cultivating the edge:
an ethnography of firstgeneration women farmers
in the American Midwest
In the US, an emergent cultural icon of resistant agriculture, the agrarian heroine, attests to growing popular
interest in first-generation women farmers. Drawing on practice theory, historical geographical materialism,
intersubjective ethnography and feminist scholarship, this ethnography focusses on three first-generation
women farmers growing organic vegetable crops for the Chicago market, with critical attention to the body, the
land and their uses. By applying permacultureâ€™s theory of â€˜the edgeâ€™ anthropologically, this study explores the
work these women do to cultivate relational spaces that promote fluidity, diversity and solidarity in opposition
to industrial agriculture and the homogenising forces of globalisation. The portraits that emerge problematise
popular representations of first-generation women farmers.
agriculture; farmer; women farmers; anthropology of food; Chicago; intersubjective ethnography; organic
farming; food studies; American Midwest; entrant farmers
feminist review 114 2016
(91â€“111) 2016 The Feminist Review Collective. 0141-7789/16 www.feminist-review.com
In the early nineteenth century, the confluence of geography and trade around Chicago resulted in a
substantively new form of agrarian land settlement: market-oriented and productionist agriculture
(Cronon, 1991). This was the precursor of the industrialised agriculture that today is widely understood,
in addition to extracting cultural costs, to deleteriously impact ecosystems, rural livelihoods and human
health (Soule et al., 1990; Shiva, 1993; van der Ploeg, 1993; Berry, 1996 ; Lobao and Meyer, 2001;
Carolan, 2012). Women have been historically underrepresented in agricultural research (Adams, 1991;
Lobao and Meyer, 2001). This ethnography of individual womenâ€™s resistance to industrial agriculture in
the Midwestern region of the US, where it is so firmly rooted, both adds to documentation of agrarian
womenâ€™s roles and reveals potentials and obstacles for resistant agriculture globally. As agrarian
populations continue to decline, the experiences of first-generation farmers are also little studied and
merit our attention.
The following ethnography of three first-generation women farmers draws on the synergistic approaches
of practice theory (Bourdieu, 1977; Ortner, 1984), historical geographical materialism (Harvey, 2000) and
intersubjective ethnography (Jackson, 1998). My aim in presenting this research is neither to be
prescriptive nor comprehensive, but to complicate our understanding of practitioners of resistant
agriculture by focussing closely on a discreet set of actors. I begin with a description of the
contemporary role of women farmers in the Midwest and the representation of them in popular discourse.
I then turn to the lived experiences of individuals. Investigating sensory experience, the gaze and
occupation of space reveals how these women alter and construct sociopolitical and material spaces.
Harmonies and tensions arise as these farmers, situated in time and place, negotiate the mingling of
rural and urban, global and local, commodity and value, body and environment, and past and future.
Drawing on permaculture theory, the spaces they occupy are theorised as edges of social fields wherein
The naturally occurring transitional ecological zones where ecosystems overlap are theoretically
fundamental to permaculture: â€˜the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive
systemsâ€¦ have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystemsâ€™ (Bellamy, 2011). Known as
â€˜edge theoryâ€™, in practice this means planting otherwise uniform plant groupings in an overlapping
pattern in order to create interactive spaces where more species thrive than would in a more uniform
bioculture (Holzer, 2011). Permaculture is popular among resistant agriculturalists, and borrowing edge
theory from it suits the study of their social world.
Utilising permacultureâ€™s edge theory anthropologically, symbolic and geographic spaces, where bound
social fields overlap, may be understood as social edges teaming with (dis)order and multiplicity. Edges
differ from liminal spaces in that they are not spaces defined by transience. Rather, edges are spaces of
sustained occupation. Unlike disturbed or marginal landscapes, where opportunistic species create
spontaneous biomesâ€”landscapes that Tsing (2012) effectively examines to reveal multispecies
relationshipsâ€”permaculture edges are cultivated, tended spaces. Application of edge theory adds to
existing research on boundaries and may be understood as boundary unmaking in so far as it upends the
â€˜stable behavior patterns of associationâ€™ that defines boundaries in favour of malleable and proliferating
patterns of association (Lamont and MolnaÂ´r, 2002, p. 168). I do not intend to present the edge as a
92 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
simile, whereby human-to-human relationships are likened to the non-human relationships described by
permaculture. Instead, I propose an expansion of the theory into the social world, allowing us to see
more clearly the more-than-human society that is prerequisite to an agricultural system that not only
emulates but also cooperates with nature.
The farms where I conducted participant observation over several weeks in the summer of 2014 operate in
such socio-spatial edges, where urban and rural, privileged and underprivileged, human and non-human
intermingle. For the farmers with whom I worked, living there requires and inspires a daily praxis that
considers the other frequently and opens room for the agency of others. This praxis, I argue, is a means
of cultivation enacted by these farmers that multiplies social actors and social meanings. Applying the
tenets of permaculture to social analysis indicates that individuals flourish in direct measure to the
flourishing of others, both human and non-human. In the edges they inhabit, these farmers are both
agents and subjects within intricate social biomes, devising methods by which to increase heterogeneity
and inclusionâ€”with varied successâ€”in order to increase the systemâ€™s overall vitality.
The difference between industrial agriculture and resistant agriculture is that one system idealises
control of natural systems and the other idealises cooperation with natural systems (Guthman, 2015). It
is important to note that both control and cooperation have benefits and drawbacks, and people
subscribing to either agricultural system struggle to achieve the respective systemâ€™s ideals.
