Thursday, August 16, 2012

Beyond Old MacDonald: Sexism and Ablism in Organic Farming

     I am one of those white, college-educated liberals who thinks farming is the greatest thing ever. I regale my non-farming friends with tales of drinking raw milk, picking blueberries, and birthing goats. I love farming. I love growing food and working with the earth and being self-sufficient. However, I have also found that even among organic farms, there is no utopian ideal of social equality. Despite the gradual influx of first generation farmers coming from the cities, rural areas still tend to be prejudiced spaces. As the trend for fresh air and local tomatoes grows, we must work to ensure that “the country” not only tolerates everyone, but encourages and welcomes all people.

     Overall my experiences on farms and in rural communities have been wonderful, and I have not encountered any overt prejudice (a luxury that may be attributed to people's perception of me as a straight, white girl), but on more than one occasion I have found myself rather frustrated with assumed gender roles. Over and over again, farmers ask Randy for help with mechanical tasks or heavy lifting, when I am almost always capable. Often I join in just to show that I can lift as many 50 lb bags of feed as Randy can. I hope that seeing my strength and willingness will help challenge gendered assumptions, and perhaps farmers will be less presumptuous next time they as interns to move feed. 
     In terms of mechanical work, Randy has had more experience with tasks like running a chainsaw. In these situations, I would have to spend fifteen minutes learning how to do the work while Randy can get right to it, so although I'm eager to demonstrate my ability, sometimes I step back for the sake of getting the job done. However, if I never do mechanical work, then I’ll never learn and I’ll always be weeding instead of cutting timber. Other times I am tired or sick and I don’t feel like doing heavy manual labor, but I feel obligated to challenge stereotypes. I struggle with when to insist on helping with traditionally “male” jobs and when to let it go. If the task is something I’m really interested in, like fixing a hay baler, I am fine being really assertive and making sure I get to help and learn. But often even these scenarios end with me standing around, feeling like a clueless third wheel. It can be mentally exhausting to constantly feel like I am valued differently than Randy, and that I have to do twice the work just to show that I’m capable. It shouldn’t have to be a constant battle.
     This gender-based job assignation happens even on farms run by liberal, college-educated women. Occasionally farmers realize that they're perpetuating stereotypes, but may continue to do so because of past experience with male and female WWOOFers. Of course, gender assumptions work both ways. There have been times when I get to do something really cool inside, like make soap, while Randy is stuck outside weeding. Having all-male and all-female spaces is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it is sometimes helpful (although these usually fail to accommodate folks who don't identify with their biological sex). However, it's important to make sure that all-female and all-male spaces are intentional, appropriate, and beneficial for all. 
     Although stereotyping is incredibly frustrating for strong women, it can also be aggravating for men who are assumed to be stronger, taller, and more capable than their female counterparts. I have a friend who wishes she could challenge stereotypes, but because of health issues is physically unable to do hard labor. Thus, she often feels like she is reinforcing the “weak woman” trope even though her inability has nothing to do with her gender. Furthermore, even the strongest, most able-bodied men sometimes tire of constantly having to do the heavy lifting. The problem is the assumption that everyone's strengths and interests directly correlate with their traditional gender roles. Ideally, right off the bat, farmers would ask interns what they are interested in and what physical labor they are comfortable with. As with so many problems in our society, the solution here is facilitating communication early on and evaluating individuals rather than making generalizations.
Fresh Moves in Chicago brings produce to the inner city
     Inequality in farming is a vast subject. Many others have gone into detail about the grossly illegal treatment of migrant farmworkers, the horrendous working conditions in slaughterhouses and factory farms, and the persecution in rural areas of queer folks, foreign folks, non-Christian folks, non-white folks, and anyone else who is isolated, vulnerable, or thought to be different. The organic movement in 
The inside of a Fresh Moves bus
general is quite problematic because it tends to be expensive and available to only the (often white) middle and upper classes. This is slowly starting to change as, for example, more and more farmer’s markets accept food stamps. However there is still the problem of farmers’ markets frequently being located in “nicer” areas of town and the feasibility of transportation to these spaces. Furthermore, we have encountered very few people of color among both WWOOFers and farmers (Natasha Bowens at BrownGirlFarming has some excellent thoughts on this). Although these are important phenomenon to grapple with, I am going to let others who have more experience write about them. I will, however, mention ability, which I have been thinking a lot about, and is not often mentioned in conversations about farming.  

     Farms are often very able-bodied spaces. Because of the amount of physical labor involved, many farms look for WWOOFers with stipulations such as being able to lift 50 lbs, being physically fit, or being able-bodied. This is understandable, but maybe not as necessary as people think. Making all farms ADA compliant is not financially realistic, nor a high priority for most farmers, but more could certainly be done. Most farms we’ve been to have main garden and animal areas that would be navigable for all-terrain wheelchairs or WWOOFers who are less mobile.
Farms that welcome people of all abilities
In WWOOFing, there is such a vast array of jobs, from planting seeds in greenhouses and planning the garden, to milking animals and sorting garlic cloves, from washing and processing harvested veggies to cleaning eggs and examining crops for insect damage. There are countless ways that workers with disabilities can contribute to a working farm. Programs like the National AgrAbility  Project provide support and assistance for farmers with disabilities. There are also farms that intentionally create environments for all abilities, like Herb Blossom Express which has paraplegic-accessible tractors. These are important first steps, but ideally all host farms should figure out ways to accommodate more people. Even simply mentioning in the WWOOF description that they are open to working with people of varying abilities would create possibilities. In our travels, there has been a noticeable lack of people with disabilities, both among the farmers and fellow WWOOFers. There are probably a variety of reasons for this, but people with disabilities should have the same opportunities I have been lucky enough to experience.
     The back-to-the-land movement is exciting and full of potential and possibility, and I am eager to be a part of it. It centers around adopting a greater ethical responsibility for the earth and I cannot stress enough the importance of this task. However, along the way, we must make sure to practice that same ethical responsibility towards one another. What we are doing must not be only an environmental and agricultural movement, but a social revolution.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

D.C. Detour

      We had planned to visit Randy's family in Massachusetts after leaving Claymont. Since Washington, D.C. was pretty much on the way, and Holly had never been, we decided to swing by. Eight hours of sightseeing gave us just enough time for a brief perusal of the Smithsonian Museums of Natural History and American History, and to hurry through the Mall. We left DC at dusk, and the ensuing 18 hour car trip (with detours) brought our total waking hours to around 30. The spare room at Randy's mom's house never looked so inviting.

Holly poses in front of the Washington Monument.
Washington Monument-icorn


One of the Philadelphia gunboat guns at the Museum of American History

 Holly tests her memorization of the Gettysburg Address
Warren G. Harding's jammies

The first Washington Monument went over about as well as you'd think a shirtless statue of a Founding Father would
White House china before it was all decorated with only the US seal (note the oyster plate)
Antiquated (thankfully) tonsil remover. Say "AAAAAAHHH!"

Jefferson surrounded by the names of the hundreds of people he owned

Evolution's sense of humor: a 40 foot long sea monster with itty bitty vestigial legs

Today's children are not so easily impressed

Limestone deposit

Gaze into my 106.75 lbs crystal ball

Holly couldn't get over the crazy crystal formations in the Hall of Gems and Minerals

Quartz inside a petrified dinosaur bone, and petrified wood that looks like a landscape painting

Paying our respects at the Vietnam memorial

Einstein reads us a mathematical bedtime story

Randy passes through Presence on the Path by Beatriz Blanco
Ruben Dario creepin' at the AMA

Rendition of early human agriculture at the Museum of Natural History. It's time to get back to our roots.