Farmer Jane: Females in the Fields

by Sarah Henry on May 4, 2010 · 29 comments

in civil eats,farmers' markets,food books,food politics,food security,growing greens,restaurants,urban farming

A queen of green focuses her first book on female farmers, a subject author Temra Costa comes to organically. Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat, grew out of Costa’s career in sustainable food, and her passion for eating locally and seasonally.

While in France finishing up the manuscript for Farmer Jane, she learned how to make goat cheese and picked organic grapes at a vineyard. Back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, she tends a garden ripe with spring produce like lemons, artichokes, and greens, and turns her hand to canning and jamming her excess bounty.

For six years Costa worked with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), supporting the Farm to School initiative and directing the California campaign for Buy Fresh Buy Local.

In the course of her day job, she spent a lot of time with a lot of women engaged in sustainable agricultural, essentially producing food in a way that protects the health of the environment, consumers, and workers. And she thought their stories deserved a forum in what is often seen as a man’s world.

Costa wanted to bring attention to characteristics associated with the second sex, such as community, relationship-building, and the care and feeding of others at work and at home. These frequently feminine traits are central to the emerging green economy, she says, and women have an increasingly important place at the table in discussions about pressing sustainable ag issues, namely people, the planet, and profits.

Women are moving into farming at a greater rate than men, according to the author, who also notes that 60 percent of the nation’s top nonprofits focusing on sustainable ag are run and staffed by women.

But as in other aspects of society, women’s contributions are often undervalued, largely unnoticed, or simply ignored.

Not anymore. Farmer Jane profiles more than two dozen successful females in the sustainable food world. This group includes farmers, chefs, educators, policy wonks, activists, business women, and moms. Some are well known. Others, not so much. All are motivated by their desire to nurture a sustainable food agenda now–and for future generations.

It’s an inspiring bunch. Well-known subjects include urban farm gal Novella Carpenter, chef and cookbook author Deborah Madison, and environmental advocate Anna Blythe Lappe.

But there are also lesser-known folks whose contributions are equally compelling. We learn, for instance, about the work of widowed single mom Mily Trevino-Sauceda, a child of migrant farm workers and the founder of Organizacion De Lideres Campesinas, a support network and social justice organization for mostly Latina female farm hands in California.

And in each profile in this anthology we get a strong sense of the business models, policy plans, or personal missions that have made these women standouts in the sustainable agriculture movement.

Even though a couple of them run businesses as sole proprietors, most have male partners or co-workers. Still, the power of the so-called gentler gender emerges in intriguing ways. Take the case of Emily Oakley of Three Springs Farm in Oklahoma.  When her partner Mike mans their farmers’ market stand alone the farming family brings home less cash than when Emily comes too. This female farmer says it’s her personal connection to customers — and personableness — that makes the difference.

Another farmer describes how rewarding it is to mentor women in the fields. Dru Rivers, who co-owns Full Belly Farm in Northern California, considered a pioneer in the organic food movement, has worked alongside dozens of female farm apprentices, some of whom have gone on to run their own organic farms. You can include Emily Oakley in that group.

Costa, who writes and co-hosts a radio show,  The Queens of Green, with filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia (the filmmaker behind The Future of Food, who is featured in the book), says it’s not surprising that so many women are drawn to sustainable agriculture, with its emphasis on nurturing the land and body.  And, as her book reveals, these women are key players in the “delicious revolution” — even if they’re not as good as guys at getting credit for their efforts.

One major omission: This book is crying out for coffee-table treatment with luscious shots of these women digging in the dirt, selling produce, or cooking food. The author agrees. But, alas, she couldn’t convince her publisher. Pity. You can, however, find wonderful pics of all the women profiled on the Farmer Jane website by clicking here.

And a minor complaint: Not all of the intros to each entry includes a geographic reference. I happen to know that urban farmer Willow Rosenthal resides in my neck-of-the-woods, but not everyone else does.  Likewise, I should have known where Jesse Ziff Cool’s restaurant Flea Street Cafe is, but didn’t. You get a sense from her profile that she’s located somewhere in Northern California, but you have to flip to the back of the book to discover that her cafe is in Stanford. (Easy driving distance from me, I was delighted to discover.)

This is also a can-do kind of guide. At the end of each section Costa includes what she calls a “recipe for action” — a list of concrete advice, whether you’re an eater, farmer, food business, or all of the above. There’s also a handy resource list for readers who want to know more.

The author was inundated with suggestions of female food and farm heroes for this book. In the spirit of building community, she continues to highlight women in the field who make a difference, both on the Farmer Jane website and in stories for the national food policy blog  Civil Eats, where she most recently profiled Nikki Henderson, the new executive director of People’s Grocery in Oakland.

With campaigns like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, it’s a great time for the people who produce our food to receive the attention they rightly deserve. Farmer Jane ensures that the women leaders of the sustainable ag agenda have their voices heard too.

Do you have a favorite female farmer or sustainable food advocate — perhaps an unsung heroine — who you’d like folks to know about? Let us know below.

This is my first post participating in Real Food Wednesdays, click on the link to find more food-focused posts by other bloggers obsessed with all things edible.

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl May 4, 2010 at 11:51 am

So interesting to read about what I, too, thought was a field dominated by men. It does make sense, though, that women would get close(r) to the land and bring their nurturing skills to the most basic components of food.


