Women in Agriculture

Yadira Ruiz and Nate Johnson take a moment to appreciate their beautiful, nutrient-rich greens. Photo by Yadira Ruiz.

Though it is dry and clear out on this day in mid-November, the sun’s golden light is filtered through the air in a way that can’t be seen in the summer. Perhaps there is an incoming fog, or some residual moisture left from the previous chilly night—whatever the reason, the effect is pretty magical on the two farms I am visiting in Corvallis. Probably because of the prolonged dryness, the cottonwood trees on the farms’ peripheries retain their yellow leaves, which glow even brighter in the lighting. 

On the ground at each farm, the respective crops show signs of being past their peak season. At Kiger Island Blues, the blueberry bushes turn red as they lose their leaves—not just the leaves themselves, but the younger twigs of each plant as well. The rows of red amidst a golden backdrop imparts an ever-warming feeling. Meanwhile, at Sunbow Farm, hoop houses—used to grow crops through the colder days—seem to glisten and reflect the light elsewhere, like glass orbs one might dangle in a window to launch rainbows indoors. 

While I could happily stay outside and walk these fields a while longer, I am instead welcomed inside by the primary farmers and cheerful farm dog companions of each property: Mindi Miller at Kiger Island, and Yadira Ruiz at Sunbow Farm. Led inside both of their homes, I am further greeted by wood stove fires, and I can’t help but think of an excerpt from one of my favorite Aldo Leopold essays: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

I so enjoy getting the chance to dwell in these places that provide so much nourishment. More importantly, my goal at each farm is to learn from the women who run them.

Women Farmers of Benton County
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, women are the principal operators of 216 of the 886 farms in Benton County, rounding out to about a quarter of them. At the same time, if you look at the number of acreage women operate, a smaller percentage is realized: while women farmers primarily operate 13,828 acres, there are 123,975 farm acres in the County total. This gets them to about 11 percent of the acreage. 

If women are operating about a quarter of all farms, why is their acreage not also a quarter of the total? Compared to their male counterparts, women in Benton County are more heavily involved in small-scale, sustainable agriculture. Most farms operated by women are between 1 and 50 acres, with the average landing at 64 acres. In contrast, the average farm operated by either a male or a female in the County is 140 acres. 

While more women, at any scale within the farming community, would be welcomed by many current female farmers, Ruiz reflects that the existing trend toward small-scale agriculture makes sense. “When you think about what farming is, we are growing food. I connect to it on a feminine level—the aspect of growing something and nurturing it, and then being able to use it to nourish myself, and someone else, and other people in my community.” She then laughs, admitting that there is no reason that masculine characters could not also thrive from such nurturing practices.

While small-scale agriculture is often recognized as more ecologically-minded and community-oriented, it comes at a cost for many farmers. According to the same Census, in Benton County, the total income of women farmers before taxes and expenses was just $1,634. 

Said expenses can amount to quite a lot themselves. At Kiger Island Blues, a 6.5-acre farm with 10,000 blueberry plants, activities such as pruning, fertilizing, irrigating, weeding, and harvesting must occur annually to keep the plants alive. According to Miller, “You are going to do these things every year and this is going to total up to a certain amount of money, and you better sell enough crop to cover all of those things. The owner may not get paid; I haven’t gotten paid in a long time.”

Similarly, at Sunbow, at 15 acres, Ruiz says she and her partner, Nate Johnson, have yet to achieve a living wage for themselves, after years of running the farm. Though they would like to hire another hand, they refuse to do so until they are able to offer a living wage.  

The end result? “The money you make is going to take years to come back to you…it will come back to you when you sell the farm or die,” says Miller, “so the money you put into the farm [to start it] is gone.” 

This bleak economic picture contrasts sharply to the warmth I feel visiting each farm: while nourishing the land and human community are admirable goals, small-scale agriculture often doesn’t pay until death decouples farm operator from the farm. 

Mindi Miller is excited to install two water tanks onto her acreage. They will store water from her well and give better head to the drip irrigation system that efficiently waters her blueberry bushes. Photo by Mindi Miller.

National and Historic Trends
In 2012, 1 million women made up about a third of the principal farm operators nationally, generating $12.9 billion in agricultural sales. In addition, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden noted in a 2014 speech that women principal farm operators average 60 years old. “This means our daughters and granddaughters hold the future of American agriculture in their hands,” she stated. 

