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.