Guest Post: Sepia-toned Storytelling by The Anxious Shepherdess
by Maja Black, originally posted on The Anxious Shepherdess
I have not written in a long time. Many reasons for that, including the instant choke-hold having an audience (albeit a small one) put on my writing confidence, but mostly because there have been some crappy things at the farm and that’s hard to write about.
A good friend, at the beginning of my blog sharing, told me to write about every bad thing, write it down and talk about it and acknowledge it. I think that is an easier thing to say than do; and much easier to do if the bad thing is like, “I was so cold harvesting vegetables today that my fingers went numb,” or “A deer ate 80 cabbages last night.” Those things suck, and the cabbages is definitely a significant loss, but at the same time, you can pick yourself back up from that.
But this spring. Oh, this spring. Up until a few days ago, there was still snow on the ground from a heavy snow on April 8th, we can’t get our plants (including hundreds of dollars worth of onion starts going dormant in our basement) in the ground in any foreseeable future, and we are having x number of health concerns about our animals. But I’m not going to write about those problems just yet, because there is too much to say and too much emotional sewage to wade through.
What I want to write about is why I feel like I can’t talk about things that are going poorly on the farm. As farmers, especially ones that market directly to our customers, who for the most part care about us using organic and humane practices (which we care about too, for the record), we have to sell more than our produce. We have to sell our image, which too often gets cast as this sepia-toned Instagram farm filled with bounty and beauty.
It’s complex to try and parse out what this means for us and for farming. On the one hand, this happy and pastoral farm image we must sell is kind of true– many weeks out of the year, it does feel pretty idyllic out on the farm, and I love to share pictures and stories about how much I love my life, because I really do. But that image is also one-sided and doesn’t leave any room for us to be human, to make mistakes, and for bad shit to happen. The customer wants to believe that organic, local produce comes without any struggle, that they are buying into this pastoral ideal as well as the vegetable.
And we work to maintain that image because we cannot afford to lose customers. Our dependence on our customers makes it hard to be truthful when we want to talk about things not going well. We don’t want them to lose trust in us or think we are doing a bad job. So we continue to paint things with a positive spin, to look on the bright side, and work to remain a source of not only healthy vegetables, but healthy vibes in our community. But the truth is that there are so many variables in farming that are so outside of our control. We are one of the only industries that is fully dependent on the weather– drought, snow, rain, flood, wind, heat– all of those things can destroy our livelihood pretty dang quick. And simple mistakes– like planting the cabbage 16 inches apart instead of 12– can drastically impact our yield. There is so much uncertainty in farming that sometimes it feels like stuff is always going wrong, but that is just par for the course.
What this shiny image of farming does is furthers the separation people have from their food. The consumer has become so distanced from the food being grown that many of the industrial processes today I think would horrify them, and do, when they end up watching those food documentaries that exploit people’s sense of horror/ emotions. But beyond this type of storytelling, those stories are hidden away by the vertical integration of food production. They are hidden because they’re not great.
The stories the customer does have access to (and wants to) are ours– local producers, members of our community, women or minority farmers with a hopeful and positive story to tell. However, if we continue to just propagate this shiny idea of what “our” kind of farming looks like, is it actually helping our food system? If we are not truthful about our experiences growing food, how could we possibly get the support we need?
Someone running for state office in our district came out to visit the farm the other day, and he said something along the lines of, “I’ve noticed a lot of women farmers in the area. Is that mostly what you’re finding these days, that this is a growing movement of mostly women farmers?”
The answer was of course not, if you look at the statistics, over 90% of young/beginning farmers are white men (New Food Economy). The reason it seems that way to our young white male politician is that the women and minority farmers in our area have to do so much more outreach and storytelling to be accepted, to be heard. We are creating a narrative that includes us, but in doing so, it is somehow skewing the reality.
I’m sure if you looked at our farm community from the outside, it would seem to be filled with women farmers. However, that farm community is mostly vegetable and farmer’s market producers. If you include the commodity crop producers, the women farmers would be a much smaller percentage of the whole.
And from the inside, I can tell you that I know or know of almost every woman farmer in the area. There’s not actually that many of us. While it seems like a lot, I think that is actually just indicative of the dearth of minority farmers in the area.
So where does this leave us? This eternal question of how to tell our stories. If we want to sell our food, we have to sell the shiny Instagram farm. If we want to be respected as women farmers, we have to be perfect. We have to be tough and fierce and badass, as well as being goddamn nourishers of the land that are able to grow food so well, so wholesomely. We have to hold ourselves to such a high bar, because the spotlight’s on us. But in making room for different kinds of farmer’s voices, we can’t forget how far we have to go. We can’t change the reality by overwriting the narrative. We can’t forget about every farmer and farmworker in this country that struggles to make a living. We can’t see some examples of unconventional producers succeeding in our area and think that we’ve made it. Keep the goal in mind, our freedom and food is on the line.
Endnote: And it’s funny, even as I revise this post, I find myself toning down my description of our current strugs on the farm. I hate for anyone to think we are having a bad time, I don’t want anyone to worry. We’re fine. We’re fine and we’re doing a good job and we’re gonna have a great spring season!! That’s the story it’s so tempting to tell. Because it, too, is true, and is easier to palate. So if there’s anything you take from this post, it’s that we’re doing great.
Maja Black is a young farmer in Johnson County, Iowa. She farms with her sister, Carmen, and friend Anna, and they have a vegetable CSA, flock of sheep, some goats, and big big dreams. She writes about being a young farmer on her blog, https://theanxiousshepherdess.com.