Posted on September 1, 2010 - by

Farming’s Indispensable Woman

“Women Nourish Us” is FRESH’s femme-focused blog series. Every week, we turn to a leading woman in the good food movement for ideas and inspiration. Be sure to check us out every Wednesday for a new write-in. Then pass the post!

Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and livestock rancher.  Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems resulting from industrialized food production, including the book Righteous Porkchop:  Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009, www.righteousporkchop.com ) and four essays for the New York Times. She is regular blogger for The Atlantic online, and has written for Huffington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and CHOW.  Previously, she was the Senior Attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry.  She lives in Bolinas, California with her husband, Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, a natural meat company supplied by a network of over 600 traditional farmers and ranchers.  They now market the products of their ranch under the name BN Ranch.

A filmmaker recently asked me why so few women were involved in raising livestock. I paused before answering because the question surprised me a bit.  Over the past ten years, I’ve visited dozens of farms and ranches raising cattle, dairy cows, pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry in every region of the United States.  At every operation women were an absolutely essential part of the team.

At most of these farms, women kept everyone fed, dressed in clean clothes, and ran the household; they often kept the books.  Usually, they were also deeply involved with the stewardship of lands and animals.  These women are agile, nimble “Jills of all trades” who seamlessly flow from one varied task to another throughout their jammed packed days.

In my experience, women bring a unique sensitivity to animal husbandry, ensuring that each animal gets the individual attention it needs.  Our good friends Rob and Michelle Stokes run a cattle, heritage turkey, and goat ranch in eastern Oregon.  Both are skilled in the arts of agriculture and grazing, but during the kidding and calving seasons it’s Michelle who makes sure that every last goat kid and calf gets nursed and bonds to its mother.

And then there are the farms and ranches that are being taken over by women.  The latest Census of Agricultural shows that the number of women farmers is increasing.  One of these is my friend Cory Carman.  She graduated from Stanford with a degree in political science with no intention of ever returning to the cattle ranch she grew up on.  But when family circumstances drew her back to the ranch, she decided to stay.  Now she and her husband have taken over her family’s cattle ranch, which she has converted to a totally grass based operation.  She direct markets her beef on the Internet and sells it to restaurants.  “It’s a totally different beef industry today than the one I grew up in, which was totally dominated by men,” she told me recently.  She had the revelation when she sat down to talk about meat at a business meeting with two other women, both also in their thirties.

Women make up the vast majority of the membership in animal protection organizations.  Moreover, as an article in E Magazine noted, women have an innate environmental ethic.  It quoted Theodore Roszak, director of the Ecopsychology Institute, which studies the relationships between individuals and nature. While men traditionally viewed Mother Nature “as a devious female to be put in her place, to be tamed” by technology (just as they historically viewed marriage in terms of domination and submission), women have shifted the emphasis from using science to subjugate nature to finding ways to accommodate nature.  “Women in the environmental movement have always had sense of being on Earth’s side,” says Roszak.

It naturally follows that the more women are involved in farming and ranching, the better agriculture will be toward natural resources and farmed animals.  I’m proud to be among their ranks.

To get in touch with Nicolette or learn more about her work, visit her website where you can buy her book, Righteous Porkchop:  Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009)

If you believe in the power of women’s words and our growing sustainable food movement, please spread the word about our Women Nourish Us blog series via email, Facebook & Twitter (http://fdl.me/d1nqNe). If you would like to host a screening of FRESH for your friends or organization, please – be in touch!

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  1. Visit My Website

    September 13, 2010

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    Karen said:

    Without women, farming would be a lost art!
    I tried to find a link to follow your blog, but couldn’t! :(