Audra Mulkern is an agricultural photographer and farm-to-table documentarian. She advocates for women farmers through the Female Farmer Project, and is currently at work on a documentary film called Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, we sat down with Audra to talk about women in agricultural, the gender gap, and why she feels hopeful about the future of female farmers.
Can you start by talking about the gender gap in agriculture?
One of my favorite quotes from Melinda Gates is, “We can’t close the gender gap without closing the data gap.” Around the world women are missing from data, and there are repercussions that echo even today. When women are not counted, they are left behind without policies that would help them succeed—the same policies that men have easy access to.
That means that there are fewer women who own land, who have access to financing, and who have access to education. That’s the stool, the three things you need as a farmer: access to land, financing for implements and seeds and equipment, and education to become profitable and successful. When women don’t have access to these, that’s a problem, especially since women represent about 80% of agriculture worldwide.
What is the percentage in the US?
I’ll start by saying the information is inaccurate because of how [the census] asked for the information. But according to the 2012 census, 14% of operations and land are owned by women. It’s a funky number; women are disappeared in that data because of how they asked for it. [The census] only asked for one primary operator on a farm, so if there were two operators, then the woman is typically the secondary, and she wouldn’t be counted. Or if it was two partners—one who managed animals and one who managed vegetable production—there’s still only one slot. So there’s something wrong with the data, and it’s impossible to draw any conclusions or design policies around incorrect and missing data. Until we start getting our data straight, we can’t design policies for women to succeed.
The 2018 census has been revised to allow for four primary operators on a farm. That’s the way many women today operate. They’ll go into business partnerships with other women.
How do female farmers farm differently than male farmers?
One of my favorite ways to say it, to make it simple, is that men grow crops and women grow food. And that is because of how women feel about what they’re doing as a farmer. For them it’s about feeding their community and their families—it’s a much more personal experience for women when it comes to farming. And that’s not to say that they don’t want to make an income, or that men don’t feel personally invested…it’s just that, on a sort of sliding scale, women are more about making the connections with their community: doing direct sales through CSA, farmer’s markets, selling directly to their grocery stores. That is the type of smaller-scale agriculture you’ll see women doing.
What are some of the unique contributions women have made in agriculture?
I ran across an interesting statistic that, even though women represent half of our population, they only occupy one-half of one percent of recorded history. All of these women’s contributions and achievements are barely a blip in our recorded history. I simultaneously want to look back and really celebrate those women, but I also want to inspire the women of today and tomorrow that it has been done, and that they can do it too.
I would love to shine a light on the history of the women in agriculture and how consistently they were removed [from history]. We’re talking about the women who first cultivated the crops in this nation. The women who were brought over as slaves and their contributions to agriculture and what they brought, because it’s extraordinary. The homesteader movement occupies both white and black history, but we never talk about black homesteaders and post-slavery homesteading. And then we have the Civil War and World Wars when men went off to war and women took over the farms and fed the nation. During World World II, vegetable production actually went up while the farms were under control of women.
But there’s nothing out there that says, “Look what women did!” Even in modern-day history…it was the women who led that way [in times of crisis]. And then, here we are. We’re two years into a new farm crisis. And I see women coming together again to take over in times of crisis.
What do you think it is about times of crisis that cause women to take action?
It’s all about community for women. I keep coming back to that. I have a girlfriend who says, “We village up.” I feel that women village up and get it done, and they don’t necessarily need the credit, but they deserve the credit.
Looking forward, I see this farm crisis right now, and I see that women farmers across the country are running for office in numbers we’ve never seen before, at all levels of state government and even for congressional seats. We need women on county commissions. We need women on state boards. We need women on every level. Imagine what our government would look like if we had women agronomists—women who grow food—in those seats. What would our policies look like?
Tell us a little about Women’s Work.
The documentary tagline is “the untold story of America’s female farmers.” For so long, farming has been considered men’s work when it is also women’s work. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek to [call the film] Women’s Work, because that’s supposed to be a negative thing. I’d like to go back and look at all of those different times in history when women took over in times of crisis, when women pushed agriculture forward, technologically, community-wise, and haven’t been recognized for that.
I’m asking lots of people to nominate their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and great-aunts…those people who I don’t know about, because they don’t occupy history. It’s really a crowd-sourced film, and grassroots supported.
The Indiegogo campaign [for the documentary] launches on International Women’s Day. Our hashtag is #thisiswomenswork and we’re asking women to post pictures of themselves farming using the hashtag.
Thank you, Audra!
Keep up with her work and photography by following @rootedinthevalley. And look for the Women’s Work Indiegogo campaign, launching March 8!