Farming is Feminist: A Q&A with “The Color of Food” Author, Natasha Bowens

tumblr_nctvs6Sszq1spgxpso1_r1_500The majority of women who farm our land are people of color, but when Natasha Bowens began her work as a food sovereignty activist — and began farming herself as a “young brown female” in the late 2000s — she realized that the people leading (if not controlling) the food movement looked nothing like the people working on the ground. Food activists and farmers of color — many young women, both living in cities and the countryside — were washed away from the surface.

In response, Bowens started Brown.Girl.Farming, a blog dedicated to documenting her own journey as an urban farmer. Soon after, she launched the multimedia project, Color of Food, which examines racial, economic and gender-related disparities within the food justice movement, while featuring the stories of Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian farmers and food activists from across the country. This April, Bowens’ commitment to amplifying these stories will be released as a book, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farmingon New Society Press.

To offer some data on women and farming: in the United States, more and more women are becoming involved in sustainable agriculture, with nearly 1 million women listing farming as their primary occupation. As for globally, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that women make up nearly half of the world’s agricultural labor force as of 2011.
Yet, while women are doing the majority of agriculture work, they’re not seeing a return on investment, thus making them more vulnerable to displacement and economic insecurity. It’s a trend to what’s happening in the fast food and domestic labor markets, which primarily employs women: women, particularly women of color, work overtime in these positions, but are often still living below the poverty line and don’t have access to needed benefits like paid leave or sick days.
Last month, I had a chance to interview Bowens via email about her book and the issues impacting women farmers that it explores. While women are featured throughout the book, Bowens has dedicated one of The Color of Foods six sections to women that “honors the amazing contributions and ferocity women to the field,” she said (18 of the 30 farmers and food activists featured in the book are women). Here is our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.

What issues does your book touch on regarding women and farming?

Bowens: The book touches on many obstacles in place for marginalized farmers, including women, but it specifically highlights gender issues in our agricultural system such as the inequities in farm ownership, discrimination in loan access and other federal support along with gaining community support in some cases as a woman starting a small farm business. One story, for example, from Sandra Simone of Huckleberry Hill Farm in Alabama talks about her struggle starting a cooperative goat farm in her community. Though she would provide the land and infrastructure and the market trends at the time predicted a rise in the goat meat industry, along with low start-up costs and room for large profits with a donated starting herd from Heifer International, her community of mostly men rejected her business plan on the basis of what she says was purely gender discrimination. Sandra felt that because she was a woman leading the project, they did not want to follow. She now runs her own goat farm operation alone and was named Farmer of the Year by the Alabama [Natural Resources Conservation Service].

In working on the “Color of Food” project, what were the main issues/themes you discovered concerning female farmers?

Bowens: First of all, having the privilege of sitting with so many amazing women during the interview process was a powerful experience for me. As I point out in my book, I’ve personally never felt more like a woman than the first time I dug my hands into the soil. And that’s a statement that may not align with what society defines as feminine – getting our hands dirty, riding tractors, herding cattle. So affirming that feminine identity with the land and finding that solidarity while out on the road for The Color of Food was so important for me. I think capturing their stories and sharing them will help the rest of us find that solidarity, while opening the eyes of the agricultural and good food movement to what female farmers are facing as well as the paths they are fiercely blazing.

As mentioned above, some of the issues women are facing in agriculture are no different than the discrimination and inequities we face in other industries. But for me the focus is on what we are accomplishing despite, and how and why we are farming. … We are more interested in sustaining communities through our farms, not sustaining big [agricultural] profit margins. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms have higher percentages of female farmers and many of the women I encountered started farming to feed their communities and increase healthy food access.

In what ways are women impacted by farming and food justice?

Bowens: Women are disproportionately impacted by the lack of food justice in our food system. Meaning the lack of food access in low-income communities, the inequities in healthy food distribution with farmers markets and food stores, and in fair wages and treatment for women working in the food system. Women, as the primary providers of food for our families, feel the impact of food access and availability more significantly. I met many women who actually began farming or fighting for food justice in their communities simply because they felt it was the only way they could feed their children or ensure their kids were getting healthy foods. Women like Nelida Martinez in Washington who started her own farm after working on conventional farms for years and no longer wanted to expose her children to the chemicals sprayed on the food. Or women like Jenga Mwendo who started the Backyard Gardeners Network in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and is leading a community food policy council to combat the lack of food access in the neighborhood.  And food justice goes beyond the table. Women leading the food justice movement for farmworkers, like those  in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida,  can tell you about the countless stories of sexual harassment and unfair wages the women who are growing and harvesting our food are suffering. And women like Saru Jarayaman of ROCUnited, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, can tell you similar stories of injustice from women working in the food system’s restaurant industry. The impact is heavy on every level, from farm to table.

How does that impact differ from other groups?

Bowens: Women may suffer from food injustice at higher rates because of their role feeding the family, their numbers globally as rural farmers and the unique abuse, harassment and targeted gender discrimination they endure. But many women impacted at higher rates by injustice in the food and ag systems are also members of communities that are equally marginalized: low income or communities of color. So that sort of double discrimination leaves a heavier impact.

How do women who farm benefit from their work? Or are there inequalities between the work they put in and the benefits they receive/their quality of life?

Bowens: Based on the women I spoke to the benefits range from feeling economically successful and fulfilled spiritually to feeling lonely, resented and under-appreciated. I think it all depends. Like most marginalized groups, the extra work put in to overcome the obstacles in place often far exceeds the return. If you want to see inequities in numbers, look at the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Census and compare the average farm income or value of goods produced by farms owned by women and farms owned by men. That will tell you all you need to know about whether we’re getting our fair share of the benefits.

How do the themes of your book tie into current events — particularly, how does the book tie into issues surrounding women and farming?

Bowens: The book highlights current events because it’s a compilation of stories from the farmers, including female farmers, who are out there living these issues as we speak. It’s not academic research compiled while sitting holed up in an office somewhere. These stories came straight from the fields — they are real, current and unheard for the most part. I think we need more storytelling like this, to me it’s most relevant to hear directly from those living out the current issues.