Racism and Reparations: the Politics of the Claims Resolution Act of 2010

Let’s start by stating the obvious: progress has been made. After 11 years of political wrangling and relegation to political limbo, the House finally passed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which funds the $1.15 billion settlement reached between the USDA and African American farmers in 1999. The Act also separately funds a $3.4 billion settlement reached between the Department of the Interior and American Indian farmers over mismanagement of royalties from leases of tribal lands. The other good news: President Obama has expressed a willingness to work to resolve similar claims brought forward by women and Hispanic farmers.

Yet, despite the progress, there’s a lot to gripe about. I could gripe about the fact that this bill took 11 years to pass–11 years during which many of the claimants “died at the plow, waiting for justice.” I could gripe about whether the $50,000 allotted each of the potential 72,000 African American claimants is really enough to compensate for the loss of a livelihood, of a connection to the soil, for the loss of food self-sufficiency and independence, for an overall institutionalized system of discrimination. I could gripe that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack thinks his department can “move beyond this sad chapter in history” when efforts are not really being made to investigate the individuals and circumstances responsible for the abuses of power in the first place.

But you can gripe about that on your own time, in the comfort of your own home. I’m going to gripe about the ridiculous opposition to the bill that came from a cohort of senators lead by Rep. Steve King (R-IA)–a cohort that includes such dependable opposition as Michele Bachmann (R-MN). Here’s their argument, in a nutshell, and in Rep. King’s own words:

“We’ve got to stand up at some point and say, we are not going to pay slavery reparations in the United States Congress. That war’s been fought. That was over a century ago. That debt was paid for in blood and it was paid for in the blood of a lot of Yankees, especially, and there’s no reparations for the blood that paid for the sin of slavery. No one’s filing that claim.”

Journalistic sensitivities and pretenses of objectivity aside, I just have to ask–what on earth is he talking about? Here’s a video of King arguing with John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association:

I’m still not so clear why Rep. King is so sure that this bill is about slavery, not present injustices, but the best I can I figure is this: He’s sat on the judiciary committee, and he’s sat through slavery reparations hearings in the past. I assume when you’re Steve King, that’s all it takes. Evidence that doesn’t matter to Rep. King include the following facts established by the Congressional Research Service, the facts that won black farmers the settlement in the first place:

• In 1920, black farmers in the United States owned 15.6 million acres of land; by 1999 that number had fallen to 2 million, and the number is still dropping by 1,000 acres per day.

• In 1910 there were 926,000 African Americans involved in farming; at the end of the century, just 18,000 remain, and studies report they are going under at five to six times the rate of white farmers.

• In recent farm subsidy payments, just 18 percent of black farmers received government payments in 2002 compared with 34 percent of white farmers.

• The average payment for black farmers was $3,460 versus $9,300 for whites. Overall, although 5 percent of the nation’s farmers are minorities, they get just 1 percent of federal commodity payments.

Other facts that don’t matter to Rep. King: that payments are being made out to African American farmers who farmed or attempted to farm between 1983 and 1997, not those who tried to farm in 1865, or even in 1965. As I said, I’m just not seeing the link to reparations or to slavery.

There’s another other thing Rep. King’s sure about: that the vast majority of claims (75%, to be exact) being made by African American farmers, are being made by (and this is Anderson Cooper paraphrasing) “Johnnies who were born on a farm, but went off to the city, became a drug addict, and now want the $50,000 that comes from the USDA under this claim.” Blatantly racist overtones aside, the fact is that both the USDA and the FBI dispute King’s statistics. In fact, of the 15,000 cases it has investigated so far, the FBI found 3 to be fraudulent. That’s 0.02% of all claims so far. The source of King’s information? One district director sent out to administer the first round of payments under the claim.

So here’s the message I get from Rep. King: If you’re black, and if you’re uppity, it’s because you’re still hankering for slavery reparations. In his world, there are no modern crimes against African Americans. Forget the institutionalized system of overt and subvert racism that still plagues the country–for King, none of that matters. Every crime ever committed against an African American or against the African American community has already been compensated–compensated with a check cut in 1865, a check King believes was signed in Yankee blood.