While calls to support the female role in America’s farming into the future is notable, their history is often forgotten. Efforts during the World Wars were perhaps the first time women were recognized for their work on farms at large, as many from non-farming backgrounds were ‘enlisted’ to grow food while men fought overseas. Through government programs, the number of female farmers was finally enumerated, while prior to these times their prevailing role as a farmer’s wife wasn’t seen as worthy of tracking. Sadly, perhaps the only other time women’s roles on farms were extensively tracked was when they were enslaved and valued as someone else’s property.  

From 1917 to 1919, during World War I, 20,000 women joined the Woman’s Land Army of America to tend to farms being vacated as men were drafted. Even more impressive, in World War II, 1.5 million women took on jobs in agriculture between 1943 and 1945. In World War II, 6 million men were taken overseas, yet food production during this time actually grew to over 32% above prewar levels.  

Yet, similar to before these efforts, the role of women—and especially the role of women of color—in farming between and after the wars to more modern times seemed to slip back into the shadows. Furthermore, the work of women activists in the farm labor movement from the 1960s to the 1980s often goes unrecognized at large. Many are familiar with the prominent role Cesar Chavez played in this movement, and former President Ronald Reagan’s involvement when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, commonly referred to as the Amnesty Act, into law in 1986. This allowed many migrant farm workers the ability to get their green cards. I wonder, however, would you recognize the name of Dolores Huerta in the same vein? 

Ruiz got the chance to meet Huerta—a civil rights activist and co-founder along with Chavez of the then National Farmworkers Association—face-to-face while living in Illinois. Huerta was a visiting speaker at Illinois State University, and Ruiz was invited, among others, to a breakfast with Huerta in the dean’s office. Ruiz’s own parents were able to stay in the US as a result of the Amnesty Act, and when she mentioned it to Huerta as being ‘Reagan’s act’ she was promptly corrected. 

“That wasn’t Regan’s Amnesty Act,” she recalls Huerta saying, “that was my Amnesty Act, that was our Amnesty Act, that was work that we had done on behalf of the farm workers in the United States.” 

This moment left a significant impact on Ruiz, who at the time had distanced herself from her family’s farming roots. “It was the first time that anyone had ever said anything other than Reagan’s Amnesty Act, and it was a profoundly humbling experience. Lots of things came together at that moment.” 

Ruiz further reflects, “It made me really start thinking about the few Latina role models I had had in my life, because a lot of times [Latina people] aren’t prominently given the credit that they deserve for the work that they do. Or, they humbly stay in the shadows and let the work speak for itself.”

Paths to Farming
Ruiz and Miller are perhaps unique to the world of agriculture, not just for being part of a minority demographic, but because neither of them originally intended to make a career out of farming. Ruiz grew up the daughter of a farm worker and food processor in Washington state, but never realized she would want to work in the field herself until over a decade after leaving home. Miller’s upbringing did not involve farming directly, but she had grown up in rural Connecticut and was always involved in 4-H. Similar to Ruiz, she didn’t expect to ever take farming to heart. 

When Ruiz was in high school, a career in agriculture “seemed beneath me,” she recalls. Instead of following her family’s footsteps, Ruiz went to Evergreen State College for her undergraduate education, worked as a teacher, and later as a social worker. Her last position before taking up farming was at a rape crisis center. In this role, she never really stopped working, with her pager on 24/7 in case someone at the police department needed her. While it was extremely meaningful work, in her service to others, Ruiz began to feel isolated. 

To help her find more balance, her boss allowed her one morning off a week to volunteer at a local organic farm. Her time outdoors growing food soon became her preference, and she utilized her holidays and weekends to spend time there. After about a year of this, Ruiz realized she needed to make a big life change. She trained those who would fill her role at the crisis center, then made the trek back to the Northwest for a six-month internship at a blueberry farm in the fertile Skagit Valley of Washington. 

“It was exactly what I needed; I needed time alone. A lot of my ‘how I became a farmer story’ is a really personal story, about my own journey to figure out what I want out of life,” Ruiz recalls.

“Before farming, my life had always been about service to others, and I just reached a point where I needed to figure out what serves me…that sounds really selfish,” she laughs, “but I think that’s one of the reasons why women don’t always do what they truly want to do or love, because they are too busy thinking about what others want or expect, or what they should be doing versus what they actually want.”

