Women farmers: changing the rules of Australian agriculture

Women are changing the rules of Australian agriculture

Olympia Yarger’s farming day starts at sunrise. By eight in the morning, she has already collected the eggs. Next, she feeds the animals and checks the climate control system. Then she cleans. “There’s a lot of cleaning to do,” she says. “Just like with any other animal. It’s an all-day affair but a really rewarding job.”

Yarger is an insect farmer. Growing up as a city girl, Yarger always enjoyed being around animals. She loved to ride horses and spent many of her weekends on her friends’ farms. But when she transferred to an all-girls Catholic school in Year 11, Yarger had her first reality check.

“They were horrified that I wanted to go into agriculture,” she recalls. “They told me that St Clare’s girls didn’t become farmers.”

A woman farmer wasn’t a thing. But Yarger was determined to follow her passion.

Like Yarger, many women in agriculture have started to reject traditional stereotypes and claim their space in the industry. Motivated by social and environmental justice, women farmers are thriving, showing the country that transforming farming into a more sustainable practice is possible and lucrative.

Women in agriculture: by the numbers

Women have always been critical contributors to agriculture and food production across the world. According to the UN, almost a third of women’s employment globally is in agriculture, including forestry and fishing – and this statistic may exclude self-employed and unpaid family workers.

While the percentage of women farmers in upper-middle and high-income countries is less than 10%, agriculture remains the most critical employment sector for women in low-income and lower-middle-income countries. Yet, women farmers have significantly less access to, and ownership of, land compared to men. Women account for only 12.8% of agricultural landholders globally, and often, the enormity of their efforts is unrecognised.

Women account for only 12.8% of agricultural landholders globally.

In Australia, women’s role in agriculture has been recognised and ignored in equal measure throughout history. Census data show that women made up 32% of Australia’s agricultural workforce in 2016. Today, they produce at least 48% of real farm income in Australia. Yet gender-specific obstacles, such as financing, lack of access to land, education and training, equal treatment, and lack of representation in the industry bodies, put female farmers at a significant disadvantage before they even sow a seed.

“Women have always had a crucial role in farming enterprising, but weren’t recognised as farmers,” says Dr Lucie Newsome, a lecturer in political economy and employment relations at the University of New England, NSW. “They were seen as silent, non-contributing partners.”

Newsome says decades of intensive productivism politics have pushed women to the fringes of this industry.

Australia’s political regime and an export-oriented economy have led to what’s known as competitive productivism – the pressure to expand businesses into large, export-focused enterprises. The impetus to increase production while crunching market prices have pushed farmers to use large-scale production schemes and use more external inputs such as chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers. “The rural debt is skyrocketing, and producers are under pressure to get big or get out,” says Newsome.

“Women have always had a crucial role in farming enterprising, but weren’t recognised as farmers.”

Dr Lucie Newsome, University of New England

This philosophy has led many people to exit agriculture, particularly younger generations. Small and medium-sized farms have disappeared, contributing to the demise of rural communities. Ten ecological communities have been listed as endangered or critically endangered due to farming development and practices in the past decade.

Between 1981 and 2001, the number of farms declined by 1.3% every year, and the average farm size increased by 23%. In the past 40 years, the percentage of farms with revenues greater than $1 million rose from 3% to 16%, with the top 10% of Australian farms producing 90% of the production.

The productivist regime especially disfavours female farmers because women have more difficulties accessing the land. Traditionally, family farms are passed on to a son, while women only inherit in 10% of cases. Besides, most women have fewer opportunities to accumulate enough capital to buy farming land, which means that they have less chance to compete with large producers.

Do women farm differently?

To put another spoke in women’s wheel is the patriarchal mentality still dominant in the agriculture industry.

Yarger says that “everybody struggles with costs”, but that being a woman with an alternative business idea comes with its own set of challenges.

“When I looked at insect farming, it was challenging to prove that the idea I had was a good one,” she says. “But the biggest barrier that I’ve faced as a woman was that I had to really work at getting people to believe that I could get this thing to work.”

Many years later, and with a successful farming enterprise behind her, Yarger says that barrier hasn’t disappeared. “What women face are subliminal undercurrents. It doesn’t matter how much effort we put in, there’s an unconscious bias about whether we’re credible or capable. It’s an intangible thing, but it’s frustrating.”

“Women have similar experiences in all fields,” says Newsome. “But in agriculture, there are clear binaries. Women are carers, nurturers, and mothers. Men are producers, dominant and primary farmers.”

In the course of her studies, Newsome has discovered that women have learnt to turn those traits into their strengths. Their nurturing and caring approach to agriculture translates into a farming philosophy that moves away from conventional practices.

“It doesn’t matter how much effort we put in, there’s an unconscious bias about whether we’re credible or capable.”

Olympia Yarger

According to Newsome’s research, women farmers were more likely to engage in sustainable and alternative agriculture practices because these reflect their values. Many of the women that Newsome has surveyed said they try to work in harmony with nature rather than attempting to dominate it, disrupting the traditional, masculine vision of what farming means.

Sustainable agriculture also has lower financial barriers to entry and yields higher-value products that make smaller farms more viable. Women farmers have reduced production costs by replacing machinery and energy consumption with manual labour, which also gave them a sense of empowerment. They’ve avoided the use of fertilisers and pesticides, following the natural cycles of the land instead.

Women have focused on producing high-quality, niche products rather than large-scale production. They’ve found ingenious ways to market their products by building trustworthy relationships with their customers, continuously adapting to changing trends and demand. They’ve showed farm transparency and accountability through social media posts, photos, and videos at the markets, avoiding the expense of organic certifications.

“I was really surprised to find that women were farming in different ways,” says Newsome. “And those ways were around environmental sustainability and connection to community.”

The (farming) future is female

The environmental destruction caused by the agricultural sector often drives women into farming, particularly those who were not born into this business. The sector is at the same time one of the leading causes of the climate crisis and one of the industries most affected by it.

Government data show that the woody vegetation clearing rate in New South Wales, for example, has doubled in the past decade, and agriculture is responsible for more than half the destruction. Farmed land covers 58% of the country and accounts for 59% of water extraction.

And yet decades of drought across the country, exacerbated by increasing global temperatures, have brought many farmers to the brink.

In the past few years, Australia has seen an increase in demand for alternative, sustainable food. But the big agricultural businesses and major supermarket chains have failed to respond to this demand.

Women have been able to carve a slice of this market with creative, innovative ways to grow crops and farm animals, reducing their farms’ footprint on the environment.

According to Newsome’s research, women farmers were more likely to engage in sustainable and alternative agriculture practices because these reflect their values.

In her 12,000 square-metre warehouse in Hume, on Canberra’s south-eastern fringe, Yarger has created a circular process where food and agricultural waste is converted into high protein livestock feed.

Black soldier fly and mealworm beetle larvae live in growing rooms for 12 days, where they consume waste that Yarger collects from neighbouring businesses. Later, they are moved to the processing room, sifted from the frass (waste byproduct), and washed with water in a large sieve to remove the remaining waste. 

Most larvae are then euthanised with carbon dioxide, dehydrated and sold as livestock feed. Yarger’s farm produces 1 tonne of livestock feed per week, during which it consumes as much as 40 tonnes of food waste.

Some larvae are let to grow for a few more days until they become pupae. These are moved to the aviaries, large rooms where the flies mate and produce eggs. And the cycle begins again.

“We waste one-third of all the food that we produce, and that creates a lot of methane,” says Yarger. “This is a way to make more with what we have already. It’s exciting. The climate crisis for me is the motivator for being a better farmer.”

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