Women of the Land: Marji Guyler-Alaniz’ FarmHer Project (With a Dedication to Mr. Lee)

Lois at Dairy-Air. Lois has a micro-dairy with about 15 goats. She makes artisan cheeses.
Lois Reichert at Reichert’s Dairy Air. Lois has a micro-dairy with about 15 Nubian and La Mancha goats. From their milk she makes award-winning artisan cheeses.

Some of you may have seen the very memorable Dodge Ram Super Bowl commercial about farmers this February. To recap: as Paul Harvey recites “So God Made A Farmer” (written in 1978 for a Future Farmers of America speech) romantic images of the American farmer flash on the screen (mostly rugged, weathered men in worn jeans and boots and hats, working in fields, tending livestock, driving tractors, joined with daybreak and sunset landscapes, a church, the flag, etc.). It was a beautifully and cunningly crafted commercial and it made most of us go all gooey inside, full of admiration for that powerful icon, the American farmer.

For me, the afterglow lasted about a minute. Then I thought, c’mon, this is about selling trucks! And besides, isn’t most of our food grown by big ag? (I had to admire the master manipulation by American admen, though, even as I detested it.)

Last week I learned that another viewer was bothered by a different skewed aspect of this commercial.

Namely, the lack of women farmers.

In the commercial they are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth. Actually, there are more cattle than women represented.

The bothered viewer was Marji Guyler-Alaniz, a 33-year-old Iowan who had spent over a decade working in the agricultural industry. She knew her farmers and she knew a lot of them were women. In fact, women now represent the fastest growing segment in farming and the number of women-operated farms has been exploding. (A USDA blog post, entitled “Women Farmers: One Million Strong”, stated that a recent Economic Research Service report showed the number of women-operated farms has more than doubled in the last thirty years.) Yet, like most of us, when Guyler-Alaniz thought “farmer” she automatically thought “male.” She said it didn’t click with her until the Super Bowl ad that we had this stereotype.

The discrepancy between myth and reality stayed in her mind.

Guyler-Alaniz related her “ah-ha” moment during an interview in Modern Farmer. “I read a story afterward that criticized the lack of images of women in the commercial,” she said. “Two nights later, I woke up in the middle of the night knowing that’s what I had to do. I had to get photos of women farmers out there, build an archive of these women who have long farmed or are getting into farming.”

Dinnertime at Twyla and Kim's Earth Biscuit farm.
Dinnertime at Twyla and Kim’s Earth Biscuit farm.

Guyler-Alaniz decided the photographs would be simple and honest—nothing posed, nothing staged, just real women doing real work. She would call the project FarmHer and it would bring awareness about the women in American agriculture.

She knew her task would be rewarding, but it wouldn’t be easy. She would have to find the farmers, and funding, and it would take time, a rare commodity for the mother of children ages 2 and 4. She forged ahead, launching her FarmHer website, and she began photographing farmers this summer, traveling while her husband watched their children.

IMG_1698 copy 2-2 (2)

Even though this is the inaugural year of the FarmHer Project, and Guyler-Alaniz has, so far, only photographed women farmers in Iowa, her beautiful images are starting to get a lot of attention. Last week she was featured in Upworthy where over 20,000 viewers clicked on her website in one day. There have been other articles written about her project, including a very insightful one that includes information on America’s women farmers written by Tove K. Danovich of Food Politic (you can read it here).

My personal favorite: a stunning silhouette of Angelique at Wabi Sabi Farm.
My personal favorite: a stunning silhouette of Angelique at Wabi Sabi Farm.

Guyler-Alaniz wants to expand her project. She’s received invitations from women farmers around the country to visit their farms. She is working hard to make that happen, and is fundraising through selling prints of her photographs, T-shirts, and canvas bags.

To see all the beautiful photographs from the FarmHer project, along with other items you can purchase to help with funding, visit the website. (Needless to say, these items would make fabulous gifts this holiday season.)

* * *

Postscript:  An Explanation of the Dedication

This project struck a chord with me,  not only because I care deeply about America’s farmland and farmers (I grew up surrounded by farms in rural southeast Missouri), but because it stirred memories of what it has meant to me to navigate our male-dominated world.

I’d like to share my personal “FarmHer” story. In 1978, the same year that Paul Harvey gave his speech “So God Made a Farmer” I was a sophomore in high school. Our town was very small, population 1,000. We had two major clubs students could join—Future Farmers of America (males who took Agriculture) and Future Homemakers of America (females who took Home Economics). That year I decided that I was bored with Home Economics. For years I’d known how to cook and I didn’t like sewing. The other things we learned, instruction on putting on makeup, embroidering, just seemed . . . silly. On the other hand, the guys studied things I was genuinely curious about—plants and animals. I loved nature and I did well in biology class. Besides, Agriculture class looked fun. We’d watch the boys get on the bus, taking off on another of adventure, a field trip to some farm, soon to receive a front row education in what “it” (life with that capital “L,” and business, and making your own way in the world) was all about.

I mentioned my desire to some male classmates. I was warned that it was “something that I probably wouldn’t like”—and they told me they had to witness (and maybe even participate in, I can’t remember) the castrations of pigs, and births of calves, bloody stuff like that. The subtext was clear: it was “not a place for a girl.” I didn’t buy it. “I can handle it,” I said (and I knew that I could).

Determined to follow my desire, when it was time to sign up for classes that next semester I wrote in “Ag” on the card instead of “Home Ec.”

I was soon called into the principal’s office. Mr. Lee was wearing his usual outfit of dark blue suit, white shirt, red tie, black-rimmed glasses, shiny black shoes. His dark hair was cropped, severe, in the style popular with authority figures of the day. He knew me as a student who made good grades, but also one who also liked to push the boundaries. I had been in his office a few times in junior high, once for truancy and several times for general misbehaving (chewing gum, cutting up in class), but that was three years ago. I didn’t think my past reputation would matter now. I was a young lady. I’d been in Home Economics for three semesters.

There was no discussion. “I am changing your class to Home Ec.,” said.

And that was that.

I wasn’t empowered enough to go to my Dad and stepmother about this. They had five other younger children to deal with and they had made it clear at other times that they backed whatever rules the authority figures enforced anyway. I also felt a little guilty. I look back now and of course I was made to feel I was “overstepping my place.” And for full disclosure—my motives weren’t 100% pure. I liked boys a lot, better than girls, really, at that time. The thought of being in a classroom full of them was enticing indeed.

I left the office and let my anger and disappointment fester in silence.

Researching this post I discovered that girls were officially allowed in Future Farmers of America starting in 1969. Obviously it took more time for it to be socially acceptable across America, and especially in small towns.

Today, as our Thanksgiving holiday nears, I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Marji Guyler-Alaniz, and to all the women farmers.

—Sandra Knauf

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