Meet the New Wave of Female Farmers
Women have been hidden players on the nation’s farms, but local storyteller Audra Mulkern is out to change that
By Cynthia Nims May 24, 2018
First came the sense of surprise, then, right on its heels, the surprise that she was surprised. In the fall of 2012, Audra Mulkern, a former business development manager at Microsoft, was making one of her frequent strolls through the Carnation farmers market near her Duvall home when something dawned on her. Virtually all the people behind the market tables were women. That observation led her to wonder what stereotype she had bought into that made it seem unusual to see so many female farmers.
As Mulkern discovered from subsequent research, it might be because women have been omitted from the farming picture for decades. Her research revealed that the history of farming has been centered on men. While women are not absent from the work of farming, they are missing from “the canon of our agricultural narrative,” she says—in other words, from the books about and photographs of the business and culture of farming.
She pondered the revelation over that winter, and by spring of 2013, it had taken root as a determination to shed light on women in the world of farming. That May, Mulkern set down the iPhone she’d been using to take pictures of market produce, borrowed a camera from a photographer friend and, after a brief lesson, set a plan in motion. The Female Farmer Project was born.
Moving beyond the farmers market stalls, she went into the fields, barns and pastures—first within Washington state and soon around the country—to photograph women doing the real work of farming. This became a mission, serving as contrast to the prettified version (not a hair out of place, mysteriously clean hands) that may have been conveyed in years past—if women showed up at all in stories about farming. “I want to show these women as strong as I see them, shown in a way that is not glamorous but is still beautiful.”
Instagram was Mulkern’s first visual storytelling platform, under her handle, @rootedinthevalley. Her initial photographs were those farmers market iPhone pics; they resulted in a self-published book of the same name. Then came a Female Farmer Project Facebook page, and before long, the project took on a life of its own. Her platforms—on which she shares portraits and stories—now include social media, her website, a podcast, speaking engagements, photography for a range of publications and photo exhibits at venues ranging from the Farm Aid benefit concert to the United Nations. Mulkern is even laying the groundwork for a documentary film, Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers.
She surely could not have imagined that less than a decade after posting that first image of Easter egg radishes on Instagram, she would be part of a movement that celebrates and promotes women in agriculture, including regional networks supporting women in farming and a Women in Agriculture initiative launched by the United States Department of Agriculture. Another surprise, she says, is her photography. “I didn’t know that I had a talent [as a photographer] whatsoever.” Her drive comes from “sheer, pure desire to do this well, to represent women, empower them.” And in the beautiful images, strong stories are being told, including the ones below.
The farm: Bright Ide Acres, 30-acre farm in Orting
The products: Freedom Ranger chickens, heritage turkeys (holidays only), pork, lamb, hens for eggs, available at a pop-up market in Snohomish every month or so, and the summer Orting farmers market. Chickens and holiday turkeys can be reserved online.
Years farming: This summer will be the sixth season for Micha, age 30, and her husband, Andrew, and the first on their new property in Orting.
The mission: “Our goal is to raise animals in a way that allows them to engage in their natural behaviors, with an end result of meat we can feel good about eating, that tastes far superior to anything you can find in a grocery store and has more nutritional value as well.”
Why farming? After an internship on a farm, she says, “I fell in love with being outside, working with my hands, feeding our neighbors. It’s by far the hardest work physically and emotionally we have ever done, and I can’t imagine not doing it.”
A favorite farm moment: “We call it the ‘witching hour,’ usually just before dusk. The babies [lambs, goats and piglets] are all rambunctious, getting their yayas out before bedtime, jumping on each other, jumping on mom, running around in circles before falling asleep.”
Greatest satisfaction: “The feedback we get from customers. We eat our own meat and know it’s good, but it’s nice to get validation from others. We don’t get paid enough for the amount of work we do; it’s good to get that boost to compensate.”
The farm: Percussion Farms, with locations in Seattle’s Central District and in Auburn, totaling about .25 acre
The products: This is Donaldson’s first growing season. She anticipates lettuces, leafy greens, herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, root vegetables, beans and peas, split between the two locations, available this year via a CSA.
Years farming: Donaldson, who is 38, has been gardening for about 10 years, including as a volunteer for Seattle’s P-Patch program. “I really got into gardening through that, and got into farming as a means for service and food justice.”
The mission: “To reconnect people of color to the land and to the right to healthy lives.… Knowing that people of color have particularly high rates of heart disease and diabetes, I truly believe that access to fresh food could change that.”
Why farming? In the black community, “There’s a stigma around growing food; they ask me ‘Why do that kind of thing?’ or they’re really nostalgic about it, ‘Oh, my parents were farmers, my grandma had a great garden,’ but otherwise are disconnected from it. I find that having my hands in the dirt, having to be patient, the satisfaction of growing and serving food, it’s so healing in so many ways, I want to share that however I can.”
