Mon 24 Oct 2011
‘How does it feel to be a farmer’s wife?’
‘It feels great TO BE A FARMER, and ah, I dunno, I’ve been married to Stuart for a bajillion years – feels kinda the same as always to be his wife.’
‘I’ll go ask Stuart where to plant this,’ our helper for the day says TO ME and walks away to find him.
‘You don’t have the strength or the skills to do what he does.’
These are just some of the phrases that have made me despair in these first two months of farming. We came here with a shared vision – to be sustainable, ethical pig farmers. We’d been heading towards this decision for a long time, and once we worked out what we wanted to farm, we spent the year researching pigs – emphasis is on we. We came armed with a reasonable amount of knowledge for city slickers, but also with a huge learning curve ahead of both of us.
I was obviously aware that sexism is an issue in agriculture, I just didn’t consider how it would affect me. As a vocal feminist in academic (and previously secondary education and corporate) spaces, I’m no stranger to sexism in the workplace. But I thought I had a handle on it. Anyone can see from my blog and interactions with me that I (as part of we) have become a farmer – this is the newest phase in my many lives, and I am embracing it wholeheartedly.
So here we are on the farm, learning together. We have a mad menagerie of animals for whom I have largely assumed the leadership. Both of us care for them, but overall, I spend a bit more time feeding them, obsessing about their well being, and drafting a whole farm plan that will guide our paddock rotations and fodder planting schedule. We both spend hours out there working on fences.
Stuart’s dad described this to me as, ‘You’re a planner, and Stuart’s a do-er’. With all due respect, while it’s true that I am more of a planner and Stuart can’t seem to stop doing, I hardly think my planning habits are slowing down my doings, and I am growing the forearms to prove it! Ah, but see, there I go – being defensive. Oh, how I despise being put in this corner.
I have never been anything‘s wife. I’ve always been my own thing who happens to be married.
One of the most exasperating aspects of the seemingly relentless gendering of farmers is the ways in which we do in fact fall into traditional roles. The most obvious one occurs around cooking. I have not given up my role as the primary cook in our house, a role I happen to adore. But it results in me coming in from the paddocks an hour or more before Stuart (and other helpers on the farm) to do meal prep, and consequently less involvement outside, especially when others are here to stay. So visitors witness me inside more, and I feel the need to be there to provide for everyone – compounding both their stereotypes and my frustration.
There are other behaviours that compound the gender roles – Stuart’s background is in building, so of course his skillset while we construct fences, erect new gates, and convert a shipping container into our new bedroom and study is a bit more useful than mine. I therefore defer to him on building matters, which I think is the right thing to do for quality control. But this also leads to further assumptions about who is doing what and how much, most of which involve assuming Stuart is a farmer and I’m a homemaker.
Stuart is a lot stronger than me, but in fact very little of the work requires mega-strength, and most can be done by normal strength people such as myself, especially if we work in pairs. Sure, Stuart can lift and carry huge fence posts inhuman distances, but I’d venture to say most farmers actually either couldn’t, or just wouldn’t. They’d use tools rather than brute strength, just as I do.
It’s interesting that nobody ever felt compelled to call me a ‘builder’s wife’ or similar – perhaps partially because our professional identities were distinct? But farming is such a masculine space in Australia – nobody has asked Stuart how it feels to be a farmer’s husband, I can assure you. And it’s such a disenfranchising experience having people fail to see you – in no other profession have people failed to acknowledge me for my work.
Let’s face it, we’re both learning farming skills and we’re both out there building and fixing fences, digging holes, feeding animals, and planting trees and fodder crops. I wouldn’t ask anyone to call me a builder, which I’m not, but I do want the respect of being called a farmer, because I am one.