Permacultureâ€™s edge theory is useful in understanding how the women I worked with navigate their
social reality in part because they apply it in shaping their material reality: the agricultural fields they
manage. During my fieldwork, this theory was a helpful tool with which to discuss and recognise issues of
identity, multiplicity and temporality with farmers and farm workers. However, the empirical limits of my
research also limit the scope to which this theory can be said to apply. In the specific historically
dependent landscape of the American Midwest, spaces where nature is controlled are clearly demarcated
from those where it is engaged cooperatively, so that the people I worked with were highly attuned to the
differences and, therefore, readily able to identify corollaries between their resistant farming practice
and their social practice. Moreover, knowledge of permaculture is a form of cultural capital to which not
all aspiring agrarians have access. The women depicted in the following ethnography are outliers who
have much in common with each other, but on the whole they are exceptional, not emblematic. Explained
through edge theory, they are a uniquely adapted â€˜speciesâ€™ that survives because of and contributes to
the diversified, even messy environment they inhabit. They may be anomalies rather than adaptives; time
alone will tell. As will be shown, these women claim a group identity based on opposition and resistance
to industrial agriculture and the teleological systems of oppression it exemplifies, rather than a
definitive assertion of authenticity based on specific criteria. This group exists within the multiple,
permeable boundaries of overlapping social fields that outline the edges they cultivate. Such
exclusionary ideation indicates that even permeable and overlapping boundaries can be selectively
exclusionary and that edges, like distinctly defined social fields, inspire boundary-defending work by the
in-group. Further research should apply closer scrutiny as to the differences and interactions between
social fields and edges. Whether edge theory is applicable in other agrarian and/or social contexts is
uncertain, and its usefulness can only be judged through application. Yet the edge as fecund ecological
site is to be found in every landscape globally, which speaks to the possibility of discovering other edges
in other contexts where new modes of social life are emerging.
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 93
the agrarian heroine
The representation of first-generation women farmers in the US needs troubling. Women are increasingly
highlighted as a set of actors uniquely able to make positive change through agriculture (Ghanem and
Stamoulis, 2011). Internationally, programmes focus on women in â€˜developing countriesâ€™ who are
responsible for 60 per cent to 80 per cent of food-crop production (Davies, 2014), but few women in the
US are agricultural producers. Midwestern womenâ€™s minimal role in farm labour can be traced in part to
the US farm crisis of the 1980s, when they were more likely than men to take off-farm employment to
bolster plummeting household incomes (Adams, 1991; Lobao and Meyer, 1995; Troublesome Creek,
A Midwestern, 1995). A woman is a primary operator on one in seven farms nationally (National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2014b), though that number is higher around Chicago where women are
primary operators on more than one in four farms (see Figure 1). The ongoing decline in farm populations
motivates state and independent organisations to pursue programmes and policies supporting entrant
farmers (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2014a), while the call for women specifically to begin
farming increases in both policy circles and the popular imaginary. For example, first-generation women
Figure 1 Source: United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (2015).
94 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
farmers have become iconic in the â€˜farm litâ€™ that is replacing â€˜chick litâ€™ (Matchar, 2013).1 A growing niche
market that appeals to actual or would-be women farmers is served by companies like Green Heron Tools,
the producer of â€˜hergonomicâ€™ shovels (Green Heron Tools, 2011; Smith, D.M., 2014). Popular
representations of these women have two definitive elements. First, their femininity is aligned with
natural landscapes. Second, they are â€˜newâ€™ farmers, defined by literal or ideological distance from the
corruption of their natal, urban home.
These representations belie complicated realities. The femininity that defines them reiterates a
conflation of feminine and rural that crystallised in the Midwestern US in the twentieth century (Casey,
2009). Now, as then, the rural American woman is represented as white, not by definition but by default.
The agrarian experience of people of colour, notably African slaves, is a gaping silence in taught US
history,2 and the resulting agrarian imaginary is peopled by descendants of European settlers. Idealised
rural women are represented as nurturing and non-threatening. This image appeals to â€˜conventionalâ€™
agricultural groups,3 like the Farm Bureau, which â€˜increasingly [turn] to female executives to offset a
hyper-masculine public imageâ€™ (Jack, 2012, p. 197). Women are more likely to take ecologically
conservationist approaches to farmland management than men (Bregendahl and Hoffman, 2010), but
assertions of biological determinism that essentialise women as gentle, virtuous and closer-to-nature
are neither new nor innocuous (Ortner, 1996, pp. 21â€“42).
The other defining element of these representations, â€˜newnessâ€™, has historical roots as well. The mid-century
back-to-the-land movement, among others, rejected urbanism, valorising ex-urbanitesâ€™ struggles to
become â€˜newâ€™ farmers (Kaysing, 1971; Nearing, 1990 ). Like back-to-the-landers, todayâ€™s heroine is
presumed to yearn for simpler times and a return to use-value economics. From 2008 to 2013, as a
participant in the robust food-system activist community in Chicago, I knew many entrant farmers well.
Most, male and female, groan at the mention of agrarian nostalgia, saying it is a barrier to communication
in personal and economic pursuits. Framing â€˜alternativeâ€™ agriculture as nostalgic reinforces the belief,
historically represented by agricultural research institutions, that it is impractical and unscientific in
comparison to industrial agriculture (Shiva, 1993; van der Ploeg, 1993). Thus, popular representations of
first-generation women farmers combine the long history of essentialising women themselves as closer-tonature and therefore less scientific, less efficient and less well suited to modernity with alternative
agriculture itself, marginalising the relevance of both in the contemporary food system.
The three farmers around which this ethnography is built were chosen for their demographic resemblance
to the popular imaginary. They are young adults born into the professionalised middle class. Although of
differing ethnic backgrounds, they are light-skinned and benefit from white privilege. Well travelled and
well educated, they possess significant cultural capital; each holds an advanced degree. They belong to
the theoretically troublesome category of â€˜womenâ€™ (Ortner, 1996; Bourdieu, 2001; Adkins and Skeggs,
2004). They are Stephanie Douglas of Les Brown Farm, Alison Parker of Radical Root Farm and Christina
Goy of Montalbano Farms. They work with people, plants and animals in agricultural fields near Chicago.4
While â€˜newâ€™ describes entrant farmers, often children of established farmers beginning their own operations, I use â€˜first-generationâ€™ instead to
specify farmers whose parents did not farm, following the convention of family farmers termed â€˜third-â€™ or â€˜eighth-generationâ€™, etc..
Scholars such as Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern and Michael Twitty are working to address this gap (Brahinsky et al., 2014; Twitty, 2015). 3
â€˜Conventionalâ€™ is commonly used to distinguish â€˜alternativeâ€™ agriculture from industrial agriculture.
