Iowa Public Television


Filmmaker Devotes Life to Documenting American Farm Women

posted on April 21, 2006

Conventional wisdom about who owns and operates America's farms and ranches would have us believe that's a role served only by men. But the number of agricultural operations on which women are the principal owner-operators is on the rise ... and at last count stood at nearly a quarter-of-a-million. Some of those operations are mainstream, but many are small sustainable farms that raise high-value specialty crops. Either way, this feminine relationship with the land embodies the rural ethics of hard work and pride. In Michigan, a filmmaker and photographer has devoted her career to chronicling the lives of these extraordinary women. Laurel Bower Burgmaier has this profile.

Filmmaker Devotes Life to Documenting American Farm Women

Last week on Market to Market, we introduced you to three women involved in very different types of agriculture --representing the hundreds of thousands of women nationwide who are landowners and farmers. One of the women was Denise O'Brien, long-time family farm advocate and founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, or WFA, an organization made up of women interested in organic and sustainable agriculture.

Denise O'Brien, WFA: "Most of the women involved in the Women, Food and Agriculture Network are small producers. And, we're not just producers. We have academics; we have environmentalists; we have women who live in rural towns. So, not all the women grow their own food."

O'Brien admires the women she meets who are involved in the sustainable agriculture movement, and is especially pleased that one of her friends, Cynthia Vagnetti, is documenting a variety of women across America involved in this type of farming.

Cynthia Vagnetti, East Lansing, MI: "I've witnessed a social movement in how agriculture is done. The kind I document is sustainable agriculture. It's a direct marketing agriculture and entrepreneur spirit to ask questions, not be complacent, and to grow and foster relationships. It's a very vibrant kind of agriculture."

Growing up in Detroit, Cynthia Vagnetti didn't know a lot about farming. She was a dental hygienist for 30 years, but always loved taking photographs of the human experience. When she earned a master's degree in photography in the late 1980s, her thesis was about the family farm --at a time when the farm crisis was in full force.

Cynthia Vagnetti, East Lansing, MI: "While in grad school, I experienced farmers losing their 3rd and 4th generation farms. I started to see the erosion in small-town America. While farmers were losing their farms, there was a division of the way people saw agriculture and how it should be. It was coming from an initiative of women in the Midwest who said they're not going to take this. 'We're not going to lie down and lose our farms and communities."

For the past 15 years, Vagnetti has devoted her life to documenting American women involved in this type of agriculture through black and white photographs, oral histories and video productions. The video shown in this story is a compilation of interviews with nearly 30 upper Midwest farm women.

One woman in particular, Lisa French from Kansas, said something that would forever influence Vagnetti.

Cynthia Vagnetti, East Lansing MI: "This is what she said, 'Our imagination is shaped by cultural ideas of what a farmer is. When I read my children's story books that have to do with farmers -and there are a lot of them -the farmer is always a man, the woman even though she's working with him, is the farmer's wife."

Vagnetti's work is a tribute to the women who farm every day to feed America and the world. She chronicles their lives to preserve their stories, and to help give them the credit they deserve.

Cynthia Vagnetti, East Lansing, MI: "What was once an invisible farmer is now leading the way in the sustainable movement."

Vagnetti's photographs and video depict the grit and tenacity of farm women all over the country. Through 2008, a formal exhibition of her photographs will travel to museums nationwide. And, she is collaborating with a playwright on a dramatic performance called "What Will Be in the Fields", a play based on oral histories from her interviews.

No matter the medium, Vagnetti is proud that her work is helping make society aware of how women have been and will continue to be important contributors to agriculture.

Cynthia Vagnetti, East Lansing, MI: ""If there's a lesson I can learn from them it's that human beings really need to pay attention --pay attention to your environment, people next to them, and listen. These qualities of observation that I've experienced have enriched my life."

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


Tags: agriculture farmers filmmaking gender news women