Audra Mulkern was walking through the farmers’ market one day in 2012 when suddenly she noticed something: almost every single booth and table and had a woman standing behind it.
The first question she asked herself was, where are all the men? Then she asked herself, when did I fall into the trap of assuming that all farmers are men?
This moment of awareness drove Mulkern to her local library, where she started reading and checking out books, trying to find some historical representation of women in agriculture over time. It wasn’t there. Google searches only resulted in photos of women posing in short shorts in a field.
That’s when it dawned on her: there was an entire group of people missing from the narrative, and she was going to do something about it. The Female Farmer Project was born.
Today, the Female Farmer Project is a nonprofit organization with an all-volunteer staff. Its website houses articles and a library containing images of women actually farming. It has profiles and essays written by Mulkern and the women farmers themselves. There’s even a podcast that aims to give power to knowledge that’s been lacking on the subject of women and farming. Mulkern also travels and gives talks to audiences all around the world.
“Women need to start telling their story and claiming their seat at the table,” Mulkern said. “It just won’t be an equitable system without everybody’s voices.”
In an effort to increase awareness, Mulkern is creating a documentary that will tell the stories of women farmers. She also holds workshops on storytelling for these women to help them tell their own stories and pursue positions of leadership—whether it be for office, county commission, or a USDA panel.
The Female Farmer Project recently launched a program that allows women farmers to pitch stories to Mulkern and the other volunteers, who coach them through the editing process and then help them pitch their work to major publications.
One of the primary writers for the Female Farmer Project is Debbie Weingarten, who is based in Tucson. In 2016, she and Mulkern collaborated on an in-depth story for Edible Baja Arizona about women farming in southern Arizona. (Read Farming In the Balance.)
They found that, according to the 2012 agricultural census, Arizona has the highest proportion of female farm operators in the country – 45 percent of the state’s principal and secondary farm operators are women compared to 30 percent nationally. However, women farmers weren’t counted in census data until 1982 and tribal farmers weren’t counted until 2007. Mulkern said being counted is just as important for women farmers as getting their stories out.
What also makes women farmers in Arizona unique, Mulkern said, is their effort toward sustainable farms as a result of the unique growing climate.
“You see so many women sort of at the forefront of that type of farming where they’re working toward a sustainable farm,” she said. “It’s really interesting to see what they do smart and different than everybody else.”
Women farmers all over the country also have the added challenge of balancing entrepreneurship and motherhood. It’s these unique stories that drive the Female Farmer Project.
And so far, the response has been positive.
“The most interesting responses I get [are] from men who are grateful that I have honored the women in their life that farmed that were never really acknowledged, sort of honoring that history,” Mulkern said. “It’s been the same from [women] farmers. They’re really grateful that I have given them a platform.”
What started out as a one-woman project is now a full-scale organization. Mulkern, along with Weingarten, Greta Hardin, and Kate Doughty, are giving a voice to women in agriculture, one story at a time.
“Be counted if you’re a farmer,” Mulkern said. “It’s so important. It’s the number one function of telling your story. Especially tribal farmers, especially women farmers—they need to be counted.”
Header image by Audra Mulkern.