Women Who Farm: The Team Shares Their Experiences and Some of the Challenges of Being Women in Agriculture
In much of the world and through much of history, the face of food has been female—this includes farming.
Yet in 2017 (the year of the most recent Census of Agriculture from the USDA), the United States had 1.2 million female farmers, accounting for only 36 percent of the country’s 3.4 million producers. Female farmers are slightly younger on average than their male counterparts and more likely to be a beginning farmer. They are also less likely to report farming as their primary occupation.
Women farmers still tend to be erased from the popular narrative of agriculture in America, despite having always been actively engaged in foodways and farming here. Gender-specific obstacles—such as lack of access to land, financing or inherited wealth, agricultural education and training, and safe, equitable working conditions—have put female farmers at a significant disadvantage.
This is why, when it happened that our 2021 farm team was composed entirely of women, we were thrilled.
We’ve asked the farmers a bit about their journeys in farming and what it’s been like to work in a male-dominated field—and we’re grateful that they took the time to share with us their personal thoughts and experiences.
Please enjoy Part One of this series below. Part Two can be read here.
On the joys of farming
Erin Espinosa, farm education manager
I’ve always loved working with my hands, even as a kid. I was not one to sit and quietly do my homework. My favorite part, though, is the problem-solving and systems-thinking. Engineering efficient systems and processes for everything from seeding to planting to harvest to wash and pack. Systems are ever-changing based on the weather, what crops are coming out of the field, and which farmer is managing. I love the puzzle of each day.
Rae Axner, assistant grower
I’m excited to wake up every morning and be a farmer simply because every day I get to learn more about how to grow food. As climate change advances it is more and more important that people in every community know how to cultivate nutritious food and build the resilience to adapt. I have so much to learn in order to be able to respond flexibly to these immense challenges, and that excites me. I also love waking up knowing that I will be immersed in the elements and using my body all day to accomplish the list of tasks that need to get done.
Anna Kelchlin, farm manager
Farming for me is spiritual. It is a sacred act that connects me to all living beings and reminds me that I am a part of a whole living, breathing, energetic ecosystem. I feel alive when I spend my days outside, under the sun, in the soil, breathing fresh air, smelling fresh tomato seedlings, tasting the first cut of baby kale. When I farm, I feel productive and I sleep deeply at night. I feel vibrant and immersed in something holy. I love the relationship I develop year after year with our natural world, it is ever-changing, and there is always a new wonder to discover. It is dynamic! It is a joy to see the hummingbird moths so intimately pollinating the verbena flowers and I can’t help smiling as the grey tree frog high-jumps across the farm road. These are sights and sounds that I feel so lucky to witness on a daily basis. I am grateful for the intense moments of the soaking rain and of the high noon sun that radiates throughout my body. Over the years, I have come to see nature as my teacher, as almost a spiritual guide and being able to work with her so closely I am able to practice her teachings of surrender and of collaboration. She constantly demonstrates her kindness and generosity through abundance and always makes space for everyone.
I like the people farms attract and I like the collaboration and team-oriented nature of working on a farm. Everyone has a role and everyone has their specialty. I like the diversity of work and I like its intensity. I believe in how local, fresh, nutritious food can regenerate life and connect people together. I like working toward something greater, fostering growth in others that is fulfilling and healthy. I like feeding people and knowing that this is how we connect together. We are interdependent. And of course, I LOVE eating all the food and dreaming up endless possibilities of nourishing, hearty meals.
Kim Schmidt, greenhouse manager
I love being a farmer because I love feeding people. This has always been the case for me. Since I was younger, I was in charge of planning family meals and did a lot of cooking. To translate that into the whole picture and into helping other people feed their families—that’s a really big reason why I love farming and got into farming. The practicality of it. It’s helping other people get fed.
Another reason why I love farming is that I went to school for art—for ceramics—and while I love the art world and there are many practical applications to it, this feels like it combines my love of art, because I’m surrounded by beauty and nature, while also doing something that feels important and feels necessary. Not that art isn’t necessary. But it fills that need of doing something beautiful and practical at the same time.