So it’s not really the African American community stuck in the past, it’s Rep. King. That’s a big ol’ piece of 200-year-old irony right there.


Thanks to Abel Ramos for pointing me to this story.


Minority Politics at the Dane County Farmer’s Market

The following is a story I wrote for a Journalism course. Although it concerns minorities and a farmers market, it is not about minority farmers. Rather, it is about the political activists for non-mainstream causes at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.

When I first decided on a topic for this story, I thought it would a humorous, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of some of the more “radical” political activists at the market–the creationists, the 9/11 truth-seekers. The interview process, however, turned out to be deeply humbling, not because my subjects managed to convert me to their cause, but because of their sheer determination and drive. Moreover, I was stunned at how internally coherent their beliefs were, how rational they were in their own way.

So if you will pardon the only-tangential-connection-to-agriculture, here is their story:

The New Crusaders

Larry does not believe in evolution. For that, he has been called a moron, despicable, even a child abuser. And yet, early every Saturday morning, Larry grabs his set of Styrofoam message boards, and heads to the Dane County Farmer’s Market to educate people about what he knows to be the truth. He will not tell me his last name because he has been lambasted too many times for his opinions. There is even a blog devoted to ridiculing him.

His boards are covered in a hodgepodge of colorful pictures: in one, a knight spears a Tyrannosaurus Rex as the caption explains that “man killed off most dinosaurs” for meat, heroism and medicinal purposes. Another shows depictions of teeth-baring dragons on ancient, stone temple walls.

Larry is not recruiting for the local Dungeons & Dragons society. He is a creationist trying to prove that God made the earth, and it is much younger than we have been lead to believe. In Larry’s world, men, dinosaurs and dragons once co-existed, and the extinction of the latter two species is explained by human action, not evolutionary-selection.

This Saturday, Larry stands on the south-west corner of downtown Madison’s capital square, tucked in between Lou Stolzenberg—a retired physical therapist who suspects that top leaders in the Bush administration were, at minimum, complicit in the events of 9/11—and a group of elderly women in broad-brimmed hats festooned with buttons advocating sundry left-wing causes, clustered around a single music stand, crooning about the dangers of an overly-corporatized America.

The Dane County farmer’s market—in addition to fruit vendors and honey sellers—attracts a fascinating (and some might say peculiar) array of political activists, particularly crusaders for non-mainstream causes. Larry’s stance on creationism stands out in liberal Madison, and Lou’s views on 9/11 are too radical, even for this notably left-leaning city.

Yet, despite their opposing political views, Larry and Lou’s struggles and experiences in minority politics are surprisingly similar. They were both called to the cause unexpectedly, encountering evidence that contradicted their most fundamental assumptions. It is the memory of this struggle against themselves that keeps them going, that marks them as apostles of their own truths.

History of Activism

The farmer’s market is an ideal spot for activists like Larry to preach their message. As the largest of its kind in the country, the market attracts over 20,000 customers every Saturday, thus serving as an ideal soapbox for civic activism.

In fact, the Capitol steps (where the farmer’s market is located) are no stranger to political activism. In 1992, Emmanuel L. Branch, a chicken farmer known locally as “the egg man,” used his visibility at the farmer’s market to launch an (ultimately failed) Presidential bid. A decade later, civil liberties groups staged a protest at the market that shut down the capital and had every police officer in the city pulling 12-hour shifts. In the last 30 years, the market has hosted a plethora of protests, from pro-marijuana to anti-trade, to pro-gay rights demonstrations.

Hosted right at the doors of state power, therefore, the market’s location is a poignant reminder that agriculture and politics are inseparable in Wisconsin. In fact, given the importance of the agricultural sector to Wisconsin’s economy ($20 billion in income and 420,000 jobs), this union of food and politics seems inevitable.

