A Mother’s Role in Agriculture
By Summer Miller | Photography by Alison Bickel
Life on the farm means running a business and family simultaneously, every minute of every day. For a couple, it means handing off children, trading responsibilities and conducting an orchestra of shared responsibilities. Farm families have no time for inflated egos or a self-serving ideology—they are in this together, musketeer style.
In her 2010 breakout book Farmer Jane, author Temra Costa celebrates the role of women in sustainable agriculture and how they impact the movement as a whole.
“Of the top 15 national nonprofits focusing on sustainable agriculture issues, women comprise 61.5% of the employees and 60% of the executive directors,” Temra writes. “As mothers of children, nurturers of health and the ones in control of 85% of household budgets, women have the largest impact and concern when it comes to what they feed themselves and their families.”
Laura and Andrew Chisholm own and operate Chisholm Family Farm and Orchard Hill Creamery, a certified naturally grown farmstead dairy in Unadilla, Nebraska. Laura’s many titles include family matriarch, cheesemaker, homeschool teacher to four of her five children still on the farm and country store operator. She, like many other women who run a small farm, seeks a work-life balance of a different sort—one where hardship and struggle can solidify a family and strengthen a woman’s resolve, where the reminders of her exhaustive efforts to succeed are standing at her side, bottle-feeding calves or pulling weeds.
Valuing togetherness is a sentiment echoed by Cait Caughey, who with her partner, Tyler Magnuson, raises their two children, 3-year-old Catalpa and 3-month-old Mira, while running their Iowa-based diversified farm, Botna Burrow.
“As a mother I look into the future of my children a lot, and I want to do whatever I can to protect and increase biodiversity,” says Cait. “On our farm that means preserving wild habitat and wild plants, using methods that don’t disturb microorganisms, worms, pollinators, and growing a very diverse range of crops. I want these things to be thriving when my children are grown so that they can experience a beautiful world full of wild plants and animals, and so they … can produce things they need.”
But dedication to building a business and raising a family doesn’t come without risks. Neither Botna Burrow nor Orchard Hill is located on land owned by the operators. The Chisholms have relocated their farm and their family five times in the past seven years, endured tornado-force winds that destroyed a barn and contractors who stole money and failed to finish projects. They declared bankruptcy, sacrificed family vacations, bandaged their wounds, pulled together and began again, with the help of volunteers and fund-raisers. They also learned to love more deeply, and to value simplicity while building lasting friendships. These qualities solidify their confidence so they know that not only will they be able to survive, but they will thrive. Now that their creamery is finished and Laura has found her niche as a cheesemaker, she and her family are looking forward to offering new products at the farmers markets this year, including ice cream and frozen yogurt by the scoop, and the bucket.According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, there are 969,672 women farmers in the United States, meaning that the number of women in farming remains at a 30-year high. Women in agriculture are also more likely to have smaller, more diversified farms.“Our primary goal is to network women in agriculture,” says Bridget Holcomb, executive director at Women, Food and Agriculture Network. “So when women get together they discuss how they support themselves as farmers while they support their families. We have new farmers in our beginning farmer program not only because they love farming, but because they see this as a wonderful environment in which to raise children.”
Laura and Cait don’t separate their roles as a mother from their roles as a farmer. The two identities feed and build off the skills brought by the other. Laura credits life on the farm for her building her children’s strong work ethic, profound love of nature and depth of curiosity.
“Our life is not easy. Our kids don’t have the perks other kids do. Sometimes I feel bad about that, but on the other hand our children really have learned to enjoy the simple things in life,” Laura says while helping a farm-store customer locate her favorite yogurt. “I watch them run around the farm and have a ball just using their own imaginations. My kids have a natural love for nature and a deep respect for life. When we lose an animal, they mourn. My kids have a profound understanding of life and death and hard choices. I expect more from them, and that’s got to be from farming. It’s just the standard of life. They simply have to do more.”
Laura has watched the farm influence her children while noticing how her mothering influences the farm. She and Andrew have taken a gentle approach to weaning calves from their lactating mothers. They bottle-feed their calves but also graft them onto “nurse cows,” the bovine equivalent of a human wet nurse. The first week the baby stays with its mother, then they put both the baby and its mother in with the nurse cow. Eventually, they lead the mom away. Every time the mom comes in to be milked she can see her baby, rub noses and make sure it’s OK.
“There is none of that awful mooing you hear when the moms are trying to find their babies,” explains Laura. “What we’ve found with our cows is that they don’t seem to care if they nurse their babies as long as they know where they are and they can make sure they are okay. My mothering really does influence my farming; the fact is, I was a mother long before I was a farmer.”
Like Laura, Cait didn’t grow up farming. It was something she grew into. Her interest in cultivating land sprouted from volunteering at community gardens while in college. Hours in the garden morphed into internships at farms, and eventually she and Tyler, along with some friends, founded Big Muddy Urban Farm, a decentralized urban farm in Omaha. As she and Tyler’s family grew, they decided to branch out on their own continuing their commitment to farming and family.
“It’s definitely more difficult to farm now that we have children, but it’s also better,” says Cait, who recently presented at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s Healthy Farm Conference with her newborn in tow. “I love that my children are integrated into our life. Catalpa is always playing outside with us. He can explore; it’s safe here. I love watching him learn and connect to the land.”
Cait and Tyler supplement their income with off-the-farm jobs for the time being. Becoming parents has only fueled their drive to make their farm a success and financially viable. Even with a new baby, they plan on supporting a 60-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program during the 2015 growing season. Their farm business grows stronger each year, which Cait attributes to a supportive food community and her family’s ability to adjust to any current circumstances.
“Honestly, the majority of our farming happens between 9pm and midnight,” Cait says. “Literally, we put headlamps on, go outside and do farm work after the babies are sleeping.”
The kids usually come along for CSA programs and restaurant deliveries. Everyone is supportive and understands that they have young children, and sometimes the day doesn’t go quite as planned.
“Last summer I was pregnant, so I would do these drop-offs at restaurants carrying these huge boxes, with this huge belly. It was so funny how the guys get freaked out. ‘Don’t touch that! Put that box down! You are going to go into labor!’ I was like six months pregnant at the time. It was all very sweet, but I thought, ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do before I’m even close to going into labor.’”
Even with the progress women have made in the fields, they are still viewed more as gardeners or household managers, rather than an actual laborer on the farm, partly because of social expectations. Most children, if asked what a farmer looks like, would likely describe a man on a tractor, but that perception is changing slowly overtime. Women running small diversified farms who support their local food communities are now more comfortable than ever before adopting the title of farmer, whereas only a few decades ago they would’ve been more inclined to use the word gardener, according to Bridget.
“I have no doubt that 10, 20, 30 years down the line that women will be half of the farming population, and when people think of a farmer in their mind, they will be just as likely to envision a woman in that role as they would a man,” Bridget shares.
Summer Miller is a freelance food writer and author based just outside the urban fringes of Omaha, Nebraska. Her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains, will be available in May