Notes from a Female Farmer

Header image: “A Majestic Pekoe” by Rebecca Ruth Seidel.
Used with permission.
Start a story with a farm boy and by the end, he’ll be a hero.

I grew up a geek girl on a dairy farm. My mother milked cows the day I was born. Thirty-three years later, I’m waking at 4:30 in the morning, tugging on my coveralls and muck boots, and heading out to a barn filled with fifty milk cows. Having descended from generations of rural Pennsylvania dairy farmers my agricultural roots are easy to pinpoint. My geek origins are more diffuse.

Books were prevalent in our household, an economical source of entertainment. After long days in the barn, my mother read Brian Jacques’s books to my brother and me along with other children’s fantasy series. In middle school, my father gave me Robert A. Heinlein to read. He referred to Star Trek as our secular moral education. As a family, we’d cuddle under blankets and watch early airings of Dr. Who while smelling of cow dander and hay.

Geek culture spoke to me, providing fantasies while I fed the calves and giving my imagination places to wander while on our relatively isolated farm. I found Tamora Pierce and Anne McCaffrey in the school library. My mother bought me my first comic book in 5th grade. I didn’t realize I was part of a larger community, that being a geek was an aspect of identity, until I was in high school, falling in with a group of tabletop role players after a falling out with my girlfriends over my bisexuality. Members of my first role playing group are still my nearest and dearest (one is my husband seventeen years later). The threads of those friendships followed me to college, introducing me to anime, German board games, console video games, and movies and television shows we were unable to receive from an antenna in my parents’ rural valley.

In graduate school, I studied geek culture before returning to farming in my mid-twenties. These two aspects of my identity exist in tandem, both part of me, but separate. Geeks are in ascendancy in popular culture, while the population of Americans living and working on farms has dropped to 2%. People talking about blue milk probably haven’t milked a cow. Those milking cows, working dawn-to-dusk days, have a hard attitude toward external culture, viewing fandom as a frivolous distraction from work.

When I turn my gaze from the work I do to the media I consume, I see content warranting criticism. Agriculture is depicted as an idyllic pastoral past time, rarely reflecting the realities faced by real farmers. As a female in agriculture, a minority within a minority, I am hyper-aware of the gender and cultural stereotypes portrayed in geek media. While I’m trying to create a space for myself as a working woman in rural America, I’m also trying to define to the greater culture what it means to be a farmer.

Let us begin with the common trope of the farm boy, the glowing teen destined for greatness. Whether it be moisture farmer Luke Skywalker, shepherd Rand al’Thor, or Kansas’s own Clark Kent, young male orphans work on farms, just to develop a superpower or have a stranger arrive and hand him a sword. Farming is a plot device in such stories, shorthand for an ordinary boy imbued with rural morals and physical strength.

I was never able to identify with farm boy tales while growing up, and it wasn’t because of the character’s gender. The quintessential part of this particular hero’s journey is departing from the farm, an act I couldn’t fathom while growing up. I felt a disdain for these characters, their dedication to their family’s land so loose that they’d flee from invaders or take a job at a newspaper rather than fighting for their home. In the end, they’ll always leave their farm to pursue greatness.

To me, the counterpoint of the farm boy isn’t the coquettish farmer’s daughter. She isn’t found in fantasy novels or space operas. The heroine equivalent to the farm boy is found in Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. They share origins with the farm boy: orphans finding homes with new family or sent to live with relatives. However, their stories circle around a discovery of home. Rather than leaving the land, they make it their own. Anne and Rebecca have the character of farmers, though their labor revolves around feminine roles rather than physical labor. A woman’s place on a farm is in the home, not on the land.

This dichotomy of gender roles plays out in my daily life as a female farmer. While selling our dairy products, customers often ask me if I’m the farmer’s wife. They assume that I must have a male counterpart who owns the title of farmer. My gender precludes me from simply being a farmer. Women help out on the farm, but don’t work. They are assumed to be tethered to the house rather than to the barn.

The basis for this assumption is that a woman’s role is centered around the home, the man’s role is on the farm. It’s a historically based assumption, as farmers of earlier years relied on children rather than technology to ease the hardships of farm labor. This dynamic is displayed well in the German board game Agricola, in which the starting farm couple can produce offspring to accomplish more tasks, though there is a cost to feed their children. Gender roles are not as rigid on farms as popular culture would have you believe. When a family’s livelihood is based on physical labor, everyone must work. As in many women’s lives, farm women must play a dual role, completing both housework and farm work. One of seven living children, the majority of whom were girls, my grandmother milked cows, plowed the field with a mule team, and cared for her younger sister.

Chuck Wendig’s 2013 novel Under the Empyrean Sky, a dystopian YA tale in which the rural population has been subjugated to manage and process aggressive blood-thirsty corn, exhibits an awareness of traditional agricultural gender roles. The authoritarian government pairs young men and women together for the purpose of populating the homeland with sanctioned matings. Both the government and culture encourage early marriage and reproduction, trying to maintain a population in a world plagued by high infant mortality and birth defects. His female characters both work within and rebel against the constrains society places upon them.

The role of women in agriculture has always been complicated, balancing gender norms, farm labor, and family commitments. While the rest of society has progressed beyond viewing women in purely feminine roles, those of us working on farms in rural America are seen as daughters and wives rather than farmers. A dwindling agricultural community that is isolated from the rest of the population has led to the public imagination being fixated on a farming reality decades past. Media is perpetuating stereotypes of strong farm boys, leaving farm girls on the back porch to shuck corn.

Even I have been guilty of gendered thinking, considering my agricultural lineage to stem from my father and his father rather than from my mother, despite her milking twice a day, ever day for over twenty years (in addition to raising my brother and me, substitute teaching, and managing the farm’s accounting). It wasn’t until I was reading Y: The Last Man late one night and considering the effects mass male extinction would have on agriculture that I realized my mother, working on a farm for all her adult life, also deserved the title of farmer. Agriculture would go on without men, picked up by the women who work next to them unseen.

Rebecca Ruth Seidel dropped out of an American Studies graduate program to pursue a life of cows and curds in rural America and has spent the past nine years working on a dairy farm and making cheese. She only remembered recently that she can write. Follow her on Twitter @Casein_Micelles for politics, vegetarian food, geek moments, and agricultural ethics (but mostly pictures of cows being cute).

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