Farming’s “Hidden Figures”

The movie “Hidden Figures” is a great movie, but it made me cry. Partly my tears were in recognition that what was being portrayed as “history” was my childhood! I remember clearly Russia’s successful launch of Sputnik and poor dog who circled the earth. I remember the excitement of those first manned space trips. We watched the launches live on fuzzy, black and white television broadcasts. It was an exciting time in history but I still have not come to grips with being part of history.

I did not, as a child, ever hear about the role women, women of any color, played in launching those rockets into space. The control rooms pictured were all filled with white men in white shirts and ties. When the movie informed us that women had a dress code that included skirts to the knees, heels and a simple string of pearls, I wasn’t surprised. We were required to wear dresses (to the knees) as long as I was in high school. I wasn’t surprised by the images of separate bathrooms, water fountains and coffee pots. The inhumanity of those images of segregation still brought tears to my eyes.

I know first hand about how women were told they shouldn’t seem too smart because they would have a hard time finding a husband. Women who went to college were said to be pursuing an MRS degree. I personally was told that pursuing a career as a physician was too hard for a woman, that I did pretty well in physics class…for a girl, that I would be prettier if I just wore more makeup. I was called “honey” by my boss and paid less than males doing less skilled work because, “They get dirty and work harder physically.” That was a long time ago. Things are different now, right?

This month’s “Successful Farming” magazine features four women on the cover. The article inside highlights the women as “groundbreaking female farmers” who are “big-time operators.” They are apparently a novelty to the female “Farm Journal” writer who writes, “Finding a female farmer who is confidently making management decisions on a farm is a rarity.”

Excuse me?

I know many women who are farmers. Some of them farm without the support of a male farm partner, but many women farm in partnerships with their fathers, brothers or spouses. I have farmed for more than 40 years. In that time I have birthed calves, herded cows and sheep, built fences, run tractors and the skid steer and driven the truck. I have put more hours in driving the combine than my spouse and am the one who makes most veterinary decisions. I do the accounting and pay the taxes. I have had input into most major decisions on the farm. Isn’t that what a “farmer” does? However, when I wanted farm program payments for the sheep that I own in my name, I needed to be declared a “person” by the FSA. I could never get my tax consultant to list my occupation as “farmer”. I now do his job. I am not saying I am the farmer and my husband is not. He does his share of labor and management. We have always been partners.

I admire women who farm independently. I admire men who farm alone. It is a lonely and difficult job, even when you work with a partner. I know that I would not be able to farm in the same way without my spouse. I need him to loosen really tight bolts, to help lift really heavy things, and to do major repairs. I’m not about to take on a new momma cow all by myself. I also know, however, that my husband would also need to adjust how he works without me. We are farmers together.

Ironically, half of all farmers in the world are women. The world’s women farmers grow more than half the world’s food even though in much of the world, they very often do not control the land they farm. They do not have the same access to credit or education as their male counterparts. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) concluded in a report released in 2011 that if male and female farmers had equal access to resources, world food output would increase. Giving women equal opportunities could pull 100 to 150 million people out of hunger. Women who farm could change the world.

The movie “Hidden Figures” made me cry because more than a half a century later, we still see women who are farmers, construction workers, scientists, engineers, mathematicians as “rarities”.  It is apparently newsworthy, not that they are good farmers, but that they are women who farm on their own.
Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains