true that in societies where women spend a lot of their lives pregnant and nursing, most of them evolve divisions of labor that keep them out of the most dangerous situations. Given that tractors are a major source of farm death and injury, that dosen’t seem too strange to me. But then a neighbor of mine was killed a few years ago riding on the tractor – his four year old grandson was luckily thrown free, but it could have been the other way around. Most child and youth farm accidents in the US involve heavy equipment and large animals.

    Sharon

  16. #16 et
    February 7, 2012

    But Logsdon still writes “farmers and their wives”!

    Why not do away with the concept farmers wife altogether? Just say farmers – some male, some female. Some farms have one farmer, some have two.

  17. #17 Greenpa
    February 7, 2012

    One of the better comments on this topic I’ve heard was related by the author of “The Land Remembers”; who recalls his father griping about the excessive work load to the other men sitting at the dinner table during threshing – “I need me another wife; or two good hired hands.” This was delivered with the understanding that his wife- who had put the massive dinner on the table- was standing right there listening, of course.

    What he was saying was; his wife’s contribution was at least equal to two men; and he knew she was still overworked, and under appreciated. My take on the story is- everyone at the table and in the room understood the statement perfectly, and agreed. Wife included; he knew he wasn’t saying he wanted a different wife, but that he needed two, to handle the work. Humor, you know.

    It will be lovely if the day comes when people are simply taken for who they are, and what they can do. I’m not holding my breath, though. Meanwhile- it would ALSO be good to remember that “people” are different. We’re not all equally strong, or tough. I’ve seen more than a few young girls injure themselves trying to prove they can “do anything the guys can.” That’s a bad idea. Incidentally- I’ve seen more than a few young BOYS hurt themselves, in exactly the same way. Bad idea, also. More than once- those injuries carry penalties your entire life. It is so not worth it.

  18. #18 Sesli Chat
    February 7, 2012

    Şimdiye kadar bile oy verebilir önce çiftlik eşleri katkıları küçümsemek için ihtiyacı hissediyorum, ben sadece kitap okumak zorunda büyük depresyon bir çiftlikte büyüyen hakkında bir kuzeni yazma. Kendisi hakkında yazdığı, ancak annesi kimi huşu içinde yaşıyorum biridir.

  19. #19 Mike
    February 8, 2012

    I have been involved with farming since I was born, I went to 2 different ag schools and worked in extension as well as USDA. While I completely understand Sharon’s frustration, in my experience 90% or so of farm families have a male as the primary farmer. While guessing based on assumptions are not fair, they sometimes are based on reality.

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