The latest Census of Agriculture confirmed what virtually everyone in rural America already knew: the number of U.S. farms continues to decline – and demographics are shifting in the Heartland.
The Census recorded a total of 2.1 million farms in 2012… down more than 4 percent from the previous tally conducted in 2007.
America’s farmers are getting older, even as the number of younger farmers grew slightly. Minorities increased their presence in rural America, but farm country remains overwhelmingly white, and less than 15 percent of U.S. farms list women as the principal operator.
Anyone who’s lived and worked on a farm recognizes the pivotal role played by those of the female persuasion, and one Midwestern photographer is documenting their important contributions. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.
It is a fact that the majority of farmers in the U.S. are white males yet a growing number of women are joining their ranks. Women currently run about 14 percent of the nation’s farms, up from only 5 percent in the 1980s.
A large number of those operations run primarily by women tend to be smaller and more diverse. Even though there are grain and livestock operations among them, many are part of the growing organic and local foods movements.
While women have always been an important part of agriculture, photographer Marji Guyler-Alaniz felt they were mostly undocumented.
Commercial: “And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker. So God made a farmer.”
Watching this commercial about American farmers during the 2013 Super Bowl inspired Guyler-Alaniz.
Marji Guyler-Alaniz, FarmHer: “It was this moment where I was like, I’ve dealt with a lot of farm imagery throughout my career and whatever you see in any magazine or publication that you pick up, it’s never, you just never saw it. So, I had this kind of ah-ha moment as silly as that might sound. I woke my husband up, literally at like 2 in the morning and I was like, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to start photographing women farmers, or women in agriculture, not just farmers, you know, ranchers, whatever, and in all types of agriculture.”
And the project FarmHer was born. FarmHer documents the important role that women play in the agriculture system. Through photography, Guyler-Alaniz captures women producers running diverse farming operations.
Marji Guyler-Alaniz, FarmHer: “I am super impressed by them. They have a work ethic and they work so hard and one thing I will say I see every single time is that they have a passion and a love for what they do. It’s hard work, day in and day out. There’s no vacations. There’s no breaks. And so they love what they do and I see that time and time again.”
Landi McFarland-Livingston is one of Guyler-Alaniz’ subjects. She is a 6th generation farmer and 4th generation Angus breeder. McFarland-Livingston is co-owner of Hoover Angus Farm, a 400-head cattle ranch located in southern Iowa.
Landi McFarland-Livingston, Ellston, Iowa: “I really love Angus cattle. I think it’s in my blood. I really do. My great-grandfather started the Angus herd 86 years ago, you know, I’ve been born and raised in it. I love the lifestyle. I love the genetics. I love the EPDs, expected progeny differences, that help us make better beef. And I just love that. I love looking out on a pasture of cows and seeing them be happy. So it’s in my blood. I love it.”
McFarland-Livingston’s operation sells Angus genetics worldwide. It is one of the oldest purebred Angus herds in the nation and she is proud to be a part of FarmHer to showcase that.
Landi McFarland-Livingston, Ellston, Iowa: “Marji’s images that I’ve seen of me are really things that I wouldn’t have expected. I mean, I know I do chores every day and she took pictures of me just doing my chores, going about my business, but she has a really unique ability to capture things. And when I looked at those pictures, I was like wow that is pretty cool and that’s pretty cool for the consumer to see the things that we do on a daily basis and we don’t even think about, but they’re a part of what we do.” Lois Reichert is another of Guyler-Alaniz’ subjects. She has been running a dairy goat operation in rural Knoxville, Iowa for more than 8 years. Reichert’s small herd of nearly 15 head is made up primarily of LaMancha goats.
Lois Reichert, Knoxville, Iowa: “Their personalities. They each have a very individual and fun personality. I like to say they’re a combination between dogs and cats. They have the independence of cats, but the friendliness and most of the time desire to please of dogs. They’re just fun. They’re loving. I don’t know. I still, every day, the most satisfaction I get in my day is looking out and looking at my healthy, happy animals. I don’t know. It just does something for me.”
Reichert makes and sells cheeses from the goat milk her animals produce. She sells most of her cheese at the Des Moines farmers market, but also ships a weekly supply to a distributer in Chicago.
While it was hard being photographed at first, Reichert says Guyler-Alaniz is good at putting a person at ease.
Lois Reichert, Knoxville, Iowa: “It was really embarrassing at first especially the great big picture of my face. What I really loved with the images she captured of what I do, of the goats, and I told her, the brushes and the things like that. I was blown away the first time I saw her pictures. They were not at all what I expected. So, after the initial embarrassment, it has really been delightful because it’s like I explain to people that this captures who I really am and what I do. It expresses in a way that nobody else has been able to capture.”
Guyler-Alaniz says FarmHer also gives women a voice. Many people who visit the website communicate with one another.
Marji Guyler-Alaniz, FarmHer: “If it gives people comfort in that there’s others doing what they’re doing. I hear that all the time. Living in a rural area and working by yourself is isolating. And so seeing those other women or having that connection to them just visually is a sense of community.”
Having begun in 2013, FarmHer is still in its infancy. To date, Guyler-Alaniz has photographed 32 women farmers mostly in Iowa and the Midwest. In the future, she hopes to travel nationwide and to other countries to profile many more women.
Marji Guyler-Alaniz: “I feel, personally, that from a photographer’s standpoint that I’m so happy with how they’re turning out. I feel like they’re actually showing what I see or what you would see when you’re on a farm. I think they show that. And so that makes me excited. Every time I take more pictures and look at them, I’m like yeah, this is what I wanted to have happen.”
For Market to Market, I’m Laurel Bower Burgmaier.