The terms â€˜fieldâ€™ and â€˜fieldworkâ€™ are differently defined by social scientists and agriculturalists. As a social scientist studying agriculture, I
respect both disciplines by using these terms unmodified, allowing each to illuminate the other. Usage is implied through context, and I hope any
confusion this causes the reader is more productive than distracting.
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 95
In addition to formal and informal interviews with these three women, I spoke with a handful of their
customers, Alison and Christinaâ€™s husbands, and about a dozen hired farmhands. This larger group ranged
in age from teens to forties, and about half of them were men. These voices shape the following
ethnography, in which I attempt to complicate the representation of first-generation women farmers.
Within the fluctuating edges of social, ideological, historical and geographic fields, I pay special
attention to farmersâ€™ gendered, classed, sensing bodies as epitomes, rather than as subjects, of flux
(Csordas, 1994). Following feminist scholar Donna J. Haraway (1991, p. 170), I aim to â€˜suggest the
profusion of spaces and identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and the body
politicâ€™. As will be shown, these farmers express heterogeneous, embodied identities that both generate
and are moulded by the edges in which they live. Fluidity and resilience characterise both the way they
use and the way they think about their bodies, exemplifying their cultivation of multiplicity in the present
and a hope that embraces, even prefers, a multiplicity of potentialities rather than explicit outcomes.
to know by touch: the more-than-human edge
These farmers engage with and gather information from the enlivened world. Actively understanding and
working with the permeability of their own bodiesâ€™ boundaries, they recognise the overlap of human and
non-human fields and so choose to live in an edge where both have agency. One evening, as she washed
broccoli in the dim light of a work lamp, Stephanie regarded the tanned skin of her hands in the silvery
water and said, â€˜Itâ€™s an edge. Itâ€™s an actual edge â€¦ like in permaculture you talk about the place where
things happen. Like not in a woo woo sort of way, but literally in a powerful wayâ€™. The physical boundary
of the body (skin and membranes) is a site of action and reaction, response and cooperation where
human and non-human social fields overlap.
Skin is permeable, not a finite boundary separating human from environment, as I observed one orange
dusk. After a day of harvesting vegetables for customers, the five-woman crew from Montalbano Farms
and I drove to a friendâ€™s farm to pick blueberries for ourselves. Returning to the parked cars with buckets
of berries, two farmhands, Amy and Ruth, found a wide patch of mint and flopped to the ground, pulling
off their shoes. They rubbed the tender leaves into their sore feet and each otherâ€™s shoulders, laughing
and delighted by the soothing oils absorbing into their skin. This sparked a lively discussion among the
group about other medicinal plants that might be growing nearby or back in the fields and woods of
Montalbano Farms. There is a pronounced interest in herbalism among women farmers that is not echoed
by men. That our skin and membranes absorb unseen elements, be they nutrients, pesticides or
â€˜energiesâ€™, was a common observation, which the women I worked with used in order to illustrate the
multiple agencies moulding their relationships with the more-than-human world. Beneficial nutrients in
food plants were mentioned most often, but minerals in the soil, allergens and environmental pollutants
were frequently noted as well. The women spoke of the impact these had on their own bodies and of their
work to encourage or eliminate these things through their farming, pointing to the intersubjectively
constructed nature of the countless more-than-human relationships they recognise. These relationships
are visible because the women orient themselves within the edge of the symbolically bound fields of
human and non-human; if one instead views the human field and the non-human field as separate and
divided, such relationships disappear.
96 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
Skin is a permeable boundary and also a sensing organ; sensual experiences further illuminate the
multiplied relationships that occur in the human/non-human edge. All those I spoke with gave touching
plants and soil as recurrent reasons for choosing to farm. When asked what she likes best about farming,
Christina said, â€˜I just like to be quiet in the plantsâ€™. Small-scale organic vegetable production requires
lots of hands-on labour. Physical contact with the plants, while time intensive, was considered to be both
responsible agricultural practice and pleasurable. Resistance to mechanisation may help to explain why
most farms where women are primary operators are â€˜very smallâ€™, grossing less than $10,000 annually
(Hoppe and Korb, 2013). Despite significant economic pressure to adopt efficiencies that would reduce
hand labour, touching each plant many times from seed to sale was described as a justification for and a
motivation to farm organically on limited acreage. One farmhand described the sensation of her skin
vibrating every time she entered a hoop house of tomato seedlings, saying that the plants were
responding to her. Acknowledging that others may think it irrational, both Stephanie and Alison said they
understand the herbalistsâ€™ practice of apologising to a plant, recognising its right to agency, before
harvesting it by hand. The daily practice of touching plants enacts multispecies relationships that shape
the farmersâ€™ understanding of the farm environment as a more-than-human edge.
Interactions are not always pleasant. Cucurbits like squash and cucumber cause rashes on the skin, for
example. Relationships are negotiated; wearing long sleeves to harvest cucurbits is a reasonable
precaution. Farmers used touch to discover what plants, animals and soil required. They responded by
asserting their needs and those of the farm as a productive business, acquiescing to or negotiating with
non-human actors. Thorned plants weeded from crop rows were allowed to grow in uncultivated areas as
homes for insects, while those same bugs found in cultivated plantings became pests that were
immediately squished with the fingers. By no means was touch (nor sight, smell, etc.) the only way these
farmers gathered information and made decisions; smart phone apps and book collections, for example,
were valued resources. What distinguished the way these farmers made decisions is that varied sources of
knowledge, embodied sensory knowledge and received intellectual knowledge are valued and multiply
their means of knowing.
