Women are showing up in higher numbers on farms, and Duvall photographer Audra Mulkern is there to capture them.
FARMER JANYA VERANTH has updates for Audra Mulkern.
Penny the sow, a newborn pink piglet when Mulkern visited Redfeather Farm in Duvall last year, has turned out to be a fabulous mother.
“Come out, pig pig pig,” Veranth calls in a singsong voice.
“You’re a good girl,” she tells the massive Berkshire hog, feeding her stockpiled apple cores as the weeks-old piglets race around the field like puppies.
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Mulkern asks farming questions as Veranth scratches behind the sow’s ears: “What’s your biggest challenge?”
“These guys are like a puzzle,” Veranth replies. The boar on the 40-acre property needs his own space. The mother pigs require a different mix of feed. The male piglets aren’t castrated and must soon be separated from their sisters. The list goes on.
“I notice you don’t tag their ears,” Mulkern says.
“We’re small enough that it’s not necessary,” Veranth says. “We know who’s who, and that’s part of our job, is being small enough to have personal relationships with the animals.”
Throughout the questions, Mulkern is photographing the farmer’s hands-on work — gloriously lighted with the barn as a backdrop, but tough and mucky, equal parts muscle and mental judgment calls.
They walk to the distant field where Veranth recently had to capture Mr. Carson, the 1,000-pound boar named after the “Downton Abbey” character, after he escaped his enclosure. Today, securely fenced, he stretches out his prodigious snout and demolishes in a single crunch the whole winter squash Veranth hands him.
“You want to walk us through a slaughter day?” Mulkern asks.
Their conversation and chronicle really began more than a year ago, when Mulkern got a call about Veranth: “You’ve got to photograph this farmer; she’s beautiful,” she was told. Mulkern’s response: “They’re all beautiful.”
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Through Mulkern’s lens they are — fresh-faced or wizened, intern or third-generation owner, whether milking goats in Iceland or weeding chard in West Seattle. Mulkern captures them all for The Female Farmer Project, a photographic record she began in 2013 almost accidentally from her Snoqualmie Valley home, struck by the disparity between traditional images of farmers and the numbers of women she was seeing in her community’s fields.
“We’ve all been sort of conditioned to assume this farmer is with the hat, and he’s a man, and he’s white,” Mulkern says. “Every single picture that I put up there disrupts that.
“I’m trying to disrupt the face of farming — while they disrupt farming.”
THE MESSAGE RESOUNDED far beyond the boundaries of the Eastside and Skagit Valley farms where her work began. Mulkern’s farmer photos have been featured in venues from the 30th Farm Aid benefit in Chicago to TEDx in Manhattan, in magazines from Saveur to Austria’s an.schlage. Country Woman magazine named Mulkern one of its “Amazing Women” of 2015 along with luminaries like Sandra Day O’Connor.
Her images are making waves just as metrics and mindsets are catching up with modern farm life.
Women make up 14 percent of principal farm operators but 30 percent of all operators, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington was one of the places where the numbers were even greater: Women were principal operators of about 20 percent of the state’s 37,249 farms. (The role of women on the farm became clearer after the 2002 census, which collected detailed information on more than one “principal operator” for the first time. The numbers of female farmers surged between 2002 and 2007, then dropped slightly in 2012.)
There are differences overall in the female-owned farms: They tend to be smaller and to have lower sales, according to the USDA. Women are rarely industrial giants growing corn and soybeans: Of the farms with female principal operators, 91 percent had less than $50,000 in annual sales.
“I sometimes say jokingly — but there’s a lot of truth to it — that men grow crops and women grow food,” Mulkern says.
The presumption is that women, with their smaller sizes and comparatively lower physical strength, would favor small animals over large ones, mechanical aids over physical work. That isn’t always true: While the largest percentage of U.S. women-owned farms is devoted to crops (26 percent, including hay), according to the census, beef cattle are a close second at 23 percent.
Veranth and her husband (who has a full-time job off the farm) began Redfeather with sheep who would barely outweigh her when full-grown. But the topography of her land was better suited to pigs, she found, and she appreciated their porcine intelligence and willingness to please despite their tonnage.
“I think that women are so naturally nurturing, and are really a great fit for livestock,” Veranth says. “You don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing when you start, but you have to be willing to listen. We just had to listen, and that was our job.”
And, she notes, “Everyone who has taught me about farming was a woman, and all my mentors have been women.”
Mulkern says she finds female-owned farms less mechanized — possibly because “a lot of the women who are farming didn’t inherit their farms; they may have a couple summers as an intern, but if the tractor didn’t break down, they didn’t necessarily learn how to fix it.” Her subjects’ clothing isn’t necessarily suited to their occupation; there are no farming nursing tops or maternity clothes, and men’s outfits don’t work well for long sessions of squatting and weeding. Even the tools are often too long for their hands.
Help comes from a variety of sources; a January Washington Post article noted that businesses are starting to spring up with tools forged for the female farmer, while a 2015 book, “Woman-Powered Farm” by Audrey Levatino (Countryman Press, $24.95), offers instructions for chain-saw operation, fence repairs and “other traditionally male pursuits that every woman farmer should learn.” Levatino notes in her book that she doesn’t think even the census data accurately reflect the rise of women in farming, as they don’t track many farm-related businesses.
Anecdotally, Mulkern says she also believes official reports don’t reflect a trend that’s accelerated since the census data were collected.