Lessons in minority politics

In the wake of 9/11, Lou was just like every other American—shocked, upset, and certain that Islamic terrorists were behind the tragedy. She heard the whispers of conspiracy theorists, saw fingers pointed at higher echelons of the Bush administration, but had no reason to pay them any heed.

Then a peace group gave her DVD pointing to inconsistencies in the story being told.

Despite her initial skepticism, she started a long research process, studying all facets of the issue, combing articles by scholars, architects, military personnel and religious leaders. The more she studied the issue, the more fathomable the unfathomable became. She learned, for example, that a number of leading architects argued that even the amount of energy produced by the planes would not be enough to so completely and quickly bring down the buildings. She learned that military pilots, scientists, even officials within the Pentagon were cynical about the official 9/11 story.

For Lou, ideas that had earlier seemed far-fetched suddenly seemed more reasonable, and the previously reasonable took on the stench of a media cover-up.

“The mainstream media has not dealt with this story responsibly,” she insists. “They either ignore you or they ridicule anyone who has questions. They don’t tell you that the people asking the questions are scientists and professionals. They just allude to the fact that those asking the questions are unpatriotic. Are military pilots unpatriotic? Probably not. Are professors of science with 30, 40 years experience, published in mainstream scientific publications incompetent? Probably not!”

Larry’s story is surprisingly similar. By his own account, he was an evolutionist for 29 years, mocking creationist theory. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, he grew up around mainstream science publications and weekly subscriptions to National Geographic.

And then his sister bought home a new boyfriend—an articulate young electric design engineer, who just happened to be a creationist.

“I would attack him [with questions] every day,” Larry remembers. “If he was at the house, I would just throw some evolutionary question at him. He would always find answers. And then I ran out of questions…I realized I couldn’t keep defending my position.”

As Lou and Larry see it, they did not choose the truth—it chose them. Given the facts they accept, their views are perfectly rational, even scientific. They were never handed their opinions or brainwashed into blindly accepting mainstream beliefs. Instead, they have struggled against their own worldviews, pushing back against, even aggressively denying the inevitable.

It is the memory of this struggle against themselves that keeps them coming back, early every Saturday morning with their signs and informational pamphlets; that thickens their hide when they’re called stupid, “kooks,” or brainwashers; that commands them to engage respectfully with disrespectful strangers.

So at noon every Saturday, when Lou painstakingly packs away her leaflets and folds up her banners, when Larry systematically disassembles his Styrofoam message boards, as they head home to live their regular lives, they do so with confidence and comfort. Confidence that they will be back, and comfort that despite the ridicule, they spent one more morning guiding lost minds. They evangelize because they have to, to save others the trauma of having to find truth the hard way.

The Bigger Picture: A more comprehensive view of Latino food services workers

Every week my boyfriend (my blog’s most ardent fan, of course) reads my posts, and every week he has the same comment:

“Your blog is about food, not just agriculture,” he says. “There’s more to the food system than just agricultural production. You have to think about processing, distribution, preparation, marketing, and that’s not even considering financing and economics, or the cultural relationship people have with their food.”

Given that he’s doing a PhD in Agronomy and has a Master’s degree in Agroecology, I’m inclined to take his opinion seriously. So this week, in honor of my most important critic, this post examines Latino workers in the food services industries more broadly.

I argued, at the beginning of this series, that Latino workers form the core of the US agricultural production backbone, that they almost literally are the ones who put food on our tables. Today I also consider their contribution to the manufacturing, washing, cleaning, presentation, serving and transportation of that food.

When I worked in food services (I worked in a college dining hall), nearly all my co-workers were Latino. They were there for a plethora of reasons: some, because it was a steady job with benefits, others, because they wanted to ensure their children could get a free college education (one of the perks of the job). Some worked there temporarily while they sought more lucrative employment. Still others did it as a second job, combining the evening shift in the dining hall with a day shift elsewhere. Regardless of their motivation, my colleagues churned out masses of food for starving students seeking sustenance for impending all-nighters, refilled the trays as quickly as they emptied, collected and cleaned carelessly scattered dishes, and then prepped for hours so that they could repeat the process again the next day.