Touch exists at the selfâ€™s edge, the â€˜foundationally intersubjectiveâ€™ space between the â€˜sentient and the
sensibleâ€™, where experience originates (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 214; Desjarlais and Throop, 2011, p. 91),
and so structures a farmerâ€™s relationship to her environment. The relationship of human farmer to morethan-human farm observed among these women is non-hierarchical in that it is neither managerial as in
industrial farming nor custodial as in environmental conservation. Instead, the onsite operation of these
three farms relies on malleable relationships. Although all humans actually live inside the edge of human
and non-human interaction, the purposefulness with which these women cultivate that edge enlivens
their farms to become more-than-human societies.
female bodies as farming bodies: the gender edge
Declining numbers of women on heartland farms at the end of the twentieth century coupled with the rise
of representations of first-generation women farmers in food-system advocacy discourse today indicates
the need for studies of these women that â€˜tread the fine line between reifying (and thereby
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 97
â€˜â€˜naturalizingâ€™â€™) the genders on one hand, and, on the other, allowing the male/female distinction to
disappear back into the fog of gender-insensitive variablesâ€™ (Ortner, 1996, p. 138). Gender is a social
construct based on the presumption of â€˜the body as a sexually defined realityâ€™ that becomes â€˜the
depository of sexually defining principles of vision and divisionâ€™ (Bourdieu, 2001, p. 11). The ways in
which divisive vision was experienced and manipulated by these particular women reveal how they live in
and utilise gendered bodies as farming bodies, creating an edge where normative male and female
gender roles overlap (Figure 2).
The producer/manager roleâ€”often shorthanded to â€˜farmerâ€™â€”on Midwestern farms is the most prestigious
and usually held by men, especially on the middle- to large-scale grain farms that dominate the
landscape (Salamon, 1992, p. 120). I expected first-generation women farmers to be viewed sceptically
by their colleagues. Alison described her experience at a â€˜conventionalâ€™ fruit and vegetable farmersâ€™
conference saying, â€˜It was almost all men. I was probably one of four women thereâ€™. She did not
experience explicit gender discrimination, though research suggests she would have as recently as a
decade ago (Jack, 2012). By comparison, Alison said that when she attends the MOSES5 Organic Farming
Conference, there are usually as many, if not more, women than men. Held annually since 1990, MOSES is
the largest conference of its kind in the Midwest. With dances and poetry readings in addition to
Figure 2 Stephanie harvesting garlic scapes on Les Brown Farm, Marseilles, Illinois. Source: Photograph by Jeff Bivens, 2014.
The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) is a non-profit organisation promoting â€˜organic and sustainable agriculture by
providing the education, resources and expertise farmers need to succeedâ€™, and the conference it organises is commonly called, simply, MOSES;
MOSES, http://mosesorganic.org [last accessed 10 August 2014].
98 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
educational workshops, it is a highly social affair. The three women farmers I focus on here attend yearly.
When asked how men at MOSES respond to her choice to be a farmer, Stephanie said, â€˜When I talk toâ€”
likeâ€”older, white, male farmers, they are the most fucking excited. Theyâ€™re the most excited that Iâ€™m
likeâ€”doing itâ€™. Such excitement on the part of these men who farm organically and the high attendance
of women at MOSES point to the roots of the contemporary idealisation of farming women. 1960s
progressive white politics, including second-wave feminism and back-to-the-land utopianism,6
underpinned the organic farming movement when it began in California (Guthman, 1998). Stephanie
Even good old boys â€¦ dudes who come around, like neighbors who grew up on farmland around here but are interested
in converting to organic, come to see me and itâ€™s funny because Iâ€™m likeâ€”Iâ€™ve been doing this for barely five years. But
theyâ€™ll come over and theyâ€™ll ask questions.
For Stephanie and women farmers like her, these interactions are probably eased because, in this
context, they conform to expectations of class, race and heteronormativity. While within the industrial
agriculture paradigm the producer manager role is a masculine one, these women are accepted as
farmers by other farmers, industrial and resistant agriculturalists alike, because they farm in the
feminised context of organic agriculture. By occupying the overlap of masculine (Midwestern farmer) and
feminine (organic), they gain authority.
By contrast, non-farming urbanites question the authenticity of first-generation women farmers. When
performing as a storyteller in Chicago, Stephanie insists that, â€˜I am introduced as a farmer, just because
if nothing else I think it is important for people in the city to see what â€˜â€˜farmerâ€™â€™ looks likeâ€™. She does not
look like an iconic heartland farmer, an entrepreneurial and conservative farmerâ€™s son (Salamon, 1992;
Jack, 2012). Articles like Yes! Magazineâ€™s â€˜Think you know what a farmer looks like? Think againâ€™
(Christian, 2014) and the ongoing photojournalism project FarmHER7 are similarly motivated, challenging
us to see what â€˜farmerâ€™ looks like through portraiture that shows the agrarian power of womenâ€™s soiled,
labouring bodies. But Stephanie is getting at something more nuanced. She likes â€˜dressing upâ€™ now more
than before she farmed because it is disruptive; the appearance she adopts of gendered, classed heteronormativity is placed in tension with her gender- and class-aberrant profession. On finding out she farms
for a living, Stephanie says that her city-dwelling peers often respond by asking to see her hands, looking
for marks of manual labour, to see if her body verifies the claim her chic appearance contradicts.
Expectations of what farmers look like (e.g. male, dirty hands and work clothes) in the minds of
urbanites are complicated by the proliferation of rural femininity in popular media. This expectation
shapes farmersâ€™ behaviour. Late one morning in the farmhouse at Radical Root, Alison delayed heading
to town to post a flier for a canning class she would be teaching in order to take her sisterâ€™s advice and
change into a skirt. People in town would not want to see a real farmer, she said, they want a â€˜magazineâ€™
farmer. Stephanie wears a cocktail dress onstage; Alison wears a floral-print skirt to town. Both women
seek ways for their real, female, farming bodies to participate in urbanised contexts. The former disrupts
ideas of what womenâ€™s farming bodies should look like by presenting urban femininity, while the latter
reinforces them by presenting rural femininity. The result in each case is the same. Rurality permeates
Second-wave feminism did not fully consider the roles and needs of non-white and poor women (hooks, 1984), while the 1960s era back-tothe-land movement largely ignored the central problem of rural blacks: landlessness (Smith, K.K., 2014). 7
FarmHer, http://www.farmher.com/ [last accessed 19 July 2014].
