Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Voice of a Woman Farmer

I’m almost 51 now.  I realized this in the shower this morning as I was thinking how good the warm water felt on my aching knees and hips and how I wished I could be our little black dog who lays in the sun all day, gets fed when she wants it and gets played with on her terms.

I’m old enough to remember rotary phones, manual typewriters, black and white television, computers with paper punch cards, DOS, party lines, riding in the car without a seatbelt and biking without a helmet.   Old enough to know that kids should play outside – play – tag, kick the can, freeze tag and kick ball. 

I’m old enough to remember the burning of bras and the entering of women into the workforce en mass but I wasn’t old enough to understand the revolution.  At my age, at that time, I would have much rather burned the body pillow size sanitary napkins and the belts used to hold them.  Now, bras are decorated and pink is worn by our NFL athletes and you have to be ‘Tough Enough To Wear Pink’. 

Seems the bras have come out of the closet and women’s issues are no longer a silent curse to discuss in hushed voices in dark alleys.
I’m old enough to have been told by my high school guidance counselor that women didn’t belong in the landscaping or forestry industry.    But I was wise enough not to listen.  I have worked in male predominated fields all my life and done my share of working on the cracks in that glass ceiling.  Every landscaping company I worked for, with all the men I worked with, I had to work harder, lift more, sell more, and carry more just to be considered an equal.  I have to admit, when I was younger, out-doing my male counterparts was a source of pride. 

One day at a landscaping company I worked for in Minnesota, the mother of three of the men I worked with came in and stated she just had to see what we were doing as ‘the boys’ were coming home and falling asleep on the couch and in the recliner instead of going out to play baseball and hunt and fish.  It felt so good to know that they had been working hard to keep up with me!  But of course, at almost 51, I now pay the price with varicose veins from lifting too many heavy things a 5’2” gal ought not to lift, and bad knees and shoulders that just won’t lift those things anymore. 
So what does all of this have to do with gardendwellers FARM?  I’m getting there, bear with me.

Recently a farmer I work with through Dakota College atBottineau blogged about her experience as a woman farmer.  Her frustration at being marginalized shown through her words like the beam of a flashlight on a cloudy night with no moon.  She’s 33.  She’s a farmer.  She’s also, by the way, a mother, a wife, a community member with lots to give (and she does) but the acclaim for the success of their farm goes to her husband – every time.  It’s frustrating, for her and for me.  You can read her blog post here:

I thought we had come a long way – but in reading her blog and upon more consideration, I see that we have a long way to go.  I began thinking about my neighbor.  She works side by side with her husband.  She drives the tractors, works the cattle, tends the crops.  In addition, she is a fabulous mother and a very involved and giving community member for our township and the small towns that surround us.  And yet, when describing to locals where we live, listeners always respond “Oh, you live near the (insert the husbands name here)’s place.”  Why isn’t it ‘her’ place or ‘their’ place?

At gardendwellers FARM, Tall, Dark, and Handsome and I have always worked side by side. 
With sales at farmers markets, our customers have always seen us as equally a part of the business and man are they quick to notice if one of us is missing from the day.  Our customers expect to always see us together - like some sort of odd Siamese twins.  We usually don’t get called by name but instead are called the ‘gardendwellers’ or the ‘dwellers’.  I have been lucky to feel equal in every way.  Most of the media people we have come into contact with have been very balanced in their approach to the stories they tell about our farm.  However, there was the one.

I, like my friend, experienced a media person – a male reporter – that insisted Tall, Dark, and Handsome take the day off from working road construction to be at the farm when he came to interview us about gardendwellers.  We obliged.  Throughout the whole interview, the focus was on Tall, Dark, and Handsome, even though my son and I had been the ones to run the operation for most of this summer.  I suppose I could have stolen the show by putting on a bikini and laying myself over the hood of the tractor but then you know for sure that the focus would have been on the tractor. 

My point is this; while I have had my share of ‘struggles against huMANity’ in my almost 51 years, I’m awfully lucky to live and work with a man that sees me as an equal, to have customers that recognize we are a team and that’s how gardendwellers operates, to have a life where I do not feel marginalized. 

A life where I am the one who is asked to serve on committees, to teach classes and to share my passion. 
Believe me girls, I’ve been there, I know what it feels like to be the one whose work goes unnoticed, and it’s no fun.  (I worked for 6 years as a manager in a landscaping company with an almost absentee owner and every day even repeat customers would come in and ask for Jeff instead of speaking to me first.)  Somewhere along the way, like my friend, I found my voice.  I began to speak up, toot my own horn and call the little bastards who wouldn’t recognize me as an equal on the carpet.  It’s not until you speak up that you begin to realize your true potential.  Find your voice.  Speak loud and clear and don’t let the cavemen get away with not realizing that you are the glue that holds that farming operation together – not just the cook and baby watcher.

In two weeks I will be speaking at the National Women Foodand Agriculture Conference – Cultivating Our Food, Farms, and Future in DesMoines Iowa.  It will be days filled with women who have found their own voice.  It will be invigorating.  I’m going to keep this problem that our North Dakota women farmers have in mind while I’m there.  I’ll look for answers, and if I find any – I’ll try to implement what I’ve learned when I return to my home state and farm.