RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Women on the Front Lines of Sustainable Farming

A few weeks ago, I found myself on a conference call with 18 other women talking about International Women's Day. Amid all the bad news -- falling real wages, poverty among single moms, Laura Bush's endorsement of sharia law and so forth -- there was one bit of good news.

According to the USDA, there was an increase between 1997 and 2002 in the number of acres farmed by women. It's up 16.5%. Not only that, but 84% of the women farmers are full owners of the businesses they operate.

These women are on the front lines of the battle over control of the food system. On one side is industry, seeking to squeeze a profit from every step in the process from seed to water to air to land to grocery shelf. On the other side is the family farmer.

Our state of Missouri has more women farmers than any other state except Texas and California. Some are selling at the farmers' market or delivering products directly to consumers, but others are running large operations in neighborhoods where the male farmer is the accepted norm.

Consumers often overlook the work of these women. Food is so abundant today -- it's available in the grocery stores and restaurants, the hardware store, the quick shop, the break room, the library -- that we start to think that food just appears. Like water.

We overlook the resources behind the bright packaging. Where producers were once essential parts of the system, they are now marginalized, almost voiceless. To connect with the food producer, a consumer has to make an effort. Still, it's important to know where your food, including your snack food, comes from, how it was raised, transported, stored, processed. Still, it's important to know if, by our consumer habits, the land has been improved or depleted, and if the ingredients like soy, corn, canola and potatoes have been genetically manipulated.

Genetic manipulation, also called genetic engineering, biotech and transgenics, add genes to plant structure so that crops resist herbicides or contain their own pesticides. Nobody knows if it's safe to eat GMO foods because they haven't been tested for safety.

But wait! There's more! As we reach peak oil production and move into decline, we want to know how far our food has traveled because that environmental expense is added to the cost of what we eat. In general, it's best to buy foods produced locally to keep the local food system in place for the future.

All these things contribute to sustainability -- or using what you need today but leaving enough and even improving things for the future. As a general rule, the woman-owned farm is managed with sustainability in mind. They are often small businesses selling at the farmers' markets or specialty grocers, or directly to the public. These farmers want to improve their land, provide quality foods to consumers and use their businesses to build community.

It may seem like sustainable farming is farming on the fringes of respectability, or that contributions of women farmers are unimportant, but a recent global study commissioned by the United Nations points out that as our population rises to an estimated 9 billion by year 2050, there will be even more pressure for food, water and energy, and that means pressure on resources.

The study points out that as our population becomes more urban, we accelerate the demand for resources. In the past 40 years, use of water has doubled. And the misuse of water has led to increasing numbers of dead zones and collapse of ocean fishing ecosystems.

It's a challenge for a small farmer to stay in business. Farm subsidies go to the largest producers, which make industrial food cheaper. This puts small farms at a disadvantage, although small farms keep other costs low and can usually compete fairly for consumer dollars. Still, farming is expensive and a drought or insect infestation can wipe out a whole year's income.

Also, the scale of the farms makes it necessary to do much of the work by hand, and it is difficult to find trained labor at an affordable price. Most farm women do everything from planting to harvesting to cleaning vegetables to keeping books and driving the product to town. There are no vacation days or overtime pay.

Of course, a fair income can solve some of these problems, and that's where consumers are really important. Consumers can ask the questions that keep small farmers in business. Where was this food raised? How many miles has it traveled to get here? Who raised it? What chemicals were used? Does the farmer use genetically manipulated ingredients? What growing standards do the farmers use? How long has it been stored? How and where was it processed?

As consumers, we have the rights to ask these questions and put our values into our spending habits. As consumers, we can keep women farmers on the land.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2006

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