Farming in the Balance

Baja Arizona’s female farmers are closing the agricultural gender gap and paving the way for the future of food.

September 9, 2016

FeaturesIssue 20: September/October 2016

Anastasia Rabin leans against the doorway of her small Elfrida farmhouse. The porch looks out into a yard dotted with tools, a wood stove, an antique bed frame. A pair of antlers hangs from the branches of a tree. A hundred yards away, a dozen goats stamp their hoofs and three pigs root in the mud. On the other side of Rabin’s 160-acre property is a series of conventional commodity operations and the silver silhouettes of grain silos rising in the distance.

One of the goats is Rabin’s favorite. A neutered male, trained as a pack goat, who follows her everywhere—hiking in the mountains, into the desert to browse the mesquite, sometimes even into the one-bedroom farmhouse, and she must shoo him out. Now his bladder is bursting—urinary calculi—and he must be put down. Rabin conducts a dress rehearsal, which is to say she gets the .22 pistol, steps into the corral, and looks into his eyes. On this day, the crystalline sky is strangely bright against the starkness of the gun barrel. The goat looks at her with his yellow eyes. “Not today,” she tells him and puts the gun down.


Anastasia Rabin leads her goats in Elfrida.

The next day, his eyes wander. He stares off at nothing. She cannot get him to meet her gaze. So she locks up the other goats in their pen and gets her gun. It is almost monsoon season, and the air feels like a blanket. They walk for hours on the range. The sun is high in the sky when she sits down in the shade of a tree to watch him nibbling the brush. It is getting too hot when he suddenly lies down right beside her. She imagines he is surrendering, that perhaps he knows it is time.

She is long past the tears, and she is ready. Now there is just the anxiety and the action of the kill. She stands, levels the gun, and shoots.

Farming does not respect personal boundaries, exhaustion levels, or breaking points. It is a lifestyle, a spilling over of beauties and emergencies—sick animals, bolting crops, impending freezes, equipment failures, last minute orders—and all of the coinciding human actions and emotions. A farmer cannot ever fully leave her farm.

According to the 2012 agricultural census, Arizona is the state with the highest proportion of female farm operators—45 percent of the state’s principal and secondary farm operators are women. Nationally, that same statistic is 30 percent—a total of nearly 1 million women operating farms or ranches on more than 62 million acres and generating $12.9 billion in annual agricultural sales. In the United States, women have made and continue to make an enormous impact on agriculture, but only in the past 40 years have they been counted at all. In 1978, when the USDA began tracking gender statistics, women accounted for approximately 5 percent of the principal farm operators in the United States. Today, 14 percent are women.


Rabin’s cat lends a milking hand.

That female farmers are leaders is an understatement. They are shaking the tree of arid lands agriculture and paving the way for the future of food. Anastasia Rabin isn’t surprised that women are finding a home in agriculture. “I think that women are just naturally good at it. At being attentive to the needs of other living things, observing, and at balancing and managing complex systems, and problem solving,” she says, “That’s what good farming and [animal] husbandry is all about.”

Audra Mulkern, photographer and creator of The Female Farmer Project and the photographer for this story, agrees. In her work, she has visited more than 100 farms in the United States and Europe, collecting stories and photographs to document the rise of women in agriculture. As she has traveled and listened, she’s thought about why so many women are farming.

“One of my working theories is based on the long tradition of the interaction between women and nature,” she says, “Even in literature, men are portrayed as adventurers and women are the observers, trying to figure out how things work together. When I look at women working in agriculture, I see women observing ecosystems. Over and over, female farmers tell me that their definition of success is figuring out how to work within systems, instead of conquering them.”

When applied to female farmers in southern Arizona, Mulkern’s theory takes on an enhanced meaning. “These women are finding ways to be creative with their water, their plant breeding, their seed selection. They’re creating community. They’re being strategic about how to integrate family and when to farm based on the unique climate,” she says. “Working within natural systems, not dominating them.”

Of the 14,654 women operating farms in Arizona, 9,185 were listed as American Indian or Alaska Native in the 2012 census. Jaime and Shaime Encinas, twin sisters, are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation and farmers at the 860-acre San Xavier Co-op Farm just south of Tucson.

Growing up, the Encinas sisters did not farm. In 2007, after earning a degree in fine arts, Shaime found a job at the San Xavier Co-op Farm. She learned to plant gourds and corn, how to clean and dry tepary beans. Year after year, she learned new skills: driving tractors, managing irrigation, cutting hay. “I always say I fell into this, but it has really opened my creative outlet as well,” Shaime says, “In my paintings, I use what I see here on the farm.”

Jaime also began working at the farm growing and preparing food to be sold on the TO Nation and in Tucson. Of her relationship to agriculture, Jaime says, “Farming is a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it.” She pauses. “But I gravitate towards it. It pulls me back.”