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 99
urbanity, generating an edge wherein these assumedly separate social spheres meet and gender becomes
Womenâ€™s farming bodies are less problematic in the context of organic farming. Drawing on nostalgic
ideals, the family farming values of earlier generations, which prize hard work as an integral element of
rural femininity (Adams, 1991), seem to carry through for industrial farmersâ€™ sons who consider
transitioning to organic agriculture, and the political roots of organic farming have fostered a larger
female presence in the subset of Midwestern farmer who practice organic methods. The urban gaze is less
able to reconcile constructs of feminine beauty, urban glamour or rural prettiness with the physical
requirements (e.g. dirty jeans) and results (e.g. dirty nails) of manual labour associated with
masculinity. In both rural and urban contexts, women farmers are able to craft gendered identities that
affirm or oppose nostalgic ideals, affirm or oppose expected gender roles, and so gain access to
seemingly contradictory forms of symbolic capital. Any of these positions has the potential to elevate a
woman farmerâ€™s status, through dissonance or harmony, and these farmers take advantage of the
opportunities that proliferate within the edge of gender.
valuing work: a political edge
Alison is an ecofeminist, which she defines as â€˜likening the oppression of nature to the oppression of
women â€¦ women and nature often share a multitude of political fatesâ€™ (Parker, 2012a). Practising
sustainable agriculture is for her a morally motivated act of resistance to shared oppression made
possible by her bodyâ€™s physical ability. Demonstrating physical ability by cultivating productive
landscapes pushes against social assumptions of feminine frailty and dependency, while sustainable
agriculture fosters resilient ecosystems. Yet, as will be shown through Alisonâ€™s experience, firstgeneration women farmers occupy a political edge between feminism and conservative â€˜family valuesâ€™
that demands a more nuanced recognition of female ability if they are to advance the aims of
All of the women on these farms said that they sometimes worry about their appearance, but worry more
often and more seriously about injuries or illnesses that might impair the tool-like function of their
bodies. For them, the ultimate expression of their bodiesâ€™ value is the ability to produce healthy food by
working the land. Christina explains:
It feels good, like not only feels good for me. I love the work of being outside â€¦ working with my hands â€¦ itâ€™s great to
know that youâ€™re growing food thatâ€™s healthy and people like. Like, I could really love making weird little widgets to sell
to people, but thatâ€™s not necessarily a great contribution to society or the environment.
These farmers reclaim the productive capacity of their bodies in service to themselves, other humans and
non-humans, aspiring to a system of political relationship that may not directly dismantle industrial
agriculture and the processes of globalisation and commodification that it epitomises, but that stands
aside from it, thereby fostering socio-spatial edges where it is possible to experiment with more-thanhuman solidarity.
100 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
Vegetables themselves can be recruited as allies in dismantling oppression. Christina was invited to
attend career night at her local Girl Scout troopâ€™s meeting in Sandwich and found that she was the only
woman there in a profession requiring manual labour;8 the other presenters were in â€˜feminised
professionsâ€™, such as teaching and office administration (England, 2010). As the Girl Scouts considered
their futures, Christina was proud that her physicality and presence demonstrated another option. She
illustrated her point for me by talking about vegetables. Others had brought store-bought cookies to
share; Christina brought carrots she had grown. To the parentsâ€™ surprise, the girls loved the carrots.
Christina is proud of her ability to activate the potential inherent in the land by growing healthy food,
food that in turn broadens â€˜the horizons opened up by perceptionâ€™ for those who taste it (Merleau-Ponty,
1962, p. 207). Christina saw the girlsâ€™ enjoyment of the carrotsâ€™ taste as proof that when presented with
the option of organic farming, people are instinctually drawn to it. In Sandwich, this is especially
relevant. It is one of many â€˜small towns situated in a productive landscape but organised by consumption
practicesâ€™ that Salamon (2003, p. 3) terms post-agrarian. Christina and her carrots physically attested
to production-oriented alternatives to the ubiquitous consumption-oriented choicesâ€”choices particularly
emphasised for girls and womenâ€”in the US.
I can easily be accused here of constructing the very representation of agrarian heroines that I question.
But tensions arise alongside possibilities. A young mother and a farmer, Alisonâ€™s experience illuminates
this. When her first son Huck was an infant, she worked in the field, carrying him on her back. Since Huck
began to walk and with the arrival of her second son, she has found herself necessarily in the farmhouse
more than the field, as agrarian women the world over have historically (Adams, 1991; Ortner, 1996,
pp. 21â€“42). She misses fieldwork immensely and struggles to frame the challenging work she does nowâ€”
feeding the family, cleaning, managing Radical Rootâ€™s communications and marketingâ€”as politically
progressive. She and her husband Alex know her work is not only economically necessary, as for
Midwestern farmers of generations past (Adams, 1991), but also central to their shared sense of purpose.
Drawing on their already scarce time resources, Alison prepares all of the familyâ€™s meals. Alex explains
why they prioritise homemade meals prepared with food they or friends produce: â€˜I could just get a
sandwich at Jimmy Johnâ€™s, but then what is even the point of our whole lives?â€™9
Yet when Alison wrote about â€˜radical homemakingâ€™ as a way to resist â€˜succumbing to consumer-driven
cultural expectationsâ€™ for Bitch magazine, some fellow feminists responded hostilely, rejecting her
perspective as privileged and dangerously aligned with the â€˜new domesticityâ€™ (Parker, 2012b). One legacy
of capitalist agriculture in the US is the devaluation of â€˜externalâ€™ costs to the system (Adams, 1991),
epitomised by the USDA Extension education programmesâ€™ gendered focus on and later cessation of
education in the â€˜domesticâ€™ skills that sustain farm families (Jack, 2012, p. 175). Central to the female
agrarian question is how womenâ€™s unwaged labour, including care labour, can be valued without
replicating or reinforcing patriarchal dominance of the household. This question is central to Alisonâ€™s
everyday life. Given her socioeconomic status and progressive politics, the internalised cultural
expectation is that she should be performing higher prestige work. The clapboard farmhouse is not a
space in which Alisonâ€™s physical and mental labour is easily understood by herself or by others as
politically significant. Inhabiting this overlap of historic and contemporary womenâ€™s roles is isolating. For
The Girls Scouts is an organisation founded in 1912 to empower girls through outdoor survival skill education; Girl Scouts, â€˜Our historyâ€™, https://
www.girlscouts.org/who_we_are/history/ [last accessed 14 August 2014]. 9
Jimmy Johnâ€™s is a regional fast-food chain.