Sarah Henry May 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Yes, Sheryl, I think a lot of people may be pleasantly surprised by just how many women are working the land and producing our food — as well as cooking & serving it, of course.


MarthaAndMe May 4, 2010 at 12:02 pm

This sounds great. It surprised me too, but now I am interested to find out more.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 9:11 am

First stop, M&ME: The Farmer Jane website for more info.


Alexandra May 4, 2010 at 1:57 pm

This post was fascinating. I love the name Queens of Green. I want to be a queen of green, too!

What we have here in Wellfleet is Elspeth Pearson, a blogger who writes about local foods and has a local food minute on the Cape & Islands NPR radio station. She is now married to one of the Hay brothers who bring fresh and locally harvested seafood to the world. Well, soon. Right now, mostly to Cape Cod. Her blog is Diary of a Locavore.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 9:12 am

Let’s all be queens of green, Alexandra. Anyone want to come up with crown concept?

Love that you included a local locavore hero too.


Alisa Bowman May 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm

There’s a female farmer in my area (well more than one… but I’m thinking of a specific person) who is active in the farm to table movement. I really admire her. She’s so bubbly and wonderful to be around.


Sarah Henry May 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

It’s interesting just how much personality comes into play in the sustainable ag movement, isn’t it Alisa?


Cheryl May 4, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Man, you’ve set the bar very high with this comprehensive, beautifully written post, Sarah. I don’t think I’m going to get away with writing about chin hairs on my blog much longer.

I look forward to watching more and more female farmers shine in the spotlight right alongside their male counterparts.

p.s. If you ever want to eat at one of Jesse Ziff Cool’s restaurants, let me know. They’re about halfway between the two of us. (I was a big fan of her jZcool Eatery & Cafe before it closed.)


Sarah Henry May 4, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Now, there’s an idea, missy, a great place to eat that’s equidistant (more or less) between the two of us.

As for chin hairs: You got that beat covered for now, my friend;)


MyKidsEatSquid May 4, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I’m with Cheryl, what a thorough review–and it sounds like you could have added even more info. I had no idea there were so many women being drawn into farming (it could be because I’m such a lackluster gardener myself). I’m surprised that Costa couldn’t convince her publisher to include more pics–it does sound like a book begging for some amazing photography.


Sarah Henry May 4, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I’m nothing if not, um, wordy, MKES. Here’s hoping I left you wanting to know more — ’cause there’s lots of good stuff in them there pages.


Kerry Dexter May 5, 2010 at 6:02 am

you left me wanting to know more, too, both about the subject and the book.
as for sustainable food advocates, one who comes to mind for me is Didi Emmons of Veggie Planet in Cambridge.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 9:09 am

Hi Kerry, Thanks for weighing in and I’m not familiar with Didi Emmons of Vegggie Planet but I am intrigued so I’m gonna go check her out.


Ruth Pennebaker May 5, 2010 at 7:57 am

What a great, thoughtful review of what appears to be an excellent book. Funny how women’s contributions are so often undervalued till you look deeper.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 9:09 am

Isn’t that the truth, Ruth. Still.


Susan May 5, 2010 at 9:30 am

This sounds like a fascinating read, Sarah! In light of everything that’s going on in the sustainable food movement, it sounds like this book came at the perfect time.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

I think you’re right, Susan. And I happen to know (since some friends are involved) that there are more on the way. The more the merrier, in this instance, I say.


Jesaka Long May 5, 2010 at 9:44 am

Since I don’t have a female farmer or sustainable foods advocate heroine, I think it’s a sign I should read this book! Thanks for pointing out that some intros don’t have a geographic reference as that’s something I always like to have. Regardless, I can’t wait to read about these inspiring women. Thanks for posting your review.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 11:37 am

Let us know, Jesaka, after you’ve had a read, who most inspired you in the book.


Shari May 5, 2010 at 10:08 am

Not a farmer, per se, but so important to sustainable, local foods: Asiya Wadud of ForageOakland.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 11:41 am

Yes, Shari, Asiya is one of many gleaners gathering up what would otherwise be fallen goodies. I’ve profiled her previously:

And also, The Lemon Lady, who passes on foraged produce to food banks who dispense them to folks in need (not everyone knows that many food banks WILL take fresh food):

And there’s another foraging post in the works. So stay tuned!


The Writer's [Inner] Journey May 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm

So timely. My husband was just telling me about a service he read about for people who really want to grow their own but don’t have the time (or real desire to dig in) to farm/garden…that there are people/services/businesses who will come in a ready the land, plant and maintain your garden/farm/fruits/veggies. It’s one way to grow your own–and it’s kind of nice that it’s available.


Sarah Henry May 5, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Yes, I know of several similar services in my town too. In fact, I think they’re probably quite popular right now. Though I must say, since I picked some strawberries today out of my own backyard that we planted ourselves, it is nice to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.


Happyolks May 27, 2010 at 9:48 am

Beautifully written post, I’m going to try to pick up this book today for my long drive home from San Diego to Sacramento. Lot’s of agriculture to contemplate along the way… :)


Sarah Henry May 27, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Why thank you, happyolks. Sounds like this would be a good read for your road trip — but I’m assuming you mean for when you’re NOT driving.

Folks I pass on the freeway who are turning pages with their hands on the wheel freak me out.


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