Shaime Encinas (left) and Jaime Encinas from the San Xavier Co-op Farm.

This pullback towards agriculture is being experienced on a community level. The Encinas family is part of the association of O’odham allottees (landholders) who have combined their land in order to return to community food production—a way of life that was lost in the early 1900s with the forced assimilation and restrictions of Native people by the U.S. government. Thus, for the Co-op farmers and allottees, the values of community and cooperative structure are critical to reclaiming O’odham food sovereignty. “We’re a team here. Everybody does their part. We can’t make the machine go without everyone,” says Shaime.

The farm focuses on desert-adapted plants and traditional crops that improve the health of tribal members suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes. Shaime says, “It amazes me sometimes that I’m involved in this kind of work. To have this history as a people and to know that this type of agriculture can withstand time and still provide so many things for us.”

Spring has flipped into summer at Forever Yong Farm. Artichokes form tight globes and burst into flower. Yong Rueb cuts bulbs from the two tons of garlic draped in the shade. Here on 20 acres at the end of a dirt road in Amado, Yong and her husband, John, have been farming vegetables and garlic for nearly 20 years.

As a child growing up in Seoul, South Korea, Yong spent summers in her cousin’s melon and tomato patch outside of the city. Away from urban life, she encountered a quieter world. She sunk her hands into the dirt, ate tomatoes right out of the fields. It was the 1960s, a decade after the end of the Korean War. Ingredients and refrigeration were scarce. Yong learned to cook from scratch from her mother—to ferment and preserve foods, to stretch meals in order to feed their family of nine.

After earning an accounting degree in Chicago, Yong moved to Tucson with her husband and their two sons to realize John’s dream of being a full-time farmer. For the Ruebs, the farm has been the center of the universe, another member of the family. Most of the important decisions have been made in alignment with the needs of the farm. The balance is tricky. The essence of their farm, she says, has been the hard work and role of each person, including the kids. Still, the farm is a demanding family member. “There is always endless work,” says Yong, “We are always behind the 8-ball. There are always a million things to do. It can gobble you up.”

Maya Dailey, owner of Maya’s Farm, groans when I ask her about balance. “It’s torture,” she says. “Farming is all-consuming. You can’t shut it off. It’s like having a kid in a crib. You’ve got to be there all the time.”

Dailey has been raising vegetables, eggs, herbs, and meat goats on multiple leased plots in the Phoenix area since 2006. When Dailey leased her first quarter acre from a friend, she cleaned houses to pay the salary of her farm manager. Later, as a single mom with young children, she struggled with priorities—caring for children or making a living. Neither was optional, and the two often seemed to be at odds. She remembers weighing her options: “Do I go to the football game or fix a pipe? Do I make Zoe’s softball game or deliver that emergency order?”

“I’ve had to sacrifice myself,” she says. “My personal life, the ability to take time out, balance. I’ve been trying to put the balance back in now; put my own gas mask on first, to use the airplane analogy. It’s like Where’s Maya? What do I need to feed my soul to keep doing this work?”

Female farmers are becoming the change-makers and innovators of small-scale agriculture. Statistically, they are more likely to utilize organic or sustainable practices and direct-market sales. On average, they farm smaller acreage than male farmers. They tend to grow a mix of crops or raise livestock, as opposed to a single commodity crop. But female farmers are still fighting for access to critical financing and training resources, and to be taken seriously in a field that still views women as an anomaly. Female farmers have more trouble gaining access to land, loans, and technical assistance. In general, they make less money than male farmers—75 percent of female farmers report less than $10,000 in annual sales—and are less likely to claim farming as their primary occupation. More than half of Arizona’s female farmers supplement their income with off-farm jobs.

Female farmers are becoming the change-makers and innovators of small-scale agriculture.

Yong and her family arrived in Tucson in October of 1996. She remembers taking in the sparseness of the landscape, the sunset colors. The cactus and trees were strange; she was used to green grass, azaleas, star-shaped maple leaves. Twenty years later, the desert is familiar, as are the curves in the road that carry Yong from her part-time accountant job in Tucson back to the farm, week after week.

The plan was always for John to farm full-time and Yong to maintain a part-time job as an accountant. “It made sense that I have a job that can bring home a steady paycheck,” Yong says, likening the farm to a surgery team—“a brilliant surgeon, who can’t do that job by himself if there’s no support staff. John is the surgeon, and I am such an integral part of it. He could not have done this without me helping. My function is as important.”

Nicole DeVito of Aravaipa Creekside Growers also works part-time to supplement her farm income, while her partner, Andrew Carhuff, works full-time at the farm. Though the goal is for DeVito to transition to the farm full-time, for now she also works as a massage therapist. While her massage career is helpful financially, it’s a logistical hindrance. She lives both in town and at the farm, and she must protect her hands from farm-related stress injuries and calluses. It’s ironic, she says, that both jobs require the use of her hands, but in very different ways.