Biggest challenge: “Being taken seriously, in all aspects, people not sure if we can do the business part of farming, or even the physical part of it. Assumptions that it’s really more of a hobby.”
Greatest satisfaction: “Seeing people have a connection with food being grown, even if just fleeting, even if it doesn’t make them want to grow their own food…seeing them realize you don’t have to get this produce at the grocery store, hearing ‘Oh, so that’s what that looks like when it’s growing!’”
The farm: Ninety Farms in Arlington with 50 acres
The products: Lamb (some animals sold to other farms as breed stock) and, raised in partnership with Macomber Farms in Granite Falls, grass-fed beef. Lamb and beef are regularly available in individual cuts at the farm store, as are chicken and pork on occasion.
Years farming: More than 25 years
The mission: “A lot of it is about bringing people in touch with their food,” says Neunzig, age 55. “Do they know how their food is raised? Do they know how wonderfully we care for these animals? Everything we do is about the animals, not just raising sheep, but raising them well.”
Why farming? In an agriculture class at Snohomish High School, “I found my people, found where I belonged. And in one capacity or another, I’ve been [in farming] ever since.”
A favorite farm moment: There is a big maple tree far back on the farm. “When the sheep are laying under that tree, and I sit with them, looking out over the green fields and the happy animals. I feel blessed to be there and to call [the farm] mine.”
Greatest satisfaction: “When it’s a stormy cold night and all of the 200, 300 animals are tucked in a barn with fresh bedding; the fact I can provide that to those animals is a sense of accomplishment.”
The farm: Chue Neng Cha Garden, Carnation, working about 13 acres this year
The products: Flowers (lilies, gladioli, daisies, dahlias, sunflowers and other types), kale, beets, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, available at Pike Place Market, seasonally
Years farming: Since 1995, when the farm was established by her parents.
The mission: Her parents established the farm after arriving from Laos in 1989. They didn’t know English, but they did know how to farm. “They raised seven kids from the farm,” says Cha, who is 31. For Cha, making a living is part of the goal, plus “being proud of what I grow,” being able to feed people from the land.
Why farming? “As a child I always had a fascination with flowers, how beautiful they are. I love being with nature and seeing things evolve. Plus, there’s something really rewarding about being able to harvest your own vegetables and bring them home to cook.”
A favorite farm moment: “When I’m harvesting flowers and have a big bundle I’m carrying back [to prep for market], they’re so beautiful, it’s just gorgeous.”
Greatest satisfaction: “When I have repeat clients who come back to see me and tell me how much they love my fresh produce; that recognition is very satisfying.”
Lori and Ruth Babcock
The farm: Tieton Farm and Creamery in Tieton with 21 acres
The products: Cheese, made from the milk of goats and sheep they raise; some eggs; a meat program to include grass-fed lamb, goat and beef, and pork that is fed whey from the cheese-making process. Cheeses available at PCC, Central Co-op, Madison Market and Whole Foods; cheeses and meat at the University District and Columbia City farmers markets, the Yakima Farmers Market.
Years farming: They purchased the farm in 2008, brought in sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and turkeys in 2009 from Bellevue, where they’d had a “practice farm” since 2005; first cheese released in 2010.
The mission: “To farm responsibly in every way, shape and form. This is so much more than growing food; it’s taking care of the land for future generations,” says Lori, age 59.
Why farming? “It’s in my blood going back generations,” says Ruth, who is 60. “Lori read an article about raising chickens, so we added them to the backyard garden [in Bellevue].” Helping a cousin with some overgrown land, they got some goats to help clear it. “Then Lori said, ‘If you’re getting goats, I’m going to make cheese.’”
A favorite farm moment: For Lori, it’s “seeing the milk come in from the morning milking, that beautiful white medium was just in an animal 10 minutes ago.” Ruth says,“When we’re set up to let the animals onto the next pasture space, their thundering hooves gallop past, and it’s obvious how happy they are.”
Greatest satisfaction: “The knowledge that we’re doing everything right; we have such a passion and commitment to farm and are actually improving things as we go along.” —Lori
“Sitting down to a meal and pointing to this and this and this that came from our farm; it feels really good that we did all that.” —Ruth
A measure of success: “It’s pretty simple: You’ve got to pay your bills, is any left over for vacation? Is everyone happy and healthy?” —Lori
“Are we growing and reaching out to new customers, are more people understanding what we’re doing, why it’s so important to raise food this way instead of by the industrial method?” —Ruth
Female Farmers By the Numbers
Thirty-seven percent of farmers in Washington are women—a number that’s slightly higher than the national average of 31 percent, according to the 2012 census by the United States Department of Agriculture. In Washington state, there are 22,376 women farming, according to the state’s count—working nearly 5 million acres of land with an economic impact of $244.4 million. The 2017 USDA census has questions aimed at better capturing the role women play on the nation’s farms, results of which will be released in February 2019.
WEB EXTRAS: See more photos by Audra Mulkern from her project.