Words: Audra Mulkern
I can honestly say, never in the last five years have I had a day of comfort. Every single day I kick myself out of my comfort zone, which has been the most exciting and scariest experience all at the same time.
I think, looking back, it really began when I left Microsoft to have my first child.
I had poured everything into my career at Microsoft, so I really didn’t know how to cook. I would show up, lunch would be provided, and we would bring in dinner at night. We were constantly in “ship” mode, so I was never home. So when I left to have my daughter, I had to figure out how to shop for food and cook.
I live in a small farming community just outside of Seattle. At the time, technology was just starting to become accessible to everybody, so we couldn’t just use Google to find places – because Google didn’t exist. I couldn’t even figure out where the local farms were. I could see them, but I didn't know how to get to them. I just knew I wanted to take all that energy that I had at Microsoft and put it into feeding my family. I eventually became a member of a Community Supported Agriculture organization in ’99. It was a novel idea then: CSA members buy a “share” or “subscription” from regional farmers; in return, they receive a package of seasonal produce each week through farming season. However, mine wasn’t with a farm – it was with the farmer’s market. Every week I’d get vegetables and fruit from many different farms but would have to drive all the way from my small farming community to Pike Place Market in the city to get my vegetables — then travel back through all the farms the vegetables came from. I was going far out of the way to access the food that was grown in my own community. Being part of the CSA made me start really thinking about seasonal cooking and trying to understand what that meant. But I noticed there weren’t lots of resources for people like me.
Eventually, a farmer’s market started in my community – so it became sort of a way of life for me. I would talk to the farmers at the market about how to prepare vegetables that I hadn’t seen before; at some point around then, the iPhone got a camera, and I started taking pictures with my iPhone at the farmer’s market. The farmers would even ask, “Are you taking pictures of my vegetables?” because it was before the social media food craze. I realized that I had captured an entire season of the market and decided I’d use the images to create a little book about my valley called Rooted in the Valley. I sold it at the local art gallery, but it started drawing recognition from outside of my community and I got orders from all over the country. I began to think that people were just starving for information on this subject as much as I was.
Around that time, I decided that I wasn’t going to grow a garden. Instead, I would solely support local farmers. I was thinking of what my next photography project would be about and assumed that it was going to be about the interns that come to work in the markets during the summer. They had this underground economy; I was watching them trade, and was intrigued by their ways. But one day I noticed all of the farmers and interns were women. I approached one of my farmer friends and asked why there were only women, and she replied, “It’s the strangest thing, no men applied this year.” And I thought to myself, that’s strange; has there been a shift? What is going on?
It was after season, so I spent that whole winter checking out books from the library and studying statistics on women in agriculture, and there just wasn’t anything that showed women in farming. You could go to the Library of Congress and find pictures of women standing in a field or you could find them standing next to chickens, but there weren't any pictures of women actually working in the farms. I decided I was going to try to take pictures of women farming, but not just standing and posing or looking at the camera, but of women doing the actual work.
My goal was to show women working farms and prove that it exists: a revolution of women taking back the food system and claiming their seat at the table. They’ve always farmed and already have been there, but they just never got the recognition for it. Maybe women just weren’t strong-arming their way to be in the front of the pictures. It is a travesty, and there are consequences when a group of people aren't counted. And that's what happened: Women were not counted. It’s not just the visual black hole; it was a data black hole.
My initial thought was that I was just going to photograph the women in my community, and it was just going to be a celebration of the women that I buy my vegetables from, the women who feed my family. But anytime I would go on vacation, I would talk with farmers along the way. Every opportunity I got, I would try to find a female farmer and go visit her. I started taking pictures of female farmers with my iPhone. Then I started using borrowed cameras and lenses until I had saved enough to buy a 5-year-old used camera about a year later.
What was going to be just this photography project started to really become something important. I never intended it to be. It just became something that way naturally. The more I saw, the more interested I became. I know there are really heavily women-owned farm areas, but what I really wanted to study was Arizona, because Arizona has the most women-owned operations in the country. I want to break this number down and find out what’s going on in Arizona; why are there so many women farming here?
I ended up getting a phone call from a woman who wanted to interview me about my experiences seeing women out in the field who didn’t have access to work clothes for women. There just weren’t any farm work clothes for women out there – especially maternity clothes. One woman even used a snowsuit that zipped down the front so her belly could stick out. These are the consequences when you don’t count women. People don’t create avenues for us. That is a problem.
So I flew down, she and I spent a week maybe traveling from farm to farm to farm, catching stories. I photographed, she wrote, and we ended up producing four or five stories out of that trip. She and I partnered up, and we have been doing stories about agriculture and different intersections since then.
One of those stories was for The Guardian, about the rising number of farmer suicides. It was something that she’d wanted to work on for about five years. We pitched it to publications for another year. It was turned down by everybody until The Guardian said yes. As a result, we had legislation passed here in Washington state within 90 days from the day we published to the time the governor signed the law. That’s what it’s supposed to be like, creating change with your work.
It’s funny, because people think that I was a photographer who decided to start this mission. The opposite is true. I became a photographer to do this, and even to this day I resist being called a photographer. I saw a need and I tried to fill it. I do photography because it’s necessary and I happened to be able to take pictures and tell the story. I see myself as someone who’s built a platform and this platform now hosts these voices. I’d rather it be their voices than mine. I’d rather people not know my name at all. But I realized that people really wanted to know who I was because they wanted to know why I cared. When people know why you care, then they’ll care.
This project just feels like this precious thing now. Bringing these stories to light has brought it into the public eye. It feels like people in general know that women are farming now. I feel like I have accomplished that first goal in exposing the world outside of ag to the fact that women are farming. Now we know it; now we want to see it.
What was going to be just like a little picture project with my local farmers has become me turning into a huge advocate for capturing correct, gender-bias-free data about the demographics of agriculture while supporting our rural communities with broadband and mental health support.
Every single day really is a new wheelhouse. I always say: I’m not a photographer; I’m not a writer; I didn’t go to school to become a documentarian; I’m not filmmaker; and I’m not a grant writer. But I am all of those things, because I wrote my own permission slip.
Audra is the founder of “The Female Farmer Project” – a multi-platform documentary project that chronicles the rise of women working in agriculture around the world. From in-depth stories, personal essays, photographic portraits, a podcast, and in-development documentary film -- the project gives a powerful voice to the fastest growing demographic in agriculture-- The Female Farmer.
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Audra Mulkern