But despite the important role they played in nurturing the future great minds of America, they were largely invisible, tucked away behind the counter, inside the kitchen, behind a small window in the dishroom.

So here are some statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to shake off some of that invisibility, to put a face to the anonymity that comes with food production. Latino or Hispanic workers make up:

* 20% of all workers engaged in crop production

*29% of all workers engaged in animal production

*29% of all workers engaged in food production

*27% of all workers engaged in producing sugar or confectionery products

*28% of all workers engaged in fruit and vegetable preservation

*40% of all workers engaged in animal slaughtering and processing

*28% of all workers in retail bakeries

*33% of all workers in non-retail bakeries

*20% of all workers in the seafood production industries

*22% of all workers in restaurants and food services

***As a baseline measure, the US Census Bureau estimates that about 16% of the current US population is of Hispanic/Latino origin. So the statistics above all represent fields where Latino workers are overrepresented as compared to their representation in the general population.

Latino Farm Workers: An Interview with Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons, director of "America's Dairyland"

If you missed last week’s post on Latino farm workers in Wisconsin, make sure you get a chance to watch Kevin Gibbons’ funny but thought-provoking video. His own synopsis of the film:

“How white is our milk? How American is our cheese in fact, who actually makes it? More and more of Wisconsin’s farmer Johns are working with farmer Juans. Come on a tour of “America’s Dairyland” and meet today’s milk producers and cheese packers the new faces of dairy production. Sí, the Wisconsin countryside is changing.”

There’s also a six-minute version of the same film that takes a slightly more serious tone as Kevin conducts a more in-depth interview with Fermín–a farm worker who left his wife and three kids behind in Mexico so that he could give them a better life.

I had the chance to chat with Kevin last weekend about the film, the lives of Latino workers in Wisconsin, his future film-making endeavors, and the prospect of doing a multi-platform dissertation. The following is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

How did you come up with the idea for the film?

KG: We were interested in environmental justice topics, and we met with a bunch of local Madison organizations–community organizations that talked about issues related to environment and environmental justice. I spoke Spanish and one the guys from Centro Hispano, Mario, came and presented and he had two interesting quotes that struck me. One, he said that “everything you touch, we touch first,” which I found to be a very powerful quote because it’s true. You know, the bedsheets at the hotels, oranges, apples, tomatoes, all the food we eat, the floors that are cleaned all over campus—everything. So if you have this very tactile image of interacting with a population of people in our nation that just goes unseen—to me that was very powerful.

The second quote was when we asked him, if we could do something with our films, what would it be, what could it accomplish for you, and he said he wished that every Wisconsinite could see the hand of Wisconsin populated with a bunch of brown faces, of all the Latinos around the state, doing the labor, seeing that they’re part of the economy, they’re part of our society. And that was very powerful to me too. I wanted to try to pull those things to light with a silly, short film. I’d never made a film before. I was just learning to do the process. Those are the things that inspired it and got the ball rolling.

Tell me a little bit about the process by which the film was made.

KG: So it started as me wanting to do a commodity chain study. I wanted to follow from teat to tooth—to follow milk from the cow into transport across the state, into a cheese factory, from the cheese factory, then ending up onto a table. That idea was bounced back and forth, but it’s a bit harder to do, you know, because of distribution—the guys who are buying cheese in Madison are buying them from Chicago and other distributors.

But I did want to tell the story of cheese. So I ended up focusing on the commodity itself, focusing on the milk, and then tried to put all the hands around it to make it more than just this thing, this little block of cheese. It’s more than that. It’s also all the work that goes into it. So by then I just had it in my mind—let’s do it all in Spanish! I think you can tell the entire story of cheese, of making cheese, or drawing out milk—you can tell all that in Spanish in Wisconsin. And it was not difficult to do at all, to find spaces in Wisconsin where there’s only Spanish spoken.