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 101
Alison, despite the certainty that the work she performs is integral to the success of Radical Root Farm
and the ecological stewardship that farm represents, the physical requirements of motherhood make it
difficult for her to enjoy her bodyâ€™s ability to labour in the field and conflict with her political identity.
Alison strives to make visible the externalised labour of farmwomen, which historically has been invisible
(Sachs, 1983), by identifying herself as a farmer and ecofeminist within the farmhouse. This edge
produces opportunities for deeper consideration of what is politically significant agrarian work, who is
able to perform it, and the challenges to intersectional solidarity.
hopeful landscapes: edges in place and time
A linear monotony of corn and soy stretches for miles; then a comparative chaos of trees, crops,
buildings, hoop houses and weeds erupts on this small lot. This is Les Brown Farm, where I began this
fieldwork. A few days in, well after selecting the farmers with whom I would work over the coming weeks, I
learned that these women have common ground more tangible than demographics. Christina, Alison and
Stephanie all became professional farmers on the Les Brown Farm. Having apprenticed or studied
elsewhere, in the US and abroad, this land is where each first assumed the role of farm
producer/operator. I believe this contributes to the ineffable quality I observed in them and wanted to
study: hope. When asked what outcome these women hope for, they resist naming direct results. The
outcomes they pursue are indefinite. They say that they want people to know there are options in life
that are not clearly apparent in the dominant paradigm, agricultural or otherwise. Stephanie suggests,
â€˜You thought that, but you donâ€™t have to think that wayâ€™. They glimpse what Crapanzano (2003) calls the
horizons of hope, which are intrinsically indefinite and unreachable. Moreover, hope is essentially
intersubjective. It is a product of the realisation that there â€˜is a limit to what I can do. I can only hopeâ€™
(ibid., p. 6); desire can be accomplished by oneâ€™s own actions, but hope requires interaction. Hope exists
in the present, the overlap of symbolic boundaries circumscribing past and future, a temporal edge that
breeds multiple potential futures. At Les Brown Farm, the fields are a physical representation of hope,
complicated and flawed as with all enacted utopias (Harvey, 2000). Having learned to farm in this place
orients how these women farm. They create farms as edges where symbolic fields such as race and class,
past and future, human and non-human overlap in real places.
The Les Brown Farm was acquired by Growing Home (the organisation that employs Stephanie) under Title
V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987), whereby unused government land is given to
non-profit organisations serving homeless populations. Growing Home delivers farm and job training to
people transitioning out of homelessness or incarceration. Under McKinney-Vento (ibid.), the land must
be actively utilised for thirty years before the organisation owns it free and clear. After twelve years, the
organisation decided that the cost of operating Les Brown Farm outweighed the benefits. Growing Homeâ€™s
newer urban farming programme had raised the organisationâ€™s public profile and development budget. In
Chicago, as elsewhere, urban agriculture has become a â€˜magic bulletâ€™, believed to cure multiple social ills
(DeLind, 2014, p. 98). It is a hallmark of progressive city governance, despite the fact that commercial
farms operated in Chicago proper through the 1920s (Spears, 2005). In 2014, during a visit to the Wood
Street Urban Farm in the predominantly black, poor and increasingly disenfranchised Englewood
102 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
neighborhood on the cityâ€™s south side, Mayor Rahm Emanuel brokered a deal with the upscale grocery
chain Whole Foods to donate $100,000 to Growing Home in order to, in the mayorâ€™s words, â€˜Get some shit
doneâ€™ (Chicagoland, 2014). Consolidating efforts in Englewood is a sound operational strategy for
Growing Home. Still, Stephanie sees an important reason for the predominantly black, urban population
that Growing Home serves to experience Les Brown Farm: â€˜My view is we also want to say to people like,
â€˜â€˜Hey, yes you can do all this in Englewood, and in your neighborhood, but also, you are not restricted to
your neighborhood. This whole country looks a lot of different ways and this oneâ€™s yours tooâ€™â€™â€™. As
someone who has seen the difference between the mobility that her privilege allows her and the barriers
presented to the trainees she instructs, Stephanie views the opportunity to experience Les Brown Farm as
a means to move towards social equity for the people of colour she trains. Hope for inclusivity is enacted
through occupation of space at Les Brown Farm and defines the use of land on all three farms.
The Midwest is largely planted to monocultures of genetically engineered corn and soy (see Figures 3 and 4).
â€˜Any field of corn that you see, itâ€™s highly unlikely that itâ€™s sweet cornâ€”yeah this is all just going to go to the
coop and get sold for the myriad of [inedible] corn products, and for exportâ€™, said Christina as we drove out
from her fields. Christina studied for a degree in social justice in California, researching and apprenticing at
Figure 3 Source: United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (2016a).
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 103
non-profit, social justice-oriented farms before entering into small-scale commercial farming with her
husband, Rob Montalbano. Alison, Stephanie and Christina, like many of their peers (Rotenberk, 2013), were
motivated to become farmers by a desire to increase social justice. Christina explained why she farms
commercially now rather than work for a non-profit organisation:
I donâ€™t want to pretend like Iâ€™m helping people. Thatâ€™s not what I want to do. I donâ€™t get a thrill out of saying, â€˜Look I
helped that person. Arenâ€™t I so great?â€™ â€¦ [I would rather let] people know that you can just do something. I think
people sometimes see our farm and theyâ€™re just like, wow, they made that. Yâ€™knowâ€”and it wasnâ€™t anything. This was just
a cornfield, and they made this happen andâ€”not that I think that is so great, but what I want them to do is to be likeâ€”
whatever it is that theyâ€™re excited about, or passionate about, to be like, â€˜Yeah, I can totally do thatâ€™.
This statement belies an uneasy tension in the work done by social justice organisations, like Growing
Home, that run the risk of enacting a missionary-like agricultural education delivered to the
disadvantaged by racially and economically privileged instructors. Each of these women is keenly aware
of privileges that enabled her to choose farming as a professionâ€”for example, the ability to pay for
Figure 4 Source: United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (2016b).
