Female Farmer Project Shares Stories of Women in Agriculture
July 9, 2014 | David Sands
Audra Mulkern, a mother and events planner who lives in rural Washington state, didn’t set out to be a photographer. Her interest in food and farming, however, has taken her down a path that’s brought her work to publications like Saveur Magazine and Modern Farmer.
Currently she’s profiling the lives and impact of women farmers with an online social documentary effort called the Female Farmer Project. Launched last year, it features pictures and stories of women who farm and work with artisanal foods, which Mulkern shares through her website and social media.
Just how did Mulkern get started photographing female farmers? Quite by accident, it turns out.
“Four years ago, I took a summer off from my own garden and decided I was going to get everything I needed from the farmers’ market,” she says. “Over the course of the summer, I had been taking photographs with my phone of the vegetables and started to realize I was documenting the entire season of the market.”
She began building relationships with the farmers and learning more about how they prepared their vegetables. The following season, the nascent photographer continued taking notes and clicking away with her phone. Eventually she compiled her work into a self-published photo book called “Rooted in the Valley: The Art and Color of the Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Markets.” Proceeds have gone to Sno-Valley Tilth, an organization dedicated to sustainable food production practices.
Although she’d just intended to sell the book her friends, it ended up striking a note and becoming successful. Inspiration on what to do next happened while visiting with Sarah Cassidy, a farmer with Oxbow Farm in Carnation, Washington.
“She and I were out in the field harvesting some purple-sprouting broccoli, and I took a picture of her with my phone,” Mulkern says. “When I got home, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is a great picture–but I really need to learn how to use a camera and do this right.'”
The Female Farmer project was born.
From there, she got in touch with a photographer friend, received a 15-minute lesson and an old camera and began teaching herself photography. She then saved up to purchase her own camera, a Canon 5D, which she now uses in conjunction with her phone camera.
Having set her sights on telling the tale of women in farming, her passion is now quite clear.
“In this country, there is a huge discrepancy in the public mind of what a farmer looks like,” Mulkern tells Seedstock. “A search on images, whether through books or online search engines reveals very little imagery for women farmers. We all know that women have been involved in agriculture for all time. There is very little in the way of their stories or images.”
According to a USDA study, the share of farms operated by women in the United States roughly tripled, from 121,600 to 306,200, between 1978 through 2007. With a total of about 8,000 woman-operated farms, Washington has a much higher proportion of these than the country at large, 21 percent compared to a national average of 14 percent, according to a Washington State University report citing 2007 figures.
Since getting started, Mulkern has documented more than 20 women, mostly in Washington with a few in North Carolina. There’s an element of serendipity to how she finds them, a methodology that mixes friend’s referrals and rubbing elbows at farmers’ markets with social media.
Mulkern’s muses have run the gamut from Michaele, a respected Snoqualmie Valley farmer who’s instructed a myriad of disciples on the art of agriculture, to a former research biologist named Elizabeth who’s devoted to establishing a sustainable agriculture business on her family’s ancestral farmstead. At the time of this interview, Mulkern was preparing to embark on a family vacation to Europe where she plans to visit several European farmers, including an urban gardener in London.
As surprising as it might sound, Mulkern isn’t doing the project for money and has no set plans to turn the Female Farmer Project into a book. Her motivation, she stresses, is to document the work of these women and educate the public.
Overall she’s been blown away by people’s responses. The project has facilitated online working relationships between female farmers, brought in interns and even inspired a woman to carry on farming after the death of her husband.
All of this bodes well for future of women in farming, according to Mulkern.
“The average age of the farmer is 58 and many will be retiring soon,” she says. “Being willing to share what they know with the next generation, is critical and I hope that the work of this project will continue to inspire them.”
Visit Audra Mulkern’s website to share your story about being a female farmer.