“You don’t look like a farmer,” the man said to me at my farmer’s market table. “Maybe you just wear the hat.” I was wearing the cowboy hat I like to wear for markets. I didn’t feel insulted. I know that people have specific ideas of what a farmer should look like. I assured him I was a bona fide, sweating-in-the-dirt farmer, and we laughed. I thought about the other farmers I know and wonder how close they come to his idea of “farmer”.
Two friends, each young mothers who are the primary caretakers of their small farms, one with and one without the help of her husband, they are hard working farmers. The woman who has turned her urban front yard into a garden and keeps chickens in her backyard, growing enough to sell her excess at her community’s farmer’s market; she doesn’t really look like a farmer, but she is. The young mixed race gay couple, new farmers raising chickens for eggs, and vegetables and fruits in rural Georgia to sell at city markets, individually might look like farmers, but as a family they don’t fit the stereotype. The young brothers whose “fields” are the suburban yards of their neighbors where they grow vegetables instead of lawns. The homeowners get fresh food in compensation for the use of their yards with plenty leftover to sell at markets. They look like farmers, but are farming in a very unconventional, un-stereotypical way. There’s my friend who raises chickens and bees on a ⅕ acre suburban homestead with her husband. She starts seeds in her basement and has turned their backyard into a nursery, selling the plants she started in the basement to home gardeners and other farmers. She has the heart and soul of a farmer and dreams of acreage.
I did a Google search on “farmer” and the overwhelming majority of images were white men between about 40 and 70 years old. In the first 50 images only two were female and ten were people of color. An interesting side note, one was Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, a local farming luminary, who would fit most people’s stereotype of farmer but seems to be fast becoming more of a businessman and farm facilitator, enabling his daughters, their families and other young farmer wannabes to keep the dream of regenerative farming alive.
My paternal grandfather was a farmer, and he fit the image. My grandmother would have been called a farm wife. But she was the one on the farm all day, weeding the garden, tying up tomato plants, walking the pastures to check on the cows and collecting eggs from the chickens. She was really no less a farmer just because she also did the laundry, cooked breakfast and supper and “put up” (canned) the beans and tomatoes the garden produced. But she didn’t “look like a farmer”. In my young mind at the time, my grandfather’s full time day job supplemented their farm income to raise to raise four children (and later to entertain their families at holidays and keep 12 grandchildren at overlapping times in the summer as if they were running a summer camp). The reality was that my grandfather had a full time job, originally with the TVA and later with a zinc mine company in east Tennessee, to support his family; the farm was “on the side” and without his full-time income and his and my grandmother’s hard work, there might not have been a farm by the time I came along.
I’ve learned that the stereotype of farmer actually varies depending on your culture. My stereotypical farmer was a white man, middle-aged, in overalls and a gimme cap with a tractor or tobacco logo above the bill and pull-on, knee-high, rubber, water-proof work boots. Maybe he had a little chew of tobacco in his cheek once in awhile or smoked a pipe like my grandfather did. The man who told me I didn’t look like a farmer was an older, African-American. In my newly acquired and limited experience, I’m guessing that his cultural stereotypical image of farmer may be closer to what I’ve always called a “cowboy”: cowboy hat, denim jeans or overalls and well-worn cowboy boots. A stereotypical rice farmer in the Philippines (a few of them showed up in my search) wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, short pants and works barefoot, knee deep in water.
The thing that these stereotypes all have in common is that they are male. Farm women in heterosexual relationships have always worked beside their men, just as hard as the men, gotten just as dirty and sweaty, but are defined by the time they take out to bear children and cook meals. According to the 2012 census of agriculture, women are a growing force in farming, making up 30% of this country’s farm operators nationally (14% of principal farm operators are women). I wonder how much of that is an increase in women working on the farm and how much is simply an increase in women who have always worked on the farm finally beginning to identify themselves as farmers?
From the 2012 census we also learn that the average age of farm operators at the time was 58 and that the numbers of farmers 55 and older had increased since 2007 while the number of farmers 45 and younger had decreased. But I think we’re seeing a change in that trend. As anecdotal observation, it seems to me that there is a rise in younger people and women becoming small farm operators, in particular in the arena of sustainable and organic agriculture. Check out your local farmer’s market and look at the people behind those tables. They aren’t there for eye candy. They are usually the farmers. If not the principal farmer, they are generally at least a farm worker.
But it takes longer for stereotypes to change than it does for reality to change. A friend, who is the principal farmer at her hog farm, told me that she makes sure her business partner on the farm, a man who “looks like a farmer” but isn’t, goes to the markets once in awhile so the customers think they are talking to the “farmer”. So what does a farmer really look like? A farmer looks like me, and maybe you.