It is 7:30 pm on Friday, March 3 in San Diego. The sun has set and the chilly evening is a compelling argument for checking the weather forecast before packing only sleeveless garments upon heading out of Wisconsin. Approximately 50 women are assembled in the torch-lit enclosure of the Moray Lounge at the Catamaran Resort and our mutual intent is to make introductions and get to know the faces that will comprise the next day and a half of the National Farmers Union Women's Conference: Shaping the Future. It is an overly large group for any kind of cohesive discussion, so we began introducing ourselves to those seated around us. We shuffle around a bit, confusing the heck out of the waitress who is trying to serve drinks to moving targets, and began our gathering with what is often argued as the most important tool of a female farmer's toolbox: networking with other women. Simple conversations begun from "Hi, I'm Mary Jo from Wisconsin!" turn into stories of shared experiences, of challenges and triumphs, and new adventures. Usually this is the case. This was what I had come to expect, having attended several potlucks and women-centered farming events. On this night, however, the moment I mentioned Wisconsin to the latest woman seated beside me, I was met with an almost-eye-roll from the decidedly-not-Wisconsinite seated next to me. "Are you ALL from Wisconsin?!" she asked in a mostly-joking-but-almost-exasperated way. "Yes, there are a lot of us here," was what my brain on 10pm Central Standard Time remembers mumbling back.
It was true. Of the 50-ish women seated in friendly discussion, over a quarter of them were from Wisconsin. Fellow WFU members - take a hearty sense of pride in this fact. 22% of the participants of the Women's Convention hailed from WI. Of the 10 presenters in the jam-packed schedule, 2 were our very own Kriss Marion and Lisa Kivirist. Wisconsin also dominated the most recent and largest class to date of Beginning Farmers Institute (BFI) attendees, boasting 6 of the 17 participants. We were a force! We represented. And our diverse numbers speak to the state of farming progress in our beloved home state. This is less exciting if one attended hoping to meet women from lots and lots of places, but for us of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, this is a testament to our powerful position in shaping the future of the family farm. Because we all know the statistics: the average American farmer is a white male in his 60s. If we are to save the family farm from extinction, we must turn that paradigm on its head.
And so we are - one convention, one potluck, one Facebook group forum, one list-serve, one campaign for local, state, and national government at a time.
Why is a female-centered conference like this necessary? Why not simply present the information to any aspiring farmers who seek it out, regardless of gender? It turns out that we do this as well. The BFI program, gathered concurrently in San Diego, shared most of the same presenters as the Women's Conference but in their separate group. The women of the BFI class joined our Women's Conference for lunch on Saturday for a panel discussion on their experiences as female farmers. Folks, the stories they told were heartbreaking. One woman told us unabashedly that she realized early on that surviving as a farmer meant hiring that Average Farmer type to do her bidding in the auction ring, that prior to doing so, she was consistently outbid on principal alone. Another told us of a neighbor calling to buy corn. The neighbor insisted on dealing with this female farmer's father, instead of her. "Sure. You'll still have to make the check out to me." More often that not, these stories are the rule and not the exception. For this reason, the value of a female-centered forum like the NFU's Women's Conference is priceless.
According to the 2012 U.S. Ag Census, there are 969,672 female farmers in the United States. They control 7% of U.S. farmland and account for 3% of sales.
Take a moment to check in with your reaction to these numbers - are they higher or lower than your expectations? I'd reckon your answer has a lot to do with your farming peer group. Seen from the vantage point of my own - that group made up largely of "Soil Sisters" in the South Central part of the state - the numbers seem shockingly low. Yet given that the U.S. only started accounting for female farmers in 1978, it might be argued that our means of counting the women has not yet worked out the systemic kinks. Many women, as we know, farm with their spouses or partners. As the census currently recognizes only the Principal Operator in a household, that designation most often falls to the man of the farm, leaving their female partners uncounted.
Women account for between 19% and 24.8% of elected officials in public office. While the sheer disproportionate representation of women in elected office might be discouraging, we learned that women win the races that they run for just as often as men. They're simply not running. Study after study shows that women tend to undervalue their professional skill. We learned that women most often need to be asked to run for office or for a board position. So ask them! We learned that when women simply show up, again and again, they become necessary cogs in the machine of democracy, and of cooperation. WFU women - join me in showing up!
Let us visualize together the three-legged stool that is the Farmers Union: Cooperation, Legislation, and Education. Our WFU board has demonstrated the Farmers Union commitment to these tenets with their offering of scholarships for women like me to attend the Women's Conference. I was humbled and so grateful be given this opportunity to represent our state in San Diego. I was thrilled to realize that we did so in such clearly disproportionate numbers. Our state membership total garnered only 4 voting spots at the convention, a pittance really when compared to other states' delegations, but there were 37 of us there showing up and representing in an unofficial capacity. 37 voices for Wisconsin - voices of women, men, seasoned farmers and new. Our diversity is one of our greatest assets. Let us continue to work together in this spirit of Cooperation to advocate for the family farm.
Mary Jo Borchardt is a Farmer Florist and Homesteader with husband Andrew and children Isadora and Errol at Five Green Acres in Poynette, WI. She is currently the Vice President of the Columbia County Chapter of Wisconsin Farmers Union.