How did you go about getting in touch with the subjects in your video?

KG: So I contacted different people who had been activists and found a farmer, John Rosenow, whose dairy farm I’m at, who had advocated for Latino worker rights. I think he had gone on a trip taking local farmers to Mexico to see the culture and experience things more. And I think he’d been inspired by that and had a better understanding of the culture and a better understanding of the people who were working on his farm. And so that was I got in touch with the dairy farm. And then the cheese factory—I think I contacted some Wisconsin cheese producers and they directed to the guy who runs, I think it’s Hansen cheese—his name is Bill Hansen, and he was interested in having me come out, he gave me some time.

So from your research, what did you find are some of the challenges that Latino workers in Wisconsin face?

KG: One, they can’t have their families here. It’s mostly men who are working here. They work long hours, but those are the hours you work on a farm—I’m not sure I would call it exploitative—it’s just more than we expect in Madison. They send money to their families because their families can’t come up here. So they live for years without seeing their children. They live without spending time with their wives. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself. It tears my heart out thinking about all these guys producing all of our food, who have very limited social lives. They have the other guys on the farm around them—they play soccer and they hang out and do things, but it did seem exploitative because they can’t have full, productive lives.

They’re also in constant fear of immigration. It’s not they’re waiting for them to pound on the door at all times, but every now and then, ICE will do a raid, and that scares people. People know other people that have gone home, and I think some farmers do what they can to protect them, but it’s difficult.

And another thing—they can’t get driver’s licenses! They’re a bunch of guys who live in rural Wisconsin where you can’t take the bus to work everyday. To go to work everyday, these guys need to have cars, but they can’t get driver’s licenses. Our state is less safe, our country is less safe because people who need to drive cannot.

So they want licenses—when I asked people—they said they just want a license, they just want permission to work. They’re not clamoring for citizenship. They want to be here a short time, make some money, and then go back home and live in Mexico. They don’t like living here. I wouldn’t like living here if I had to live like they have to, which is working all the time, being directly dependent on the boss, not a having really high quality of life because they don’t have their family there. It’s tough!

Did your subjects tell you much about the state of labor-management relations?

KG: In general, in the places I was at, they had a good relationship with their boss. I really just visited a farm and a cheese factory and, you know, they had respect for their bosses. I didn’t want to ask sensitive questions, so I don’t know if anyone in the film is undocumented. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t ask them questions like: “do you hate your boss?”  I wanted to make a story about Latinos, about farm workers, without making it a story about victims, which is what you get a lot of times. These are great guys. Though I’ve painted their lives poorly, they have fun, they’re really easy to talk to. So the task is to make interesting work, entertaining work, funny, ironic work, without always doing a victimization story. I’m interested in Africa, and it’s the same kind of thing—a lot of documentaries come out that paint these people without agency, without any power at all, and oftentimes lacking personality. So, in some ways, what I was trying to do was make people think while maybe laughing at the whole thing too.

What’s kind of a reception have you had to this film?

KG: It’s been good! I’ve submitted to a few film festivals and got into a couple. As far as what I want, it’s a bit hard to tell, because it’s social media, so you throw it out there. I think now the longer version has about a bit over a hundred views. I’ve sent out DVDs to organizations like Voces de La Frontera and Centro Hispano. Aside from that, people who see it say “oh this is great!” and really like it. People have suggested maybe I try and submit it to PBS or something. I need to figure out how one goes about that. I was accepted into an environmental film festival in DC too. But it’s just a little student short, and my thought after I was finished it was that I’d love to show it around the Midwest in different places, but as it stands now, it’s hard to know what to do with it—it’s sort of out there, and how to advertise it—I’m not sure.

Are you working on anything else right now?