Avery Indermaur, field crew member
I love getting to feel the soil and the fresh air and the sun all day while I’m working. I love knowing that what I am doing has a direct positive impact on people’s lives and meeting those people, whether it is in volunteer groups or at distributions. Also, as someone who is very concerned with sustainability and environmental issues, I love knowing that what I am doing is contributing as minimally as possibly to the problems I see in the world today (climate change, food insecurity, toxic American work culture, capitalism, consumerism, etc.) and even helps to mitigate many of them.
Chrissie Edgeworth, assistant grower
I’m lucky enough to say that I get to show up to work with a smile on my face because my job absolutely rocks. I get to learn how to interact with the land in a hopefully mutually-beneficial way. I get to see plants grow from seed, to seedling, to a foot tall, to taller than me at times, and be completely awed by their ability to grow and flourish. I get to work alongside an incredible crew and an incredible network of fungi and biodiversity in, below, and above the soil. I get to be a part of a network of people keeping each other fed. I get to learn something new every single day. I get to experience the outdoors in every season and under every forecast. And I get to forge an ever-developing relationship with the land I stand on.
On the road to becoming a farmer
I would not say that my path to becoming a farmer was straightforward and I am still learning to be a farmer. I really just fell into this field and kept with it. I have no academic background in agriculture and I had no idea that one could really make a living doing what I do now. I do find it to be quite difficult in the sense that it is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, especially as I have become a manager in the last five years. As a farmer, you are expected to know about a multitude of plant families, about soil biology and fungi, and how to predict the weather. You are expected to be able to lift heavy, awkward objects repeatedly, be a mechanic, be physically fit and use your body wisely, have organizational skills and be extremely detail-oriented, be social and charismatic for markets and co-workers, and the list goes on.
I have been fortunate and very privileged to have not had a difficult financial path into farming since I am a woman who is white, with inherited wealth and a partner who can support me both emotionally and economically to pursue my values. My family currently fully supports me in my farming career, however, I don’t think it was looked upon as something long-term in the beginning. I have had many people in my life doubt that it is the path for me and I think they wonder why I seek this journey. They ask me, Why do you need to grow food for people? Let other people do that. And I say, We need to eat and who else is going to grow your food?
My path to farming was, weirdly enough, through art. I went to school for ceramics in Chicago. I have felt for a long time that I have always been good with my hands, but ceramics just met me first. If it had been farming that I first encountered, I think I would have fallen in love earlier. I got interested in food-access issues and moved away from Chicago to work for a CSA farm. I always thought I’d go back to art, but farming kind of took me.
I think my family was confused. My grandparents were dairy farmers and my dad grew up helping with the dairy and didn’t enjoy it. So, they were questioning of my decision to farm, but also weren’t discouraging. They didn’t know if I knew where I was going, which I probably didn’t. I didn’t know I was going to make a career out of it when I started—I just fell in love with it.
I do think people expect me to find something else to do—that this isn’t the end-all of my career path, especially since it’s seasonal work. You go home around the holidays and people ask what you’re doing and at that time of year it’s not farming—it’s working some seasonal job. So they see farming as a phase, despite my “phase” lasting 10 or so years now.
The path I took to becoming a farmer was a bit winding. At Syracuse University I studied Human Geographies. My interest was in studying the relationship between humans and the environment and the complex relationship between us and the natural world. I was also fortunate enough to cross paths with folks in various peoples’ movements and environmental justice organizations during my time there that introduced me to the intersectionality of so many social justice movements today.
