pfi and gendered farming

Home now from the PFI conference, what has happened in the last 48 hours is already a blur in my brain. Lots of conversations, lots of flash judgments about other farmers and what and how they are doing.

Maybe my favorite reflection was something my friend Kate said after we listened to the keynote by a british man who keeps sheep in an ancient shepherding community in the mountains– maybe it was after something else, I can’t remember because the thread carried throughout: “I’m glad that we have a farming culture of women,” and I just literally could not agree more.

Throughout the conference, I struggled with feeling irritated about the gendered roles of farming. In the keynote, he mentioned (as an attempt to acknowledge and complement his wife) “There’s always a great woman behind the scenes, isn’t there?” In the session on family communications, an older farming consultant talked about a farming couple he had worked with, and LITERALLY said, “The fight was between the masculine perspective of trying to get value and productivity from the land and the feminine perspective, asking why was he letting the cattle trample the wildflowers in the timber.” (Shout out to my friend Derek, who almost (and should have) raised his hand and said “I like wildflowers”) The point being: there is literally so much social bullshit standing between women farmers and their right to be taken seriously and maybe even women farming partners desire to be on the farm over raising the kids, providing in more traditional ways.

I’ve been questioning for a long time what the point of me writing about farming is, and what point of view I need to take, or what I’m even trying to say, and after this conference, where so many gendered stereotypes were not challenged or addressed (not that any of this is unusual or a surprise), I think it is evident what we need to be talking about.

Going into the conference, I thought that maybe I wanted to be a young woman version of James Rebanks– writing about raising sheep in my own rural culture– and I still do want to do that, but I think the aspiration to be like him is a little low of a bar to set. I don’t want to be anything like him.

What he does is pretty cool, there’s no denying that– him and his father and his grandfather and so on back for five thousand years– have been raising this particular breed of mountain sheep on the same few hills in England. He is connected to an ancient way of life and just wants to be a part of it and share that with the world. I respect that. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a part of such a long tradition– to feel connected not only physically to your ancestors, but socially, and to know that what you want to do is exactly what they did, only better. However, most of us in America have some variety of a fucked up past– whether one’s ancestors were slaves, slave owners, colonizers, or native people who had literally everything stolen from them– or, more recently, refugees fleeing new types of persecution in other parts of the world, only to find America isn’t much better– I’m not sure many of us have histories and lineages we can feel particularly connected to or want to live and be just like them.

There are farmers in my family’s history– just as I’m pretty sure there are farmers in almost everyone’s family history– and I do like to think about them and their lives, but I don’t think that it is particularly useful to make that a part of my own farming identity. I think that limits the perception of who a farmer can be, if we have more respect for fifth generation farmers than first generation farmers. I think we need to acknowledge the past, and learn from it, and be better than it (says everyone talking about literally anything, but really, I mean it).

I’m guilty of being on the other side of this coin, too. Sometimes I do think that I have more of a right or a better perspective on farming than a city person who has moved to the country, potentially subsidizing their start-up costs with the pay from a corporate job. And I think it’s true, that maybe gives them an unfair advantage and perhaps unrealistic view about how challenging farm can be, but I’m starting to think that it is no longer relevant to exclude them in my mind from the farming world I want to be a part of.

Because the truth is, I’m not sure I want to be a part of anyone’s farming world that currently exists. We need to have a more nuanced analysis about who is farming and why, and who can and should be doing the work to change that. Because just as I was irked by the gendered norms I kept running into at the conference, there were other issues. There were very few people of color at the conference, which I think is a reflection of who is farming in Iowa, but NOT an entirely accurate reflection of who lives in Iowa. Who owns land in Iowa? White people. Old people. Old white men.

This reflection is wobbling all over the place, but that’s currently how I feel about it. I had a fucking great time at the conference, seeing a lot of my farming friends and making a few new ones. I learned some relevant stuff that we are going to apply to our own farming practices. And I felt a lot of the same things I feel about our world as a whole– about sexism and racism and classism in the urban and rural divide– more poignantly and specifically about this particular weird world of Iowa we live in than I had before.

I’m grateful that the last session I went to was about on-farm research with livestock, it got me excited about science and the actual practice of farming and a lot of methods I don’t know a whole lot about (perennial pasture management: I SHOULD, we have it, hog finishing, etc). It got me excited to try new things and make observations and work to have the most effective and efficient farming practices.

Because in the end, we aren’t who we are at a farming conference in the winter. We are what we do, on the land, every day, and the choices we make about who gets to share in that.


sheep, another observation

I know which one is always staring at me now. I finally recognize her. It’s Field’s mom; the skittish girl who last year dropped a single jet black lamb way out in the pasture. He was so large and healthy that we could barely get them up to the barn, they were dancing around, his long black tail wagging. A pure white mom and an all black lamb, stranger things have happened. Somehow they have the exact same face.

She has a white dorset face, but a narrow one, like the suffolks. The way her fluffy ears perk forward give her a childish look, but you know if you take one step towards her she will run. That wide-eye stare, watching your every move.

John said the ones that pay attention to you are worth keeping. He was talking about this beautiful big brown cow, who was staring at us, in our brown carhartt suits and standing in their muck, she kept an eye on us, and she’d been watching him since she was a calf. He said that means they’re quality, that the ones that’ll pay that much attention to you will raise a good herd.

None of us can remember what he said, what the staring means.

Her perky crooked head, sideways eyes, gazing forward.

How does anyone write a memoir? How does anyone remember their lives?