Farmer is a genderless term: Part I
Ladies: we own/lease boatloads of Iowa farmland; USDA - you gotta redefine "family farm" because it is killing actual owner-operator farms.
I wrote this in 2013 for In These Times magazine - the idealized notion of farmer, heartland, that place that feeds the world. Farms increasingly are owned by corporations, small family farms like the one dad left in trust to his kids, owner operated are fewer and further between. The word farmer brings to mind a grumpy old man on a tractor. I can report this is accurate in the case of my grandfather and dad.
But according to a 2017 Iowa State Univeristy study 47 percent and 55% of all leased acres in Iowa were owned by women. Anecdotally in my neck of the woods women brought as much or more farmland into a marriage.
Dad got up every day before the crack of dawn. He would go out and work until around noon when he would take a break, make a plate of scrambled eggs (one of the two dishes he mastered) and turn on the radio to listen to the markets. He would eat his eggs, maybe with a side of fresh tomatoes covered in sugar, and read his paper as the radio voice announced funeral services, weather reports and Paul Harvey “The Rest of The Story.
He retired a couple of years ago, finally prying himself away from the farm, and moved to town with Mom. I use the word “prying” because old farmers—if they don’t die on their tractors—all wrestle with leaving the farm. But in the end it was time, and so he turned over the land to my brother, just like Grandpa did with him. So it was my dad, then, and my time on our farm too, that made me tear up during a Dodge Ram commercial: “God Made a Farmer” on Super Bowl Sunday (2013) A haunting voiceover, a speech by Mr. Harvey to a National Future Farmers of America convention in 1978. I felt proud when I heard those words. I felt like that was my story, my family’s story.
But then I watched it again.
The ad has already faced criticism for its lack of racial diversity, showing only one Black farmer and a single Hispanic couple. It’s also been accused of presenting an idealized notion of “heartland” the false idea that there are still family farms in America. I can personally attest to the existence of thriving family farms, but corporate farms and livestock mills are all too common a reality. [Note: Since 2013 when I wrote this for In These Times corporate farms - CAFOs and multi level chicken hotels continue to dot the Iowa landscape]
Your idea of family farms is shaped by a USDA definition - one that encompases farms not owned or operated by, well, a farmer.
This from IowaWatch 2018:
“…according to an estimate done by IowaWatch, less than 7 percent — 5,636 operations — of Iowa’s farms are on small or medium acreages and run and owned by one family. The breakdown for states bordering Iowa is similar.
“What we’ve found is that the definition of family farm is being stretched…,” Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said. “The public in general wants to see what they think of as a family farmer succeed and oftentimes we see that image distorted to include operations that indeed are much more corporate in nature.”
The federal government definition has become the overriding one for industry professionals when networking and marketing farm products and influencing public policy.
Back to 2013 and that commercial.
Where are all the women? According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were almost 30 percent more female principal farm operators in 2007 than in 2002. As impressive as that figure is for women in farming, it doesn’t tell much of a story.
Women’s integral role in farming cannot be gauged by a census number.
My mom worked our farm in equal measure with my dad - and I don’t mean by tending house or making sure dinner was on the table when he rolled into the driveway on the combine at midnight. She drove a hulking, John Deere tractor, trailing wagons teetering under oversized loads of corn and soybeans the nerve-wracking two miles to the co-op. Most of the drive was over an ill-maintained gravel road. And when she made it to the co-op, there were just as many women as men behind the wheels of their own tractors queued up to offload.
Dodge’s commercial shows only two solo females: one, an older woman standing against a soft-focus background, the other, a young girl standing in a field. There are women here and there;some seated praying over a dinner table or alongside a suggested male mate tending a stall at a farmers market.
My nephews, Ike and Harris, are beside themselves with glee that their dad has finally taken over the farm (dad and mom placed the land in trust - my brother is a only a caretaker). They run around that place like mad, much like my brother and I did when we were kids. My gut tells me Harris is the likely candidate to take over the farm when the time comes.
He has a preternatural love of the farm, of the tractors, of planting and harvest that unseen force that cannot be explained but only experienced. He made his maiden voyage driving the combine this year at 12 years old, and I can report to you that it was the realization of his one and only dream. But I can also tell you this there would be no farm to turn over to my brother or to my nephew if not for my great-grandma, grandma, my mom.
A controversial Super Bowl commercial - one by Web hosting provider Go Daddy hits you over the head with overt sexism. A refresher on that 2013 spot provided by Arwa Mahdawi at the Guardian in her 2013 article “Rename the Super Bowl National Testosterone Aprreciation Day”:
“….now what about sexism? While there have been no major controversies so far [about the 2013 Superbowl ads], the pre-released ads demonstrate a disturbing strain of sexual-revenge-of-the-nerds. GoDaddy's spot, for example, consists of an extreme close-up of supermodel Bar Refaeli making out with a computer geek. When sexy meets smart, your small business scores, reads the endline.
“Farmer” is a genderless term.
The lady problem with “God Made a Farmer” is decidedly more nuanced therefore my critique is harsher. It props up the idea that farmer has a gender. That a mythical place “the Heartland” exists and it is pure and patriotic. It is a lie. It is a veneer to sell trucks. The real story of farming, family farms and women in farming is treated as holy when it is in fact big business.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I rewatch that commercial through 2021 eyes - after the whole insurrection, Trumpian nightmare, etc., talk more about big ag and Iowa’s awful legislative representatives pulling out the “we love farmers” nonsense to pad the pockets of Farm Bureau (for example) aligned interests.