In Search of Women Farmers

July 16, 2013

James Helmsworth

Two women tour a garden along a city sidewalk
Elle Adams of Cleveland’s City Rising Farm is one of the female farmers Buckley and Hall met on their cross-country tour.
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Discussions about organic food, healthy living, and, feminism are constants at Oberlin. Lake Buckley ’13 is putting these into practice by biking across the country to visit women who own and operate organic farms.

Buckley, an environmental science and studio art double major, believes the group is underrepresented in discussions about agriculture. “Women are at the heart of small-scale farming in the United States but are not the ones telling the story of farming,” Buckley says. “We want to demonstrate the knowledge that this growing and powerful group has.”

The journey, called Shifting Gears, will take Buckley and her childhood friend Caitrin Hall, who graduated from Vassar this spring, from Poughkeepsie, New York, to their native San Francisco over the course of three months. They are documenting their trip, and the farmers’ relation to local communities and the international push to more sustainable agriculture worldwide, on the Shifting Gears Project website.

Buckley told Brooklyn’s Heritage Radio Network that, leading up to graduation, she and Hall knew they wanted to “experience some type of adventure together.” Both avid cyclists, they decided to bike across the country. But they wanted to learn something from the experience and stay engaged.

Planning their trip around organic farming was a logical choice. Both have studied the interactions between people, their food, and the environment—Hall was an anthropology major, and Buckley, whose parents run the organic Front Porch Farms, has been engaged in issues concerning food justice since high school.

In order to identify farms to visit, the pair enlisted the help of some leading authorities on environmental agriculture, including organic farming pioneer Amigo Bob Cantisano and David Orr, an Oberlin professor and Rocky Mountain Institute trustee. They also received financial support through an Environmental Grant from outdoors supply company Patagonia, as well as sponsorship from 14 other organizations, including Peanut Butter and Company, Terry Precision Bicycles For Women, and Blue Skye, an environmental corporate consulting firm.

Their trip was meant to be educational, and Buckley and Hall began learning even before they got on their bikes. “I was confronted with my own assumptions when we started looking for female farmers,” Buckley says. “We were looking in generally rural areas but then realized that because of that, all our farmers were white. This illuminated the structural discriminatory barriers to land access.”

Currently about a month into the trip, the pair has seen a diverse collection of farms and farmers. Two of the farms they visited are in the Bronx—La Finca del Sur and Garden of Happiness—and both are run by women of color. The Villa Maria Farm, which Buckley and Hall visited in mid-June, is run entirely by nuns from the Sisters of the Humility of Mary order. Located few miles east of the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, the farm helps stock food banks and local parishes.

The journey hasn’t always been easy. Along the way, the duo has found themselves on huge interstates due to errors with mapping programs, forced to take shelter because of a rapidly approaching tornado, and weathering a thunderstorm in a flimsy “emergency shelter.”

But the trip’s high points outweigh the low. Buckley and Hall have had countless memorable experiences, from venturing inside a 280-bushel corn silo to riding swimming horses. Most importantly, they have learned a great deal from seeing how these different female farmers live. “They are working on a scale that benefits their community, helping to ensure food security and local networks of resilience,” says Buckley.

Some of the insights, however, apply to more than organic farming. “We have been traveling off the kindness of other people this whole way,” she says. “I have seriously learned what generosity is. It has restored my faith in people all across this country.”

Buckley intends to continue working on food justice in the future. Yet the “hard part,” however, is “figuring out where to zoom-in,” she says. And she and Hall are documenting this trip with a clear purpose in mind. “We want to show people what alternatives to industrial agriculture are available,” she says, “and learn about what infrastructure is needed for the United States to transition to a more diverse, just, and equitable food system.”

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