KG: I’m a PhD student in Geography, and I’d like to submit a mixed media dissertation. I think documentary film is powerful and that academics, researchers, people who care should be able to use it better. I don’t ever see myself becoming a big director or a film maker by any means, but to be a researcher and an academic who uses film rather than the other way around. So I’d like to use it in Uganda. I work around Lake Victoria in Uganda with fishing communities there, so I’d like to use it as a research tool to find out more about community issues related to fish and fisheries governance, and then also use it to have a more interactive process with people there so that I can bat ideas back and forth. Together, hopefully we can create something they’re proud of, that represents their viewpoint well and gives them a way to interact with each other.


Kevin Gibbons can be contacted at kmgibbons(at)wisc.edu.

Food and Immigration: An Unsavory Debate

Here are a couple of facts to ponder, some food for thought, as it were:

1. About 70% of all crop workers  in the United States were born outside the country.

2. Of these foreign-born workers, 94% are Mexican.

3. At least 50% of farm workers have not been authorized to work in the US.

4. Over 50% of all farmworkers and farmworker families have incomes levels below the US poverty line.

5. 85% (by volume) of US-consumed food is grown domestically.

So here’s what that means, America: although the vast majority of the food you eat is grown at home, most of the hard work that goes into food production is done by unauthorized Mexicans, most of whom are not even compensated at minimum wage for their back-breaking labor. Unauthorized means they have little or no access to social safety nets, little or no recourse to law-enforcement and judicial systems, and most importantly, that they live most of their life in fear. Fear of police raids, over-vigilant citizens, even their own employers, against whom they have little legal recourse.

And we’re not just talking about the working in the blistering sun-, bending over for 14 hours at a time-kind of back-breaking labor. We’re talking about the 5th most dangerous job in the country. Besides the physical trauma of farm work, workers are also exposed to slew of toxic pesticides and some of the most dangerous occupational machinery out there. All that so that the average American can enjoy a salad with their cheeseburger.

So I have two questions: (1) Why are Latino farm workers not hailed as American heroes? (2) Why don’t good home-bred Americans want to be America’s  food production heroes?

From a political standpoint, the answer to the first question is rather obvious. Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue for political candidates to tack on to and get the blood of every red-blooded “American” seething. To help his chances in Arizona’s senatorial race, for example, John McCain, who once campaigned for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, is now champion for his state’s abominable immigration law. Screw over a couple thousand Mexicans, earn a few points at the polls. So it goes.

From a Sociological point of view, there’s a more interesting story to be told. According to Jill Harrison, Professor of Community & Environment Sociology at UW-Madison:

“In general, hired workers on farms are pretty invisible. The public doesn’t think about it, the public doesn’t look at it, the public feels uncomfortable with the idea. There’s a real strong agrarian idealism in [Wisconsin] and elsewhere, where Americans like this idea of the family farmer, and it seems to represent the pinnacle of democracy in America.”

So we don’t want to think about our food being grown by foreigners. We certainly don’t want to acknowledge the indispensable role they play as the backbone of the food-production economy. And we’ll defend our ignorance all the way to the polls, if necessary. There’s no American Dream for the workers who literally put the food on our tables. We’d rather round them up and send them home.

So if we don’t want them to do it, why don’t we do it ourselves?

If you ask the United Farm Workers, they will tell you it’s because Americans would rather be unemployed than work under the conditions (and for the wages) that farm workers are willing to accept. Their new “Take Our Jobs” campaign is aimed at proving just that. Calling the US “a nation in denial about our food supply,” the UFW is “ready to welcome citizens and legal residents who wish to replace them in the field.” Only a few dozen people have taken them up on the offer so far.

Ask funnyman Stephen Colbert (as Congress just did), and he’ll tell you that farm work is just “really, really hard,” definitively proving that having your own show on network television is preferable to farm work.