104 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
training or perform unwaged labour in order to learn the profession without suffering social censure. Like
their peers, they grapple with their ability to be authentic allies to people of colour (e.g. DeLind, 2014)
and attempt to leverage their access to land to create landscapes of equity.
Christina is the only farmer of the three who owns the land she farms, gifted to her and Rob from her
father-in-law. This is an exceptional luxury among all farmers in the region, regardless of race, who by
and large rent the land they farm. While undeniable financial and social barriers exist for others who
would follow in her footsteps, Christina does see her land as an occupiable space of resistance to the
industrial agricultural system. The industrial farming landscape surrounding her farm denies the agency
of humans and non-humans alike, and so is metonymic of systems of oppression. But Christinaâ€™s farm is
an edge cultivated for more-than-human diversity, where the landâ€™s past as a cornfield and future as a
thriving ecosystem are visible in the purposeful landscape that she offers up to others for interpretation,
as a means of igniting their hope and hers.
Humans and non-humans mingled on the three womenâ€™s farms during the weeks I was there. Plants were
seeded on a kitchen table at the Les Brown Farm house, while pullets awaiting entry to the henhouse were
in a tub nearby. Rob and Christina slept in a travel trailer inside the same immaculate barn where
tractors and compost were stored. On all three farms, people were always in the fields; plants, dirt and
animals were always in the houses. The effect was not chaotic, but convivial. The adjacent fields of corn
or soy were austere. I saw no humans in them, and farm workers said they had never seen anyone on foot
in those fields. Crop duster airplanes, tractors and combines were said to appear occasionally,
presumably though not necessarily operated by humans. These industrial fields were managed so as to
exclude all but one life form: corn or soy. Insects were driven out, resulting in huge populations on the
hospitable Les Brown Farm in particular. Industrial farms planted to monocultures are premised on
positivist, productionist logic (Shiva, 1993). The resulting habitus excludes physical interaction between
humans and non-humans, perpetuating the exploitation of natural resources and the devaluation of
non-human perspectives (Berry, 1996 ; Leopold, 1989 ).
By contrast, multiplicities of crops, actors and potentialities are valued on these womenâ€™s farms, and
peopleâ€™s habitus differ accordingly in these heterogenous edges. Various crop species were planted on
each farm, totalling several dozen varieties at minimum, and rotated to different plots each season to
improve soil fertility and reduce recurrence of plant diseases. Growing ten tomato varieties and multiple
colours of kale, kohlrabi or asparagus helped to boost sales by making displays more attractive and
playing to customersâ€™ curiosity. Farmers also delighted in the varying colours and forms, which Stephanie
called â€˜sexyâ€™ and Radical Rootâ€™s assistant farm manager, Nick, frequently shared on Instagram (see
Figure 5).10 While harvesting, crop varieties were tasted and compared. Human diversity was equally
valued, and lack of human diversity as marked by age, race, ethnicity and belief system is what farmers
most disliked about rural living. Urbanites came daily to Les Brown Farm, because it is part of the charter
of the non-profit organisation that ran it. At Radical Root, the land is held by a charitable trust that
requires it be open to the public, who come weekly for farm tours and to shop at the onsite farmstand.
Montalbano Farms relies on volunteers who come mostly from Chicago and exchange labour for a share of
the harvest (i.e. â€˜worker-sharesâ€™). While necessary to their business models, these visits are also
necessary to the farmersâ€™ non-monetised goals. â€˜The more people see the farm the betterâ€™, Alex, Alisonâ€™s
10Instagram, â€˜Softnucksâ€™, https://instagram.com/softnucks/ [last accessed 16 July 2014].
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 105
husband, said. Conversations among visitors to the farm from various backgrounds are critical to the
educational, translational goals that the farmers believe are central to the success of resistant
agriculture. Consciousness expanding is inspired by interaction with the biodiverse landscape and the
culturally diverse humans working it. Collaborative management of the more-than-human environment
enacts literal and theoretical alternatives to the industrial, globalised agricultural system evident in the
sea of corn and soy that is visible to people who visit these womenâ€™s lively and variegated fields.
â€˜Structural forces only reveal themselves in the lived reality of social relationsâ€™ (McNay, 2004, p. 177),
and on these farms those relations express a more-than-human structure. Les Brown Farm, Radical Root
and Montalbano Farms transform the land in accord with a fundamentally different structural model,
with different ideals, than industrial agriculture. Where industrial agriculture defends symbolic and
geographic boundaries that enforce separation and uniformity, resistant agriculture cultivates
heterogeneous edges. The resulting physical space coerces humans to alter their habitus in accordance
with that modelâ€”in effect, to practice it. This fosters a â€˜body politicâ€™, a â€˜farm politicâ€™ we might say, that
is a relationally invented yet tangible space experienced now, at the overlap of past and future. These
edges are fertile grounds for hope.
city limits: the rural/urban edge
Although the residents of these farms describe their surroundings as rural, as measured by population,
the US Census labels them urban (USDA, 2014). This confusion of symbolic fields and this overlap of rural
Figure 5 Nick shows off the beauty of biodiversity on his instagram feed with three varieties of lettuce grown at Radical Root.
Source: Photograph courtesy of Nicholas Peterson.
106 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
and urban can be seen and heard. The endless prairie sky opens above, airplanes in and out of Oâ€™Hare
International Airport crisscrossing it at all hours. The whir of cicadas and the whir of car traffic layer
aurally. Nick, of Radical Root, lives five miles from his last apartment in Chicago, but says his city friends
act like he lives â€˜on another planetâ€™. Wendell Berry (1996 ) calls for a more harmonious
relationship between city and farmland, where benefits flow in both directions rather than being
extracted from the countryside. Narrowly, this could be understood in purely financial terms, but Berry
and these farmers strongly desire the flow of culture and ideas as well. The farmers I worked with have no
animosity towards the city. They are strategically placed for ease of access to Chicagoâ€™s lucrative market
and vibrant society, and they try to bring urban cultural values to the social microcosms of their farms.
