At first glance, it looks like women in farming are on a triumphant upswing. Over the past three decades, the number of female farm operators has tripled, and women are at the forefront of sustainable new practices. However, being a female farmer is more complicated than it seems. Getting closer to the land is empowering and awesome, but being a woman in a low-paying, rural, white-male-dominated industry is not so much.
I only spent 6 months in the farming world. After quitting my full-time job, I went into farming to find greater freedom and intimacy with the Earth. As a Black woman, my ancestors’ relationship to the land was about violence and servitude. My most immediate predecessors’ focus was to get away from the land and move “up” to more prestigious pursuits. But being divorced from the planet is no way to live.
My goal as a plant worker was to heal my relationship with the Earth; to develop a new and loving connection to the land on my own terms. In many ways, I got exactly what I was looking for: My hands in the soil, the sun on my shoulders, and an ache in my thighs from hours of tending plants. I learned so much, mostly about how much I had yet to learn, and I left the fields each day feeling renewed and centered.
That was the good stuff — the stuff I'd been hoping to find. I wasn't so much prepared for the other stuff: The crushing isolation, the passively racist comments. During my short time in farming, I was in mostly rural environments on organic farms. There were usually a couple older women and zero Black people, so being a young Black woman was alienating. The challenges that I experienced were similar to any solo Black female traveler: I was often on edge, aware of the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere with no way to quickly leave.
I was lucky that I didn’t experience any direct harassment. Then again, I’m a middle-class, educated woman who was volunteering through an organic farming program, and as such, I was at a lower risk. Women of color in low-wage farming jobs are much more vulnerable than I was, and they experience sexual harassment in alarming numbers — not to mention the unfair pay, hazardous working conditions, and worker intimidation.
For all of those reasons, being an employee on a traditional, white-male-owned farm is a risky proposition. Instead, I could have aimed to work my own piece of land and make it as inclusive and feminist and anti-racist as I wanted. Other inspiring Black female farmers, like Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Amber Tamm of Echo Treee, have done just that. But I’ve never been the entrepreneurial type, and even for female farmers who choose to run their own show, the going isn’t easy. One look at the statistics makes that clear.
The wage gap in agriculture is gargantuan — women make an average of $2,560 per year, while men make $42,731. Women have less access to capital and thus are often working with much smaller pieces of land. Few women are supporting themselves solely from agriculture; only 3% of “commercial” farms are female-owned. It’s been this way for a long time. In fact, one reason why the number of female farmers has appeared to rise so dramatically is that small homestead farms weren’t really considered “farms” by the Census in previous years. Now that they are, more women are identified as the skilled farmers that they’ve always been.
One positive side of having a smaller farm? Small-scale farms are inherently more sustainable and more easily compatible with eco-friendly techniques. Indeed, this may be why women tend to be at the vanguard of organic farming, no-till farming, and other sustainable methods. Their contribution to agriculture can’t be overstated. On an individual level, though, is it worth it for such a precarious income?
Every farmer has to answer that question for herself. For some, the benefits outweigh the difficulties, and thank goodness for them. In the end, I decided not to pursue a career in farming. I didn't want to feel isolated every day, and I didn't want to start my own business. Still, I'll never forget the lessons that I learned on those fields. My connection to the land remains an important part of me. It’s a practice that I hope to maintain through my entire life.