The more farms she visited, she recalls, the more striking the numbers of women. In 2013, “I went up to Sarah (Cassidy, then of Oxbow Farm in Carnation) and said, ‘Did any men apply this year to be an intern?’ She said, ‘It’s really strange. No men applied. It’s all women.’ ”
MULKERN HERSELF was hardly an obvious candidate to document farm life — or to take on an artistic venture. She came to Seattle for a business development job at Microsoft, working on “geeky and sexy technologies that were about to change the face of how we did entertainment on the Internet and on computers.”
She and her husband moved to the Seattle area in 1991 and eventually settled in Duvall, “looking for that 1950s childhood for our kids … We loved that it was a farming community out here.”
Farming community did not, though, mean it was easy to find vegetables. The only way to purchase local produce directly from the farmer then was through a Community Supported Agriculture box organized by Pike Place Market. When Full Circle Farms started a CSA, Mulkern was one of the original subscribers, driving out to Carnation to pick up her weekly box. “If I was going to stay home with my kids, I was going to try to do the best for them that I could,” she says. Working long hours at Microsoft, there had been a lot of meals out.
“Then eventually, we got a farmers market. And then two,” she says. “And then the iPhone 3 came along, and I was able to take pictures.”
Mulkern never considered herself a photographer — she still doesn’t, despite the acclaim — but the farmers market felt like walking into an art exhibit.
“There was all this abundance, and it was so beautiful … it was like a gallery without walls. I wanted to capture it because it felt so fleeting.”
It wasn’t long ago in years, but an eternity before the Instagram age. Bewildered farmers would ask, “Are you taking a picture of my broccoli?” Then people started asking for copies of her prints, and then to publish them.
She moved on to a digital camera borrowed from a friend, and finally her own.
When she commented on the massive numbers of female interns — the farmers of the future — an artist friend suggested she focus on that phenomenon.
The Female Farmer Project was born.
“I wanted to tell the stories in my community, and almost immediately it expanded to the outer reaches of my community, and then it kept growing and growing,” Mulkern says.
Her social-media connections turned into portraits and, in some cases, farming forums.
She recently posted answers from various farmers to the question she had asked Veranth, about challenges of the season: The women talked about underground voles. Drought. Floods. Cash flow. Time management. “Picking up the bodies (of) 4 dead lambs after a wild dog attack.”
Mulkern sometimes turns her pages over for first-person essays, as when Veranth wrote about putting down her favorite lamb last year just as a litter of piglets was born. “You can always count on life to pull you through.” Women who responded online, touched, included a neighboring Carnation farmer and a small-scale organic farmer from Australia.
AS WORD OF the project spread, Mulkern has been invited to chronicle women on the farm wherever she goes, from the deputy secretary of the USDA in Washington, D.C., to the woman who helped reintroduce kale to France, from a community garden project in the South Bronx to the smallest certified organic farm in Washington state — a therapeutic plot at a transitional living center for people with mental illnesses.
One of her most reproduced images is of a confident North Carolina farmer.
“I think what people really like about that is, she’s happy. She’s feminine. And she’s driving a bigass tractor,” Mulkern says.
Equally close to her heart is the print of an older woman weeding on a 100-degree day in Portland, part of a project meant to teach refugees how to grow vegetables appealing to the Western diet. “While she was weeding, the edible weeds went into her bag,” Mulkern says. “She would take the weeds home and eat those and sell the vegetables.”
Mulkern strives for purity and authenticity in the project. There are no photos of women bending over, or in other poses that could be sexualized. No watermarks.
“I don’t want people to think of me when they look at the images,” she says. “I want them to see the farmer.”
Mulkern doesn’t sell the images for profit, funding the project through other paid photography jobs.
The Cascade Harvest Coalition, a nonprofit group committed to preserving farmland and supporting sustainable food (now part of Seattle Tilth), gave out its first “Harvest Hero” award last year, and Mulkern was the obvious recipient, says Sheryl Wiser, manager of its Puget Sound Fresh program. Agriculture is not a typically sexy subject, Wiser says, but Mulkern gets both the grit and the grace of it.
“She resonates across platforms — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, online and in person … She can talk food systems with the best of them, and she can also get a cow to look at her camera in a way that will melt your heart. She understands that a farmer’s hands are not pristine, and she’s tapped into the relationship between women as growers and nurturers of our food …
“It’s hard for me sometimes to put my finger on exactly what it is that she’s doing; I just know that she keeps it real and she does it right.”
Men, of course, can be equally nurturing, concerned with social justice, committed to humane animal care. But Mulkern says she has felt no backlash about her focus on women — rather, occasional praise from men who appreciate seeing their relatives honored, or surprise from those who note that women have always been part of farming. Yes, she says to the latter point — women have always been there. But usually they’ve been unsung.
Snapping pictures of the sunlit fields at Redfeather, chatting about the geriatric chickens and the relationship of the “guardian” dog to the pigs, the work seems it could be genderless — yet it isn’t.
“I remember one of the first stories you told me was people coming to the farm and looking behind you” for the man, Mulkern tells Veranth.
“Yes,” Veranth recalls, “and at the feed store, people would say, ‘Your husband must be so busy, how does he do it?’ ”
It’s a privilege to show the world the different faces behind the farming label, Mulkern says. “I get to open to the world a peek in their milking parlor, a peek into their barn. Farmers by nature are very solitary … to have someone kind of come in and document that, I think a lot of them at first were, ‘You want to do what? Nobody’s ever asked us that before.’ ”