Such a hybridised existence is difficult to maintain and poorly understood, as illuminated by the
US Censusâ€™ (USDA, 2014) indiscriminate labelling of Chicago and Sandwich as urban areas, flattening the
different lived experience of the humans in those places.
The women I worked with saw the homogeneity of the monocropped fields surrounding them replicated in
the social world of the towns. While ethnic commonality of Germanic and Anglo descendent agrarian
communities once increased social stability in the rural heartland (Salamon, 1992), the specificity of
these social networks has been overshadowed by the spread of a uniform, consumer-oriented culture of
globalisation that is visible in â€˜the same fast-food restaurants, gas stations, motel chains, and
supermarketsâ€™ along the highways, making small towns across the country virtually indistinguishable from
the suburbs and from each other (Salamon, 2003, p. 7). The former urban dwellers, now rural farmers I
worked with found the uniformity of rural populations problematic. Alison worried that her sons would
grow up without knowing children of diverse racial, economic and cultural backgrounds, potentially
inhibiting their ability to be empathetic with those different from themselves through lack of practice.
Farmers missed seeing faces and bodies different from their own, as they were accustomed to do in
cities. They see beauty in multicoloured people as much as multicoloured lettuces. The agrarian heroineâ€™s
rejection of urbanism was not evident in the women I studied. Rather than turning away from urban
values, these women wanted to maintain the socially progressive idealsâ€”like feminism, racial equality
and artistic expressionâ€”that they associate with urban living. Stephanie sounds like the many â€˜Midwest
farmers daughtersâ€™ who left the country for the city in the last decades of the last century (Jack, 2012),
saying, â€˜I love parts of rural living, but I need to live in or near a city where I can have other parts of my
lifeâ€™. This is perhaps especially true in the Midwest, where urban centres are liberal â€˜blue dotsâ€™ within
conservative â€˜red statesâ€™. Just as these women negotiate space for their bodies in urban contexts, they
try to make space for their cultural values in rural contexts.
These farmers actively cultivate a social edge where they can flourish, overlapping the urban and the
rural, beginning with their own farms and towns. Farmhands are hired from a range of geographic, ethnic
and economic backgrounds. While on Christinaâ€™s crew, I worked with the daughter of Armenian
immigrants, a working-class man who grew up down the road and a wealthy white widow from Chicago.
Customers and friends from Chicago and further afield are invited to visit. In this way, and in subtler
ways, the farmersâ€™ acreages are sites of hybridised sociality. Rural and suburban neighbours are generally
welcoming to these farmers. Alison is â€˜working to incorporate [our family] moreâ€™ into Libertyville society,
where the grocery store employees recognise her and her sons, even if she only shops there as a last
resort. Still, farmers feel isolated in these post-agrarian landscapes.
Megan Larmer feminist review 114 2016 107
Despite obvious and historically persistent dependencies (Cronon, 1991), rural and urban social values
remain separated in the heartland. One evening in the Les Brown Farm kitchen, Stephanie, the assistant
farm manager George, and I debated economic policy and shared travel stories over a bottle or two of
home-brewed beerâ€”a scene I can imagine replicated in a cramped Chicago apartment this weekend,
maybe even in a prairie farmhouse a century ago, but that is anachronistic in the post-agrarian
landscape where it actually happened. Some of those I interviewed were thinking of moving away from
the Midwest, to California or Vermont, where one can be â€˜both country and progressiveâ€™, as one
farmhand, Camelia, put it. In the closed context of their farms, individuals were relatively able to move
freely between valuations of rural, agrarian ideals and urban, progressive idealsâ€”selectively bringing to
the fore those that support multiplicity and diversity in both human and non-human features. In this
way, the farms were hybridised, but rarefied, edges of rural and urban fields. While bodies and land can
be experienced and manipulated in ways that reinforce the farmersâ€™ resistance to dominant paradigms
and invite others to hope for multiplied possibilities, it is particularly difficult for farmers to expand the
rural/urban social edge to include the towns and communities where they live.
â€˜What is a farmer?â€™ Stephanie, Christina and Alison had a hard time answering this question, but agreed on
three points. First, a farmer grows food. Second, the food is for her community. The term community was
nebulous, primarily distinguishing farming from gardening in that a farmer grows food for others outside of
her family, though she does not necessarily sell food. Their third criteria, and clearest, was oppositional
rather than definitive. The agriculturalists who managed the farmland bordering their own were not
farmers. Growing corn for ethanol or processed food, or soy for animal feed may be agriculture, but it was
not farming. Stephanie summed up her position: â€˜Itâ€™s not for me to say [whoâ€™s a farmer]â€¦ but I do think
itâ€™s for me to say, if youâ€™re growing shit for KFC â€¦ you are a factory owner, and just because itâ€™s [plants]
not humans who work in the factory [doesnâ€™t change that]â€™.11 While this definition of â€˜farmerâ€™ is somewhat
insensitive to the debt cycle that can shackle individuals to industrial agriculture, it reveals much about
how and why these women farm. Their resistance to the concerted forces of homogenisation and division
manifests as cultivated edges, both symbolic and place-based, where social fields overlap and multiplicity
thrives. They work to protect and grow the edges that energise resistant, resilient, more-than-human
agricultureâ€”an agricultural system wherein some farmers wear cocktail dresses, raise families, are quiet in
the plants. While we must take care to resist collapsing the complex realities that first-generation women
farmers live into an idealised heroine, they do give us cause to hope.
My gratitude to Harry G. West, Jakob Klein, Jayita Battacharya, Barley Blighton, Wendy Springer, the
anonymous reviewers and the editors for their invaluable guidance, and to Jeffery Bivens for his
photographs. I am indebted to all the farmers, named and unnamed, who made this research possible.
11â€˜KFCâ€™ refers to Kentucky Fried Chicken, a global fast-food franchise.
108 feminist review 114 2016 cultivating the edge
Megan Larmer received her MA in Food Anthropology from SOAS, University of London in 2014 and
continues her research as an Associate Member of the SOAS Food Studies Centre. Her interests include
heritage studies, biodiversity, embodiment and the political economy of food.
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