Women Farm on the scalability of technology, land access, and partnership

Written by Tess Brown-Lavoie, Farmer, NFU USA

Four and a half years ago my sister, and our old friend and I broke ground on a vacant lot in Providence, Rhode Island. I had our soil tests, a small seed inventory, second-hand tools, underdeveloped muscles, and a waitressing job. I did not have business experience, formal agricultural education, a rural childhood, any machines, or a lease. This year, as we again planted the vacant lot with salad greens and brassica starts, we simultaneously broke ground—with a plow this time—on our first ever leased parcel, just outside the city.

We had no business plan when we started, and treated our farm at first more like an art project than a vehicle for our livelihoods. We set out to farm part-time, but found ourselves pulling long days growing food, and long nights at the restaurant. As we gave more hours to the farm, it became a more integral commitment. We sought markets for our food, land security for the lot, and looked to other farmers and service providers for advice, mentorship, and technical support.

Now there are four of us, all women, who co-own and run Sidewalk Ends Farm. We sell our vegetables to Rhode Island restaurants through a marketing collaborative of small urban and peri-urban growers. We also sell at the farmers market three blocks from our farm, and have 40 members who pick up community supported agriculture (CSA) shares every week.

Our farm is sometimes dismissed as sweet, or precious. The owner of the vacant lot never returned our phone calls. On a visit to a dairy farm a few years ago, a U.S. Senator was unable to repress a bemused smile when I introduced myself as a farmer. In my first year at Sidewalk Ends, I learned both that city swallows will pluck basil transplants for their gutter nests, and that the first step in protecting myself against frustrating marginalisation—on account of our urban headquarters in agricultural circles, our dirty knees in conference rooms, our work pants in city hall, or for our gender anywhere—was taking my own work seriously. This is difficult; seriousness is not a quality I aspire to unequivocally. I farm particularly so that dirt is an integral part of my life, and my lunch break takes place cross legged in grass. But it does mean I have begun to educate myself in soil science, small engines, conservation, and agricultural policy. It means I talk to other farmers, fishermen and women, and conservationists about stewardship, and cultivate a community around my farm that is mutually nourishing.

I farm with women not because I do not have a husband, but because women are good farmers. We teach each other what we know, and push each other to fill gaps in our knowledge in response to the needs of our farm. Traditional roles assigned to farm husbands and wives are distributed among us based on our skills and proclivities—I usually choose jobs which involve trellising, concrete, and graphic design. Crop planning, teaching young people, and marketing get assigned to somebody with a mind for soil nutrition, or better equipped to corral preschoolers. It is empowering to see my colleagues engaged in the various and sundry work that farm operation requires, not because it is novel to see women doing work traditionally done by men, but because the act of responding to necessities of seasons, soil, and plants is fulfilling; a well-done job brings material rewards: empowerment in the form of eggplants, strong shoulders, beautiful mornings.

In our field in the early morning, I am purposefully buffered from the immediacy of barriers that are a given for women in any industry. Now that we have a five-year lease on a piece of land, it is easy to forget the winter afternoons spent calling our absentee landlord trying to secure a lease—the frustration of his secretary's polite rebuffs. In our women-run business, we let our guard down, and sometimes find ourselves paying too much to harrow our field, or arguing with the instructor of a business development class about the ideology of our business, within which principles of efficiency and sustainability are measured by a set of holistic metrics. These experiences are disheartening, even as we gain confidence as farmers and business people.

Earlier this season, I was in a hardware store, buying roofing materials for a walk-in cooler we built this summer. Two burly men, belts laden with measuring tapes and hand tools, walked past me and my corrugated plastic, laughing. “A lady-contractor! Incredible!” They walked away, shaking their heads at my dirty hat and hands, my deep pocketed pants, or my work boots. Despite the fact that we were shopping in the same store, for the same sorts of supplies, despite even the similarities in our clothes and the patterned callouses on our palms, I was a lady contractor. In-credible.

In fact, I have learned from my male and female mentors, and from the land itself: agriculture is a vocation that defies traditional gender binaries—a farmer must be gentle and strong, intuitive, decisive, intelligent, patient, and observant. It is easy to learn how to wield an electric drill. Anybody can learn to walk with the wide-legged swagger of a contractor or a cowboy. Just as agriculture can be adapted to different climates, it can be adapted to different bodies by patient practitioners, and through appropriately scaled technologies.

I have small hands for a tall woman. I never wear large shirts, but often small work gloves. I cannot properly operate the clutch on a walk behind tractor; I use my right hand to collect the lever, and bring it within reach of my left. One of my co-farmers pointed out recently that this is not a universal design flaw. Rototillers are built to be operated by somebody with hands large enough to grab the clutch lever, without taking his hand off the other handle.

Some tools are too large, too heavy, or otherwise improperly scaled for female farmers. But the work comes naturally. Focusing on the ways in which tools are not built for use by female bodies, or the ways in which society is not prepared to open pathways for woman-identified farmers belies my lived experience of working with and among women, and learning from their successes. I apprenticed with a long list of women farmers, assimilating lessons of empowerment within the context of my technical training. Women farmers taught me most of what I know: from the difference between kale and collard leaf, to techniques for low tunnel construction techniques, and seed saving.
Have not farms always been places where gender roles can be fluid? Traditional divisions of labor in regards to food cultivation and preparation. I have spent little time on farms with livestock, but it is my understanding that during calving, nobody on the farm sleeps. Ultimately, farming is a vocation of care, articulations of which require different measures of traditionally masculine or feminine qualities.

Starting a farm is the pursuit of self-employment, and there is a privileged escapism in this act. I do not have a paternalistic boss, and confront misogyny exponentially more in Home Depot than I do in my field. At my business, women are in charge. Respect is implicit, and continuously earned. Farmers necessarily have to be creative in every aspect of their work in order to build sustainable businesses. If sexism is built into our technology, it is part of our work to adapt our rototillers, our communities, and our hardware stores to enable our work.  

Our landlord still will not call us back. But our neighbors ask us to supply vegetables for their wedding parties. New urban growers ask us about best practices regarding lead contaminated soils, and service providers ask us for help accessing our community of young and beginning growers, some of whom started out with as little experience and knowledge as we did, and some of whom come from farm families. We value our network, without which we would be out of business, cursed with a desk job and perhaps even a predictable income. There are moments when I am affronted with the material effects of our womanhood, the ways in which it has set us back in our pursuit of sustainability and success. Most of the time, I am more cognizant of my good fortune in finding this agricultural work, stimulating in so many ways, and the partners with whom I share it. Early in every year, when we start dusting off our seed trays, and lighting up our propagation boxes, I am eager to reinvest in the business I have built with my sisters. Every December, when our beds are covered in leaves, I am rich—if not in money or land, than at least in pumpkins, cans of tomatoes, and time.