As a female who has been involved in agriculture for going on 14 years now, I have reached the point in my life (and my career) that I don’t notice so much my gender as I move through the world of farms, farmers, and farming. There was a day that I felt I had to prove my ‘toughness’ and never accepted an offer of a male counterpart to carry something, open something, or make my life easier. This often included my husband when we owned and operated our own farm in Washington State (but don’t tell him that I admitted that out loud). As one farmer said to me once as I unloaded my one millionth fifty-pound bag of winter rye seed off his trailer, “You always have to be the toughest _____ on the block, don’t you?!”
I have always worked primarily with a demographic of farmer who fits right in with the USDA Ag Census as the ‘average farmer.’ That is to say, a white male with an average age of 57 years old. I have always been treated with respect and never felt like being a ‘female’ was an issue. I have been called ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’, but at this point in my life I take that as a compliment. There is, however, another (younger and more feminine) side to the hard work of farming.
My husband, Paul Feenan, runs the Food & Farm Program for Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in Richmond, VT. Besides being a food security initiative to grow fresh vegetables, eggs and pastured chickens for food insecure Vermonters, they also hope to train, inspire and develop highly motivated leaders in the food system arena through their Agriculture Leadership Apprentice program. Paul, my two young children and I live there at The Farm at VYCC, so I get daily interaction with the farm and the farm Apprentices. Since the program has started, by far the most interest Paul has received from young people interested in the apprenticeship and simply working on the farm has been from women. In the last 18 months, he has hired several of them and I have observed the interaction of a group of young women, often just graduated from college and exploring their career options as they encounter the reality of farming. They are mostly getting their first taste of truly hard work, and for some of them their first opportunity to do things never taught to them…swing a hammer, drive a tractor, butcher an animal, fix a tiller, make a plant grow, and be asked to ‘figure it out’ on their own.
One young woman, a high school student working on the farm for a week with her classmates as their Senior service project, confided in my husband while she had a power drill in her hand that no man had ever trusted her with a tool like that before. As Paul recanted this story to me over dinner that night, I came to a realization that through no intention of his own, he is providing young women (and men) with opportunities and experiences they may never have had the chance to experience otherwise. I have watched him teach young women to drive a tractor and cultivate a field, use a very sharp knife to humanely slaughter a chicken she raised up from a baby chick, move a herd of cows to the next green pasture, grow a bumper crop of tomatoes from a seed to a seedling to a ripe tomato and then can them to keep all winter, and even how to artfully arrange a flower bouquet. I can’t help but imagine what these experiences will bring to these young women’s future career paths and lives in general. Whether they decide to be a farmer, an extension agent, an advocate, a nutritionist, or even a banker…they will all have a context of leadership and hard-work that will prove its value to them time and time again. I too was blessed with a boss early in my career who dropped me off with a fencing crew my first week of work to ‘help’ build fence for a farm. Much to the crew’s chagrin, they eventually let me get my hands and my boots dirty…and I’ve been better for it ever since. I look forward to seeing the leaders that emerge from this program, and am happy to see them changing the face of agriculture each in their own way.
Let me not forget to mention the really great men who have worked on the farm (a shout out to Will, Matt, Jeremy, Tucker, and their fearless leader Paul).
But here’s to the female farming force at The Farm at VYCC:
Here’s a link to a great video that Ag Leadership Apprentice, Megan Lubetkin produced for the farm this spring: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB54OB2uzaA
See more pictures like these at the farm’s Facebook Page