Fertile Ground: Farming for Feminism
Blame it on Laura Ingalls Wilder: Deep down, I always wanted to be a pioneer. I wasn’t raised on a farm, and when and if we did have a yard depending on where we moved, it was always pretty small. I remember reading one of the Little House books, perched by my window, where Laura and her sister Mary harvested potatoes and turnips to be stored for the winter. I looked out the window of where we lived then, a townhouse my parents were renting, just to see a long row of sidewalk and the window of the replica townhouse across the way. We didn’t have a yard then, but I fantasized about planting potatoes and turnips in the flower boxes down below.
Fast-forward to freshman year at Evergreen State College: I began going to Earth First! meetings, and during one, a member talked about growing food as an act of social and environmental justice. It was an off-handed remark (the conversation was actually about tree-sit schedulings), but upon hearing it, a lightswitch clicked on inside of me. It had never really occurred to me until then that growing food could be a radical and political act.
The what’s-for-dinner question for my family is not just a question of Thai take-out or pizza (though at times, it might be). It’s about where the food’s both literal and abstract roots came from. Were these beets produced in healthy, chemical-free soil and unattached to the ghosts of thousands of truck miles? (In our case, the answer is usually yes, since we're farmers and grow all of our vegetables). Did this chicken get to live a wandering life, eating bugs, raised by a farmer we know? Did this honey come from one of our hives, and if not, from a holistic beekeeper nearby?
To properly dissect ecofeminism, one must accept that the use of agribusiness chemicals is a feminist issue. Women have historically been and remain the primary growers of most of the world’s food, and they are the ones primarily dealing with deadly poisons like DDT that are still legally sprayed on vegetable fields in places like China. If we are buying questionable cucumbers that may have harmed the women, men and children from their origin farm with exploitive labor practices and toxic, foul-smelling chemical sprays, we are taking part in the system we, as feminists, are working so hard to unthread. This goes for supporting and eating at restaurants, too; if you are eating a pulled pork sandwich at a local deli, unless noted, that pork has come from a long-suffering pig from an environmentally-devastating, toxin-seeping industrial factory farm. If you are eating a tomato salad from a run-of-the-mill café, that tomato likely had a harrowing journey from Mexico, wreaking havoc on the lives of farmworkers and the field's landscape with its poison-sprayed body. Ecofeminism requires taking a step back and supporting non-exploitive, non-destructive enterprises. How can we combat the horrid things that take place every day, all over the world? For me, it's by growing organic food for my family and community. It’s important for me to adamantly step outside mainstream capitalist economics as much as possible, moving away from things they carry with it, including corporate greed, climate change and environmental destruction; as feminists, these are some of the heinous models of oppression we are up against. Canning tomatoes may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but if everyone put up canned tomato sauce for the winter, maybe that corporate, poison-coated tomato wouldn’t have to be grown.
Of course, the “New Domesticity”, as it is dubbed by many bloggers, “radical homemaker” as it is called by writer Shannon Hayes, and the much-debated, Peggy Orenstein-coined term, “femivore,” all have their share of critics, and they should. We can't forget to look at these movements through a race/class lens. For example, without a doubt, CSAs and organic farmer’s markets are much more prevalent in affluent areas. This, of course, is a mammoth problem and a whole other ecofeminist issue (I will discuss access to healthy food in low-income areas in future posts). What I can say is this: When all is said and done, I do have hope. CSAs are still relatively new, and not as well-known here in the Midwest as other places. Movements like these usually do, unfortunately, start with the elite who are privileged enough to partake, and take time to move elsewhere. I see positive changes lying in many nonprofit organizations’ CSA farms that have started to spring up since the movement has taken off. We worked alongside Growing Home, one of these wonderful nonprofits, in Chicago, who bring fresh CSA boxes and market vegetables to one of the city’s South Side food deserts. Our farm (and many farmer’s markets) accepts food stamps from customers. Vacant lots in cities like Chicago and Detroit provide a blank canvas for those wanting a deeper connection with food-growing. There is still much, much more work to be done in this department, but hope trickles slowly, and I feel I must keep pressing forward and have faith that these things will spread in all directions, like an ink blotch on paper. Glimmers of positivity help me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing forward.
Then there is the woman-as-fifties-housewife or liberated traditionalist debate. Emily Matchar wrote a piece for the Washington Post this past winter about the virtues of canning apricot jam and embracing the domestic arts as a young woman. It was met with slight disgust by writer Jamie Stiehm, whose counter article bemoans the step backwards for women that the New Domestics bring. In regards to Matchar’s waxing on about canning, knitting, and raising animals, Stiehm’s piece grumbles; “there's no need to make a fetish out of all that. We must pursue progress for women, given all we have been given.” To put growing and preserving food in the “cutesy” category, painting it as a stern symbol of womens' oppression, no questions asked, Steihm is actually the one taking the step back. Not only is she dismissing women’s choices, but she is dismissing an entire traditional and political context. If she actually listened to these and other reasons instead of writing off performing sustainable home arts as a fleeting fad, she may like what she hears.
To some, many aspects of the “radical homemaking” way of life sound miserable. Is my life for everyone? Certainly not. I can say firsthand: farming is no picnic. Washing carrots in ice-cold water outside in December can be very painful. Canning forty jars of pickled beets takes forever. Massaging chopped cabbage for sauerkraut hurts my hands for hours. In terms of the big picture, though, for me, it is rewarding; I am saving money, and my values remain intact. I am not succumbing to consumer-driven cultural expectations that I oppose. I view wealth as something besides dollar bills; we barter, we grow, we forage, we hunt, we dumpster dive, we work-trade, and we never feel empty or dissatisfied for lack of purchasing things (except when I occasionally browse etsy.com. Damn you, Etsy!).
But this isn’t the only way to be a part of the ecofeminist, new domestic revolution. I would never expect everyone to want to live the life of a farmer, or even for everyone to want to can their own green beans and slaughter their own chickens. For ideas that work just as well, try buying and bartering from people and places you want to support. (Since we know our CSA is expensive for some people, we have an option where people can work at the farm or market in exchange for their vegetables. We are certainly not the only farm that does this, and many don’t advertise it; you have to ask.) Shop at the farmer’s market, buy raw, fermented sauerkraut locally or directly from a farmer, knit a sweatshop-free hat, ride your fossil fuel-free bicycle, cook something simple from scratch. These are feminist acts. As small as they may be, they are acts that oppose and un-weave heartless systems of oppression, like factory farms and sweatshops. These oppressive systems carry the real prison walls, not your kitchen.
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