Rabin admits to needing solitude—even craving it during times of high stress. But rural isolation has also created a tapestry of challenges, some of which she says have been “harrowing.” There is no one to depend on, to help with chores, to hold the wire taut while repairing a fence, to share in the beauty and risk of the operation. To put down a sick animal. Within this space, Rabin has fought to acquire the vast knowledge and skills necessary to survive: marketing, agronomy, lease writing, computer skills, accounting, animal husbandry.

“It’s almost like I went to the school of hard knocks and hands-on,” she says. It is a school that many female farmers are familiar with.

A 2012 Pennsylvania extension report describes the reality of male-dominated farmer training, largely perceived by female farmers as “unwelcoming, if not hostile.” Female farmers reported feeling talked down to by so-called agricultural “experts” and not taken seriously by instructors and participants. Furthermore, the programming was often less relevant for female farmers, focusing on a scale and type of agriculture that most women do not practice.

Farmers like Rabin are still fighting for access to critical financing and training resources.

Farmers like Rabin are still fighting for access to critical financing and training resources.

U.S. agriculture has a long history of discriminating against female farmers. In 2000, a number of female farmers filed claims against the USDA for loan discrimination. Farmland inheritance laws were also discriminatory. Greta Hardin, a researcher for the Female Farmer Project, says that it was not until 1981 that estate laws changed to allow a widow to inherit land from her deceased spouse without paying an inheritance tax. Because farm women were considered “helpers” instead of “farmers,” and not regularly included in business documents or land deeds, widowed female farmers were forced to prove their essential role in the farm operation, or pay a hefty inheritance tax. Before 1981, many widowed female farmers were forced to sell off their land to avoid the tax.

Today that sexism is not entirely erased. Perhaps a bit more hidden and insidious, sexism is an everyday phenomenon ingrained in the world of agriculture. Female farmers regularly report being passed over for work, not being taken seriously by customers or male farmers, not consulted for their opinions by agriculture experts, or not being prioritized for farm-based learning opportunities.

DeVito says customers will often direct technical questions about mushroom-growing toward her partner, instead of toward her. Dailey recently hired a male tractor driver, who argued with her vision for the field. “I know exactly what I want done,” she says, “After 20 minutes, I was like, ‘O.K., can you do what I want you to do? If not, the conversation is over.’”

Dailey also says she’s not taken as seriously as male farmers. People regard her booth as “pretty” as opposed to a successful business. “I think everybody thinks that Maya’s got a pretty booth,” she says. “They say, Oh, she does such a nice job at marketing. But why aren’t they thinking, Maya’s really productive? Off .67 of an acre, I made $80,000 right off the shoot. It’s an incredible amount of money, but no one is looking at Hey, that’s a crapload of money. How is Maya doing it?”

On the edge of the Pantano Wash, Dana Helfer and her husband, Paul Buseck, are growing vegetables, melons, and flowers at Rattlebox Farm. When they purchased their 4.5-acre property in the fall of 2013, it was a blank slate dotted with creosote bushes, and the result of a decade of dreaming and more than two years of searching for suitable farmland in the desert Southwest.

After moving to Tucson in 2003, Helfer worked for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, creating the organization’s home garden program and original 10-acre production and education farm. From early in their relationship, Helfer and Buseck knew that they wanted to farm together. They also planned to have children. But after a series of miscarriages and a family illness, Helfer and Buseck had to take stock of their present and future. Helfer says, “That time forced me to ask myself: what do I want to spend my time doing? How do I reduce stress in my life? How do I continue to do work that I love?”

Dana Helfer, co-owner Rattlebox Farm.

Dana Helfer, co-owner Rattlebox Farm.

She quit her job and began operating a multiplot urban farm—Menlo Farms—in Tucson’s Menlo Park neighborhood. “I’ve wanted to farm since I was a teenager,” she says. “I thought, Now is the time to do this.” Buseck supplemented their income with his off-farm job, while Helfer negotiated plot leases, built garden beds, and began selling vegetables through a CSA. When they finally found the Pantano property, Helfer was pregnant with their second child.

They have been as mindful in their farming practices as they have been with the balance of farm and family. They farm organically, use drip irrigation, maintain a focus on soil-building through the use of compost and reduced tillage, and have planted a buffer of native plants as a pollinator habitat.

“I love farming. The planning, the way it engages my mind and my body, that I can be outside. I love having my hands in the dirt and nurturing things to grow, and all those little constant daily decisions,” Helfer says. “Will I do it forever? Will this be my only career? I don’t know. I just love it.” 

Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer and the co-founder of the Farm Education and Resource Network (FERN). She serves on the City of Tucson’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy, as well as the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council.

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