A History of ‘Women’s Work’
When Audra Mulkern (pictured here) left her job with Microsoft in Seattle, Washington, in 1999, she had no idea that her life would change focus so dramatically. What began as the simple question “Who is growing my food?” turned into an exploration into the history of women in agriculture and the eventual development of the Female Farmer Project.
The seeds for the project were planted when Mulkern, who lives in a farming community in the Puget Sound, wanted to buy fresh, local produce. “This was before there were accessible ways to find people, like Facebook,” she says. “I could see farmworkers in the field and wondered how I could get to them.” There was a new CSA at a farmers market in Seattle, so she went once a week to get a basket of vegetables. “I was driving an hour each way to buy vegetables grown right here in my neighborhood,” she says. A list of farmer-suppliers was included with her CSA vegetables, which made her want to know more about the people who were growing her food.
By 2011, there were two farmers markets much closer to Mulkern, and she had become a regular customer. “I’d walk around and talk to farmers. With my phone, I’d take pictures of radishes and other things, and the farmers thought I was crazy,” she says. “I developed a self-published book of pictures I’d taken, along with essays I’d asked farmers to contribute.”
On one trip to the market, Mulkern had a revelation. “I was people-watching, and I realized that there were women behind every single table,” she says. “I wondered where the men were, then I wondered what made me think farmers should be men.”
That set her on the path to learning more about female farmers. When she started researching the history of women in agriculture, she came up empty-handed.
“It was like they had disappeared from history. Less than half of 1% of history is represented by women,” Mulkern says.
Mulkern says she stewed on it over the winter. “By spring, I wanted to do more. I wondered if the rise in female farmers was happening just in this community or if it was a bigger trend, a shift in the industry.” A friend loaned her a professional camera, she spent a few days practicing in the garden, and her quest began.
“I happen to live in a bubble where the farms are smaller here in western Washington. There’s not a lot of land access, and it’s very expensive to live here, so there are many small farms, which women tend to run,” Mulkern says. “I started finding other bubbles around the country where the majority of farmers were women, and I visited them.”
Mulkern’s style is to follow female farmers while they go about their business and to capture them at work. Photos aren’t posed. “Every person says they don’t take good pictures. Everyone has that insecurity,” she says.
After sharing some of her work at a women in ag conference, a participant told her that seeing the photos was like looking in a mirror, and it made her realize how beautiful she was. “If you feel beautiful, that’s an unquantifiable result,” she says.
Digging up Roots
The Female Farmer Project has taken on a life of its own, exploring the rise of women in agriculture. Mulkern still photographs female farmers, and her work has been displayed at the United Nations in New York and the Maison Rouge Gallery in Paris. It is on permanent exhibit at the USDA offices in Washington, D.C. The project also includes stories, essays, a podcast, and a documentary film, Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers.
Mulkern has also done investigative reporting into subjects including the mental health crisis and farmer suicide. “I’m looking at a lot of things through the gender lens: farming, leadership, tracking female farmers running for office,” she says. “Yes, there are women farming. That’s established. Now let’s talk about them being at the table.”
The Female Farmer Project now has a small volunteer staff. One of its tasks for the documentary film has been to learn more about women in agriculture throughout history, namely during the world wars.
“You really have to dig for information on women during the wars,” Mulkern says. “The Library of Congress has a few images, but many are just women standing by chickens, and you have to make that leap that maybe they’re a farmer.” The group has had some luck going through regional and local books put together by historical societies or museums.
The lack of historical images has inspired Mulkern to continue documenting female farmers today. “There aren’t many pictures showing women working as farmers, and if you don’t see it being done, you don’t know it can be done,” she says.
• The Female Farmer Project: femalefarmerproject.org
• Women’s Work Documentary: womensworkdocumentary.org