After her internship ended, Ruiz found her way to the Willamette Valley in the middle of the non-growing season. To stay involved in food production while she waited for the days to get longer, she began work at the First Alternative Co-op and a kitchen in Eugene. After several months, she met Harry MacCormack in line at the Co-op, who founded Sunbow in 1972. This chance meeting ultimately led her to start a year-long apprenticeship at Sunbow in 2013. During this time, she fell in love with her co-worker (Johnson), and though it was perhaps awkward timing at this stage in their relationship, MacCormack and his wife Cheri Clark, wishing to retire, asked Ruiz and Johnson to take over the farm. They were able to have mature conversations about how such a partnership could work, and in the four years since, have found fulfillment in their dynamic. 

At the same time Ruiz was getting started farming in the Skagit Valley, Miller was reaching the end of her first half-decade in the Willamette. She had bought her property in 2005, after a 35-year career as a technical engineer in the Bay Area. Throughout that time, she worked the traditional nine to five in a cubicle, with a traffic-filled commute at the beginning and end of each day. It was a high-stress, affluent environment, and Miller found herself wanting a different life for her and her family. She began looking for small agriculture properties, and found the Willamette Valley best suited her price-range. 

Before it became Kiger Island Blues, tulip farmer Demetri Balint, who runs GreenGable Farms, was leasing the land Miller purchased. At the time, he wanted to continue leasing from her for several more years. However, Miller felt “I was too old to wait for three more years; I was in a big hurry…then I thought, ‘well, wait a minute, girl from California shows up, really starts something bad, boots out this nice local farmer…’” Although she chose not to continue leasing the land to him, Miller became Balint’s business partner in managing an initial crop of kiwis and learning the marketing end of the business. While she got her blueberries set up, she hired the help of a consultant recommended by Balint, and soon enough, was selling her fruit under the GreenGable label to processors and local markets. 

Mindi Miller showcases one of her three blueberry varieties, the gorgeous and tasty dukes. Photo by Mindi Miller.

Small-scale Models
Sunbow follows the model of ‘household direct’. Each week, Ruiz and Johnson send out e-mail newsletters that tell subscribers what foods are available on the farm for harvest and at what price. Similar to a CSA, customers get produce handpicked for them, but there is no initial commitment on their part at the start of the growing season. Instead, they can make their orders and pick them up weekly, or get them delivered straight to their home if they purchase more than $10 in food. This model was developed by MacCormack toward the end of his career, so that he could spend more time on the land rather than driving to farmers markets up and down the Valley and even on the Coast. 

While to a certain extent Ruiz and Johnson walked into operations already set up, their transitions were still difficult at times. Ruiz had kept working part-time at the Co-op and kitchen in Eugene, while Johnson worked full-time at the farm to begin with. He ended up taking another outside job, and soon it became clear that to grow the business, they couldn’t both continue part-time farming. They took a realistic look at their finances and decided together that it would make more sense for Ruiz to become a full-time farmer. 

As the primary farmer, “I work my ass off,” laughs Ruiz, “I don’t mind talking about my contributions here, but I also know that without Nate’s contributions, I would be a blubbery sobbing mess because I’d be so exhausted.” 

Because he is not always on the farm, Johnson doesn’t need to be as concerned with the day-to-day goals, and in doing so, can keep long-term objectives in mind, while Ruiz acts as the daily organizational power of the operation. 

Meanwhile, Miller’s business partnership came to an agreeable end about four years ago when Balint’s wife, Viesia Konar’s floral business expanded and needed his help. Now working completely independently, Miller experienced the difficulty of being a small-scale farmer when the processors who had been buying her fruit in bulk became too difficult to work with at her scale. While she still had markets lined up, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to sell enough of her crop to meet expenses, and this fear lead her to put the property on the market. 

“It was a horrible experience, it was right during my harvest,” she recalls. “Although I had experience in selling property before, I never realized how strong my connection was to the actual farmland.” But thankfully, “friends came up to help,” getting her through another season as she began developing a new business model. 

“I had to keep shifting. It’s about being nimble—getting rid of all your crop,” Miller explains. “At first I thought it was all about keeping your plants alive, but really you can’t have a farm if you can’t sell your crop,” she laughs, “which sounds really trivial but I just thought, ‘somebody will buy it.’ But you really have to market it.” 

For about two years now, Miller has her farm open to u-pickers. Because she originally planted three blueberry varieties that ripen at three staggered times throughout the summer, her farm is open to u-picking earlier and later in the season than many other nearby operations. In addition, the location of her farm is convenient for many Corvallis residents, especially those living in South Corvallis.

