Wednesday, May 25, 2011


It was over a couple of beers with my friend Maureen (aka Farmer Mo) that I first heard of The Farmerettes a few months ago. These were young American wives and daughters and mothers who, as their men went off to fight in World War I, stepped up to grow food to support their families and the country. Theirs was a different kind of farming -- often on a smaller scale, generally using less machinery, and incorporating a greater variety of crops -- than that which their husbands and sons and fathers had undertaken. Part of this was due to their smaller physical stature and an unfamiliarity with operating large combines, but it's more complex than that. Women go about things differently.

From what I've been able to tell, these patriotic foremothers were very much like the young women farmers I've worked with around the country along my bikeable feast, those who have chosen to pick up shovels and trowels and orchard crates to offer their communities smaller-scale, sustainable alternatives to massive-scale, chemical-laden food products. Because it was needed.

Talk about a catchy slogan: "Joan of Arc Left the Soil to Save France. We're Going Back to the Soil to Save America." Love it. But when the war ended and the menfolk returned home, the Women's Land Army, as they were officially known, relinquished their overalls for aprons and the farmerettes faded into history.

And yet.... Why is it that so many small, sustainable farmers these days seem to be women? I've done lots of thinking and a little bit of reading up on this. (Still need to get my hands on a copy of Farmer Jane, though.) At the risk of making a gross generalization, and idealizing an entire gender, I offer this: women are natural caretakers and nurturers (consider their predominance in the fields of nursing and early childhood education), on the whole they value different things than men (community over personal success; diversity and resilience over profit), and they are naturally collaborative problem solvers and knowledge sharers (rather than stiff competitors). There is also the fact that organic and biodynamic farming -- even more so than large-scale, conventional growing -- takes patience, vigilance, and an acceptance that invariably some things will be lost. I think of it like motherhood. Not that I am a mother, but I am close enough to a lot of them to sense the truth in this: encourage, love, heal, forgive, and accept losses with grace. Like the loss of lettuce to deer, or groundhogs, or beetles, or drought. The acceptance of this loss before subsequently turning to celebrate the flourishing of the potatoes, or carrots, or kale, and making sure friends, family, and neighbors share in the bounty.

(This is not to say that many of the organic, women farmers I have worked with have not considered shooting a deer or a groundhog at one time or another, but it's rarely the first, or even the second, option. Neither do I mean to imply that male and/or conventional farmers are not hard working or generous.)

I got to thinking about the farmerettes (and their modern sisters) again last Wednesday as I helped Farmer Mo with weeding and transplanting and harvesting at her farm in Alexandria, VA, and again as we worked together with her mentor farmer, Kristin, at her own farm in Upper Marlboro, MD two days later. I was heartened by the way Kristin offered ideas and answers to Mo's many questions as we worked, and the way, I learned, that Mo in turn mentored another, newer urban grower, Sarah. It is this spirit of helping each other, the sharing of experience and equipment and fears and encouragement, that is the key to the reformation of our collective food system.

I am not saying that men are not -- that they cannot be -- a part of the Good Food movement. But if a truly healthy, sustainable network of small-scale growers is going to feed us, and not destroy the planet in the process, I have a hunch that it's going to be led by women.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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