Post-grad life took me to New Hampshire and Montana as a member of different Conservation Corps trail crews. Those experiences opened my eyes to the world of Wilderness Areas and Public Lands and the effort to conserve wild spaces. Through those experiences I learned how to use my body and tools to carve trails into the earth that would allow people to wander and forge a connection to the natural world. That love for the outdoors led to wanting to share it with the next generation, so I taught field ecology courses in Yellowstone National Park to high school students curious about what science looks like beyond the classroom. Through the experience, we had the opportunity to work alongside a handful of different stakeholders—National Park biologists, the Forest Service, folks from local Native American reservations, ranchers, recreationalists, conservationists, amongst many more. I grew more and more interested in how we can maintain wild spaces while feeding local populations and respecting the ecology and the genius of nature. That led me to learning from and growing food alongside farmers in Guinea, West Africa, to a farm in northern Illinois, and now to Gaining Ground. Short story long, I became a farmer out of a mixture of curiosity, fear, hope, and interdependence.
It’s impossible to think about the environmental movement without thinking about immigration and economic justice. Impossible to think about food systems without thinking about racial justice and access to good healthcare. Impossible to envision a path towards the future without centering the most vulnerable populations. For far too long we’ve been led to believe that our society can compartmentalize, commodify, and exploit the planet and communities around the world to churn a profit for a few—and that’s the vision of “success.” I’d like to believe that we can shift our thinking towards giving relationship, ecology, equity, sustainability, longevity, and community more weight than profit and power.
I don’t have any of the answers, and I spend most of my days with my hands in the soil, but I do believe that there is power in nutrient-dense foods, power in keeping one another fed, power in community, power in the earth, and power in shifting the paradigm little by little. So while some days I’m planting tiny watermelon seeds into trays of soil, some days I’m weeding carrot beds, and some days I’m harvesting tomatoes, all of these bigger questions and relationships are swirling around in my head. Being a farmer gives me the opportunity to pay attention to the land and pay attention to the folks around me and it’s an opportunity to constantly be learning.
(Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay on the serviceberry is my favorite description of the importance of mutual flourishing and filling the bellies of our neighbors.)
Becoming a farmer was pretty straightforward for me. I knew that after college I wanted to do something meaningful and hands-on, so I applied for farming positions and found my way to Gaining Ground! However, I did experience pushback from family and friends about my decision. Coming from a school like Duke, where most people choose higher-paying, corporate jobs, I got a lot of questions like, Why did you go to Duke just to become a farmer? (Sometimes explicitly, sometimes implied.) They didn’t seem to understand how I could possibly have farming as a goal or have much respect for farming as a profession. Eventually, I just had to rely on my confidence that this was the right decision for me and hope that the people I truly care about would understand after they saw how happy I am in this job. Thankfully, my instincts were right and now my family and friends are much more supportive of my choice, especially since Gaining Ground has such a special mission and important place in the community.
My path to farming was very straightforward. I started volunteering at a farm in high school and it was a game-changer. All of sudden the good grades that I was constantly struggling and seemingly failing to get were not as important. It was my first experience of the world of manual labor: That specialized knowledge and skills—rather than advanced placement classes and straight A’s—could be a more suitable future for me. Over time, I shared these thoughts with the farm manager and eventually she became my mentor. Because she was a woman farmer and my first introduction to farming, I didn’t really question the idea of a woman working on a farm. I worked for my mentor for seven farm seasons.
While straightforward, my decision to commit to a career in farming did not come easily. I have always and still do struggle with the financial restrictions of farming. I (and many others) question why I subject myself to a career that is so physically demanding but not financially rewarding. My parents often weighed in on this decision as two people who grew up in poverty and worked their way to the upper middle class. To them, a career in farming meant regression.
My path [to becoming a farmer] isn’t complete! I’ve been working in different parts of the farming and food justice world for several years. It’s always a challenge to know what my role should be, and I don’t think it will ever be static. I have received lots of support in pursuing farming—more and more people know how important small farms are.
I’ve also faced discouragement, some internalized and some external. In our economic system, direct production work such as farming is devalued, and that seeps into how I and those around me view the profession. But it is clear to me that farming is actually some of the most important work in the world, and that the immense knowledge, skill, and drive needed to succeed as a farmer is an incredible challenge to take on.