Miller has found this model successful enough that she’s been able to give back to the community that supports her and to charities farther away as well. When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, Miller opened her farm up to u-pickers who could choose to overpay for their berries in order to donate to relief efforts, resulting in $2,100 being raised. This past summer, Miller chose to do something similar, this time offering $750 in proceeds to Lincoln Elementary School. She hopes to continue this trend of giving back annually.  

The Gender Problem
Both Ruiz and Miller feel they faced more sexism in the workplace in their previous careers. At the rape crisis center, Ruiz worked with many male police officers and lawyers who had “an unconscious entitlement…where they felt they had every right to question your expertise.” Miller’s work with predominately male co-workers as an engineer likewise presented her with the experience of being frequently second-guessed. 

Though their respective changes in careers were an improvement to Ruiz’s and Miller’s lifestyles in most ways, sexism is still alive in the farming industry.  “The gender problem was clear when I went to buy equipment,” Miller describes. “There’s always that. If I bring a guy with me, [the equipment sellers] will always talk to the guy.” 

“It’s better now,” she continues, “over time, I think I’ve had more confidence of what I want, and they know better now…[yet] there’s still this ‘are you sure you know what you want?’ attitude. ‘Why don’t you just get this, lesser, more girl-like piece of equipment?’” Many merchants remain surprised when Miller expresses interest in real-deal equipment, and demonstrates that she knows how to use it. 

For Ruiz, a similar experience of not being seen as an authority figure occurs on the farm. “When people got to know the new Sunbow, they had a lot more contact with Nate. Even to this day, when they have a question about the farm, they’ll ask Nate, and he does a lot less here than I do [now], the only reason being that he works part-time off the farm,” she says. “People make assumptions about who’s in charge, or who would know the answers to questions, and they default to him.”

Local Systems of Support
The heavy challenges of small-scale farming are weighted further by those associated with being a woman in a male-dominated field. Yet, Ruiz and Miller find resilience by taking part in their agricultural community. “We always help each other, that’s what’s really remarkable about the farming community,” Miller reflects. In 13 years of farming, she has only been turned down for help once, and for legitimate reasons. 

Based on her own experiences, Ruiz agrees with this positive sentiment, and expands: “What we’re seeing in small farm revitalization is that people are reconnecting with what farming actually accomplishes, besides from the most obvious thing of ‘it grows food for people’. It also develops connections and relationships and weaves people together in ways that folks don’t have so much exposure to anymore.”

Furthermore, organizations exist today with the sole purpose of supporting women in farming. The Willamette Women’s Farm Network, a branch of Oregon State University Extension, holds educational workshops so that members—many who are relatively new to farming—can learn vital skills to keeping their farms running, such as bookkeeping. 

Another group, Oregon Women for Agriculture, is involved in educating future generations of female farmers and advocating for farms more broadly. This organization got its start 40 years ago when Willamette Valley farm women were concerned by the prohibition of grass seed field burning practices. Today, they raise awareness of Oregon’s staple crops by providing signs along major roads, naming what is being grown in adjacent fields. In addition, the Linn-Benton chapter offers two scholarships every year to support future women farmers.  

Words of Encouragement
The challenges that women in agriculture face are sure to persist in one form or another until the systematic patriarchy behind it dissipates. Regardless, there are many ways for women to find their stride in the field. For Miller, it comes down to the concept that knowledge is power: “I think for women to come into farming, the best thing you can do is get some education.” 

Similarly, Ruiz encourages women to “find a way to plug in and be who you are, use your own strengths and own skills, to take part in something that is bigger than all of us. If you do that with good intentions, you’ll find a good fit.”

There is no reason for interested women to turn away from the fields. In fact, there are very good reasons for the opposite: “It’s the most rewarding job I can think of, to be putting your physical sweat into a project like this,” says Miller, “you’re really outdoors, and you are really in touch with the weather, the climate itself.” 

Farming, says Ruiz, is “almost like an accordion. You connect and you create something together, and then it’s all part of this piece of something bigger than all of us.”  

However difficult the lives of women in agriculture may be, Ruiz and Miller have found a way to take the warmth that I feel on each of their farms and embody it in their persons. As I leave them, their fires, their dogs, and their fields behind, I can’t help but hear the warm humming of an accordion in my mind, playing the notes that bind community.

By Ari Blatt