But the story has to be more complex than that. As Harrison reminds me, “there are plenty of arduous, low-paying jobs that Americans want to do.” In Harrison’s own research  with Wisconsin dairy farmers, she finds that farmers generally consider American workers ‘unreliable,’ and actively prefer to hire Latino farm workers. So it’s not just that the average American worker doesn’t want to do hard labor–the average American farmer doesn’t want them to either. So there’s a much more complex sociological process going on here, one that cannot just be understood as “send ’em home, we’ll do the work ourselves!” There are established social and structural (not cultural, Harrison reminds me) systems at work here that shape how our food is produced and who produces it.

So the next time you’re passing by one of those cheese stands in the farmer’s market that proudly announces that it’s selling “100% Wisconsin cheese,” grab a chunk of that 100% Latino-produced goodness and thank the guys in this video for the incredible (in the true meaning of the word) job they do:

This video was made by UW-Madison grad student Kevin Gibbons, who, more than Stephen Colbert, serves as the inspiration for this post.

Women in Agriculture: A follow-up

My last post argued that women farmers face a crisis of legitimacy in their profession, and so tend to engage in sustainable as opposed to traditional agriculture.

Patrick had a really interesting comment:

“This is actually really interesting in that…not that long ago farming in the U.S was very much a family dominated business. Whole families did work in the field, worked with animals, tended gardens and helped bring in the crops at harvest. This to me would show very clearly just how important and knowledgeable each member of the family would be, especially the women of the household who also probably had to do a lot of the work in the house without the help of all members of the family.”

So what changed? What changes lead to the strict, gendered division of labor on farms rendering men the ‘farmers,’ and women the ‘farmwives’?

Before I venture a guess at the answer, a couple of caveats are in order. Firstly, although the best way to answer the question would be through a systematic analysis of census (or similarly large-scale) data, I am not aware of such a data source. The US Census of Agriculture did not start collecting data on women farm operators until 1978, by which time gendered spaces on farms had already been established. Secondly, the data that does exist excludes a large proportion of women, as the aforementioned census does not collect data on ‘part-time’ farmers (i.e.: those who do not consider farming their primary occupation). In the mid-80s, 48.7% of women living on farms were employed off the farm. By 2007, the number was closer to 65%. Since it excludes part-time farmers (often women farmers), the data that do exist are not perfectly reliable.

But caveats aside, the general consensus seems to be that the mechanization of agriculture created separate spaces for men and women on the farm, leaving the men to do the farmer’s work, and women to do the farmwives’ work. Although mechanization started after WWII, Nixon-era policies lead to a mad rush to “Get Big Or Get Out,” forcing farms to increase production in order to stay solvent. This boost in mechanization put paid to women in agriculture.

Mechanization removed women from agricultural public spaces in three important ways. Firstly, it minimized their direct involvement in the “business of farming” (i.e.: the economic production aspect of farming). Large agricultural machinery (tractors, for example), required minimal labor to operate, eliminating the need for women’s labor on the farm. Mechanization thus contributed to the creation a “male arena,” where technology became inextricably linked to masculine identity.

Secondly, by linking agricultural production and masculinity, mechanization cut women off from spaces where agricultural knowledge is disseminated and shared. The women in the Trauger study I cited last week, for example, report feeling ostracized at “feed mills, equipment dealerships, hay auctions, sale barns and farm shows.” Women farmers, therefore, are not just cut off from spaces where male farmers conduct business, but also from spaces where agricultural knowledge is shared.

Finally, as mechanization reduced the labor intensity of agriculture, young girls were also shut out from farming knowledge and experience. Not only is farming gendered, therefore, but learning about farming is also gendered. Gendered spaces are reinforced over generations as farm boys learn the occupation from their fathers, and farm girls learn to perform more feminine farm-support tasks like record-keeping and errand running. So, from an early age, women are denied the farming expertise necessary to play the role of ‘farmers.’

The mechanization of  agriculture, therefore, revolutionized the social structure of farming. Gender roles are continuous formed and reinforced at the both the familial and societal level, clearly demarcating separate spaces for women and men. Given the lack of space for women in traditional agriculture, it is hardly surprising that they seek the refuge of alternative, small-scale, sustainable agriculture, free from old boys networks and gendered expectations.

