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The Faces Of Female Farmers Across America Are Finally Being Recognized, Thanks To This Special Project

In 2011, Audra Mulkern was not a photographer. She was not a blogger, not a writer, and definitely not a self-published author—not yet that is. “I always joke that the whole thing kind of developed organically,” she told BUST in a phone interview. What started with a pre-Instagram era iPhone 3G photo series and strange looks from farmers as she snapped shots of their produce has since turned into a successful self-published book, a blog, and an ever-growing look into the lives of female farmers.

Before Mulkern developed her photography series, The Female Farmer Project, she was just your average CSA member and friendly farmers market shopper in rural Washington. Many of us can attest to being part of this early Sunday morning crowd—moseying over to our local farmers market with organic teas at hand, ready with reusable totes, small change, and a slew of children and/or dogs ready and willing to stock up on vegetables, fruits, and assorted goodies for the week—but Mulkern was interested in more than the farm-fed organic lifestyle.

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“People really don’t think about the fact that the farmers have to harvest the whole day before, pack the van, and get there two hours before it starts,” she says. “They set all that up and then they have somebody go over and disregard all their work by saying, ‘$2.50 for a bunch of broccoli’?”

She saw the farmers not just as faces under tents, clad in flannel and sturdy boots, but as the indispensable liaisons between fresh food and communities. She also noticed that many of them happened to be women.

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After the success of her first project, Rooted In The Valley, she knew there were more stories to be told. The book was filled with colorful documentation of two farmers market seasons in the Snoqualmie Valley of Western Washington, an experience that Mulkern says is akin to walking through an art gallery, the colors of vegetables so vibrant they’re entrancing.

“Once I looked past the art, though, I started paying attention to the artists,” she says. “I saw that there are so many women here. Why haven’t I noticed this before?” she recalls thinking.

And so began The Female Farmer Project: A “farm-to-table documentation” of the strength behind the pretty vegetables and a direct rebuttal to the images a Google search of the word 'farmer' turns up featuring white men in overalls and straw hats.

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While there have always been female farmers, they have not always been accounted for: It wasn’t until 1978 that the Census of Agriculture started asking for principal farm operators’ gender. That means a gap of 138 years—from the first ever census conducted in 1840 until 1978—of unrepresented female farmers.

But despite all the time lost, women have been forging ahead. Between 1978 and 2007, female-operated farms grew from 121,600 to 306,200 (male-operated farms actually declined by 220,800, according to a report by the USDA, Census of Agriculture). And though we’ve seen a 1.6% decrease in all female operators of farms between 2007 and 2012, Mulkern believes in the anecdotal evidence over the statistical.

“What I see is bigger than what the numbers show,” Mulken says. “I’ve been on farms in a lot of different areas, and different kinds of farms, and what I’m seeing is that women are rising and so to be a small part in documenting that is such an honor.”

She's done more than just document: On her site, she has an accumulation of guest essayists, a photo series featuring an early morning chicken harvest, a story about a farm in Iceland that is home to a quarter of the 800 Icelandic goats left worldwide, and more. All of which creates an atmosphere that sings of open community—but doesn’t shy away from the reality of farming.

“This is not about sexy women on the farm. This is about showing the real work,” she says. Her desire to document the efforts of female farmers quickly transitioned Mulkern to using a high-quality digital camera. Her photos are raw, unadulterated. They are, in a word, honest.

“I wanted to strike a balance between the glamorization of it and sort of the ‘ugly stuff’ that we see too,” Mulkern says. “It’s very important to me that people see what the true cost of food is.”

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When asked what the future of The Female Farmer Project looks like, Mulkern thinks of her daughter, who was 13 when she first began snapping female farmer pictures and was intrigued by her mother’s work. “For her to be curious about it was another reason why I needed to keep this going. She’s seeing her mom hold up a light on other strong women.”

For now, Mulkern continues to shine that light and is humbled by the kindness she meets along the way. At each farm she visits, Mulkern talks about a concept she’s coined 'The Farmer’s Way', a small exchange between her and the farmer that speaks to the generosity she has seen throughout her experience. “Whenever I leave a farm—and it happens every time—a farmer always hands something to me to take home,” she says.

She calls it a “beautiful gift” from the farmers, and jokes about how she is essentially getting paid in carrots these days, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. She laughs into the phone as she reveals how engulfed she has become in this project. “These women are allowing me, and by extension my audience, to peek into their barns and their fields,” she says. “And I think the next time they do the census we’re going to see a huge surge of women really leading the way.”

Follow Audra Mulkern's experiences here and follow this series on female farmers right here at BUST.

images via Audra Mulkern Photography

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