Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recognize Female Farmers on International Women's day

Originally published in the Kent Patch on March 8th, 2012

Here in Northeast Ohio generally, and very much in Kent specifically, we think about food.
We talk about food. 
Many of us seek local food. We support farmers' markets. There are underground restaurants and supper clubs and some of the most amazing potlucks I've ever seen.
For us, food is important.  If you've been involved with Kent Environmental Council, Haymaker Farmers' Market, TransPORTAGE, or one of many other local groups, not just food but feeding people is important. The process is something we care about, and we think about everything from the farm to the table. It's not just Northeast Ohio, either, although I like to think that we're ahead of the national curve on this issue; even the USDA recently unveiled their initiative, Know Your Farmer Know Your Food to encourage people to discuss where their food comes from. Where food comes from, how it's produced, how it comes to us, where we buy it, and how it's prepared are all critical aspects of not just our own personal health, but our local economic health. 
Food is great as an issue because it's universal. While developing nations may worry less about sustainable farming and more about subsistence farming than we do — although some are a doing a good job to improve both sustainability and subsistence at the same time — they still spend quite a bit of time thinking about the stuff that literally builds our respective populations. We know that improving yields of small farmers, diversifying agricultural products on a farm and including value added products in a farmer's portfolio help keep small farmers competitive, in business and even growing, whether that farmer is in Kenya or Kent.  Supporting small farmers supports people.
So what has any of this to do with the heading of this piece, a reminder of today's significance in the pursuit of gender equality?
If you were a woman in a developing nation, the connection would be obvious.  Globally, women produce over fifty percent of the world's food. Women are also over fifty percent of the population, so that's no surprise, right? Here's the kicker — in developing nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, women can account for as much as eighty-percent of the food supply. Globally, we see the trend that a majority of subsistence farming is done by women, and the larger the farm in terms of pounds of food produced, the more likely it is to be run by a man (statistics are thanks to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations). The idea of "support small farms, support people" can be interpreted on the global scale as "support small farms, support women." 
Why is this? In many areas, it's because farming — specifically subsistence farming — is "women's work." Women raise the crops that feed the family in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeastern Asia, Latin America, and especially in the developing world. They tend the family chickens, grow the vegetables for dinner, milk the goat for the children's breakfast. 
Cash crops, on the other hand, are the responsibility of men. Cash crops are more volatile in price, less diversified, and the family can survive if there's a bad year for a cash crop.
Subsistence farming, however, is critical to the family because this is where dinner comes from. You can weather a financial loss if you still have nourishment, but without that family plot of vegetables life gets much harder. On the other hand, in a good year, the value of a cash crop can still go down (these are usually commodities, don't forget, and a glut in the market brings down prices for everyone), but that family vegetable patch can produce extra that can be preserved, sold, bartered or made into value added items like jellies, jams, and pickles.
This trend of small farmers being women isn't just confined to developing nations. In the U.S., backyard gardeners also tend to be women. And in our very own Haymaker Farmers' Market approximately 60 percent of all vendors are women.  There's a larger contingent among the prepared food makers, but around three-quarters of farmers there are either women or a couple team. That leaves one in four that are men only. The same with Victory gardens in the second World War, and in the community and school gardens now. When small farms win, women gain ground. When women gain, their families are the beneficient. Statistics have shown that time and time again.
So for this International Women's Day, I encourage you to know your farmer, support small farms, and if you have the means, then expand that vision through any of the programs that support global subsistence farming initiatives, like Heifer International for one. Remember that whole "Give a woman a fish, or teach her how to fish" thing.

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