A Feminist Dilemma: Women in Agriculture

Clare grows her own blueberries. Then she picks them, washes them, sorts them, and takes them to town to sell at the local farmer’s market. If she has any left, she sells them on the side of the road, out of the back of her truck. At home she also manages the livestock: lambs, horses, rabbits and dogs.

Clare identifies herself as a farmer, but is pretty sure that if she engaged in a more traditional, productivist form of agriculture, she would be hard-pressed to find anyone else who would identify her as such.

According to a study (from where I have lifted Clare’s story) by Amy Trauger, Professor of Geography at UGA , Clare is a minority in multiple dimensions. Firstly, as a woman principal farm operator, she joins a cohort of only 306,000 others, a mere fraction of the overall farming community. But even within that community, Clare is a minority. Most women in agriculture, even if they perform the same duties as their male counterparts, refuse to self-identify as farmers. The vision of the farmer as a big, strong and tough male is so strongly imbued in collective consciousness that most women farmers are not willing to transgress gender lines, regardless of the duties they perform. In fact, the US Census of Agriculture did not even include gender as an operator characteristic until 1978!

As a minority sub-population in agriculture, there are statistically significant differences in the sorts of farming women engage in. Another one of Trauger’s studies, this time on women farmers in Minnesota, shows that women tend to engage in smaller-scale agriculture (most farms are less than 50 acres), earn less than their male counterparts (<$25,000 annually), grow in locations where the soil is less productive, disproportionately focus on producing fruits, vegetables, trees, nuts, animal products, and engage in more labor-intensive farming. Moreover, women are up to three times more likely to operate farms that run on sustainable agricultural models rather than on productivist agricultural models.

This shift away from what Vandana Shiva calls the “masculinization of agriculture” brings up some important feminist quandaries. First: why do women farmers tend to practice a different, more sustainable form of agriculture? Is it because of institutionalized patriarchal structures that, for example, make it much more difficult for women farmers to access capital and loans than their male counterparts? Is it because, as children growing up, farmgirls are not given the same responsibilities as their male siblings, thus being shut out from essential farming knowledge and experience? Or is there something about the female experience that shapes their relationship with the land in a particular way? Ecofeminists, for example, believe, that women have a special relationship with the earth, having both suffered similar forms of male oppression.

What’s clear is that women suffer a crisis of legitimacy when they enter the farming profession. The bias against them that is institutionalized, and women have had to come up with creative ways around it. Trauger’s subjects, for example, navigate male-dominated social spaces (for example: the feed mills, equipment dealerships, hay auctions, sale barns, farm shows, etc.) by pretending that they’re out on a farm errand for their husbands, or taking a male companion along to do their negotiations for them. Most women in US agriculture today still do not feel comfortable publicly transgressing institutionalized gender lines.

So what’s a feminist to do? On the one hand, I like the fact that women are engaged in sustainable forms of agriculture. I’m not thrilled that it tends to be low-income generating. So here’s the big question: Is small-scale, but sustainable farming women farmers’ niche, or are they forced into it by institutionalized sexism? Is it an equal opportunity haven, or the only alternative women have? This is an empirical question, and one I’d like to see more data on–what do women farmers actually want? Are they satisfied engaging in small-scale agriculture, or do they dream of owning large-scale, industrialized farms?

Regardless of the answer, a couple of things need to happen. Firstly, more agricultural Extension agents need to be women. Research shows that women Extension agents are more likely to be attuned to the specific needs to female farmers, and more likely to prepare education programming specifically for women farmers. Secondly, active efforts to reduce institutionalized barriers against women in agriculture must be made. These include increased access to capital, loans and training for women farmer. Finally, there needs to be greater recognition of the contribution of women to agriculture, not as farmwives who support their husbands, but as primary operators in their own rights.

The number of farms operated by women is growing every year, while the number of farms operated by men is falling, and societal expectations need to catch up with the trends.