Feminism on the Farm

21 Oct, 2012

Women share a rapidly growing part of sustainable agriculture today, yet are seriously lacking in support and representation. An organization called WFAN—Women, Food & Agriculture Network—is directly empowering them to learn, to grow and to connect.

“Women own an increasing amount of the farmland in the US today, but are rarely represented on the boards of policy-making bodies,” Leigh Adcock, executive director of WFAN, told Organic Connections. “They are often geographically, as well as culturally, isolated because they’re living in rural America and are engaged in a field that’s still dominated by men. Additionally, women in sustainable agriculture are socially isolated because they’re doing a type of agriculture that’s not mainstream.”

And so it is that WFAN is working to empower this crucial minority. WFAN exists with a mission “to link and empower women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, sustainable, and that promote environmental integrity.” As testament to its need, Adcock has seen membership and budget in the organization double every year for the last three years.

In addition to assistance, women farmers seem to have a particular need for connection. “I believe there’s a great need for women to network with each other, to support each other both emotionally and with information,” Adcock said. “We tend to form a community as a gender, whereas perhaps it could be said that men don’t have so much need for this. So although there are many men who are certainly engaged in wonderful sustainable agriculture all around the country—and supporting the women who are doing that kind of agriculture—we still hear from women every year who say they need a safe space of their own, for women only, to talk about the issues that matter to them.”

A Personal Connection

Having spent much of her life in agriculture, with the last ten of those years in sustainable agriculture, Adcock is well aware of the many crucial issues involved in doing this kind of work. “I am a farmer’s daughter; I grew up in northwest Iowa on a conventional corn and soybean farm with a few beef cattle,” Adcock related. “I went to school for communications but always have had some connection with environmental issues. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with various environmental groups all my life. I’ve been the executive director of Women, Food & Agriculture Network since 2008, and before that worked for five years for the Iowa Farmers Union. So I’ve been working in sustainable ag for close to ten years now.

“I’m a feminist and I’m interested in healthy food and farming, so it’s a perfect combination for me. This is unabashedly a feminist organization. We’re all about empowering women to take leadership positions in their communities, to the extent that they’re interested in reaching the goals that they have. In our case, those goals include healthy food and farming. I have a deep love for the environment, for healthy food and farming, and for empowering women in all aspects of their lives.”

Concern for Food

Adcock has found that women, because of their unique cares and concerns, are especially drawn to nonchemical agriculture. “The thing that seems to bring most women into this movement, though, is a concern for food,” Adcock continued. “We see childhood diseases skyrocketing, and almost all of them are diet related. We see diseases skyrocketing among adults as well. Women just happen to be the ones concerned with feeding their families, and they also are concerned about feeding their communities. The more they get interested in healthy food, the more they want to provide healthy food to everyone. Another issue for a lot of our members is access—to ensure that everyone, no matter what their income level or where they happen to live, has access to healthy food.”

Outreach and Assistance

As part of its work, WFAN reaches out to beginning women farmers through a program called Harvesting Our Potential. “We get a lot of calls from young women in particular—but sometimes from middle-aged women looking at a career change—who are really interested in raising and selling food and would like to get training and access to land. We’re working to develop them. We want them to create community as a practice with one another—talk to each other and support each other. So the linchpin of that program is connecting these young or beginning women farmers with existing women farmers who are willing to mentor them.

“We’ve just actually received a $400,000 beginning farmer and rancher development grant for this program. The exciting thing about it is that it’s not only going to allow us to consistently build these cohorts of young women and mentors throughout the next three years, but we’re also planning to offer training to the mentors, which is something that has been lacking. We’re going to bring the women farmers who are hosting the aspiring and beginning farmers in for classes every winter and teach them how to be better mentors.”

Another example of WFAN’s work is a program called Caring for the Land, which addresses particularly vital issues directly with women who own farmland but don’t know how to have it worked sustainably. “Probably the most groundbreaking thing we’re doing right now is working with women who are landowners in the Midwest, who in turn are working with tenant farmers. A lot of them inherited farmland, for example. They have very strong conservation goals, but not having managed land before, they have no idea how to translate those goals into action. They don’t know what the programs are, where the money comes from, and probably most importantly, they’re not sure how to talk to the tenant farmers about these issues. They don’t feel like they have the language or the knowledge. So we’ve been bringing them together for the last four years, having them talk about their challenges and goals for their farmland, and then providing them with resources on how to reach those goals.”

Riding the Wave

Given WFAN’s unprecedented growth, Adcock is working hard to keep the organization on course to do the greatest possible good. “We’re sort of riding this wave right now,” Adcock concluded. “We’ve grown exponentially and are basically trying to manage our growth in a smart way. We want to continue to stick to our mission and make sure we don’t expand so quickly that we can’t be effective. But we’re getting a lot of attention from agencies, from the USDA, and from nonprofit foundations. Overall, it’s a really great time to be working with women in agriculture of any kind, but in particular sustainable agriculture.”

For more information, please visit www.wfan.org.

About the author