The Female Farmer Looks Like This
An Interview with Audra Mulkern, Filmmaker
Think of a farmer. Did you picture an older white man in overalls and a piece of straw sticking between his teeth? Audra Mulkern wants to change that.
Realistically, women now make up 30% of farm operators in the U.S. (almost triple from just 3 decades ago) yet their work is often unappreciated or unrecognized. Audra founded “The Female Farmer Project” to shine a spotlight on hardworking female farmers around world through a multi-platform documentary. Combing stories, personal essays, photography and a podcast she is determined to give a voice to these women.
What initially got you interested in photographing farms and farmers? What sparked this blog?
One summer day, I was standing in the middle of my local farmer's market. I was just admiring the color and artful bounty that the farmers bring every week trying to decide what to buy next. I was watching the farmers interact with the shoppers, and each other and all of the sudden it struck me. Behind every single table was a woman. I wondered what was going on – was my community special to have so many women farmers? Or had I bought into a gender stereotype? So I went to the library. Yes, strangely enough – that moment struck me enough to the point that I would go to the library to research. What I discovered amongst so many things is that women were missing from the narrative -- from the data, from the stories, from the pictures. So I decided to do something about it. Only problem, I wasn’t a photographer, didn’t even own a camera much less know how to use one. I had never written anything besides emails and Facebook posts, I didn’t know how to start a project mapping a group of people. Nothing. I had no experience, education, authority or permission. So I had to write my own permission slip.
What are some of the best things these farmers have taught you? If not directly, has sharing their stories taught you something?
I have learned to redefine what success looks like. Many of the women that I have met are first generation farmers, and like myself are on their encore career. They’ve had the corporate job and gave it up along with the security of stock options, health insurance, annual bonuses, and paid vacations for something entirely new with no guarantees. I have also learned to observe nature more carefully. I’ve noticed that women farmers and ranchers know almost immediately if something is wrong in their herd or flock. And I’m constantly impressed with the intellectual challenges that farming brings. I think at first glance people might brush off farming as easy. But wow – farming employs STEM all day every day. There is nothing easy about it.
Why do you think it is so important to share women's stories? Particularly female farmers stories?
I mentioned that women farmers were missing from the data and the narrative. What that means is that their contributions and their stories have not been told. Only for the last forty years has the USDA Census tracked gender statistics, and even then the questions have been gender-biased and resulted in incomplete data. By telling their stories, by providing a platform for them to tell their stories, we rewire ourselves for the empathy to make change. What change? To change policy that was written without women in mind. To help create paths for women to better access tools, training and financing. It’s critical to tell these stories.
Growing up, who were your most important influences? How did they inform who you were as a woman?
I grew up in the 70s and 80s – mid women’s movement. Many of the women around me were just beginning to work outside of the home, but perhaps not in their dream job or career. I truly feel that my mother would have made an amazing architect but she worked in social services. While important and fulfilling to her in many ways, I always had that lingering feeling that she and many of the women her age were held back by societal norms. I am grateful to them for paving that path. And now as a mother of an 18-year-old young woman – I am even more grateful because she feels powerful in her skin and her path has fewer obstacles than mine.
Describe a time when you realized women were treated differently than men… how old were you… what was the situation? What happened?
Early in my career at a large software company, I was in a conference room conducting contract negotiations with a Japanese company; it was a male negotiator on their side, plus his female secretary and a few other men. I too was the only woman on the other side with my male team. I had a male translator in the room and the Japanese businessman asked him if I had the authority to negotiate the contract. The translator made sure I knew what he had just asked. I was grateful to know that I now had the upper hand; his misogyny was his fatal flaw and I got everything I wanted in the contract. I hope his secretary was silently cheering for me!
When do you feel your most powerful?
When I have helped another woman tell her story. Too often women feel as if it’s bragging. It’s not bragging if it’s true.
Or the pressure to be perfect is so overwhelming that they apologize for their story. Your story is as perfect and valid as anyone’s. Find power in your uniqueness.
Or, and this is a big one. Women don’t feel like they have the authority. Remember, I didn’t have the authority to do what I do. But I wrote my own permission slip and I am asking women to do the same. Even if you have to sit down and type it up and sign it and tape it to your wall. Give yourself the permission and the authority - don’t wait for someone else to give it to you.
Were all about daring at HERdacity. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever done?
I have done a few crazy things in my life, like flying off to all parts of the world on my own at age 18. I worked for an airline and was determined to take full advantage of my free flight benefits. But honestly, sometimes the most daring and scary thing is to hit the send or submit button - but the feeling after you’ve done it is as amazing and adrenaline filled as if you had jumped out of an airplane!
Do you have a mantra?
“There is no path, the path is made by walking.”
I love this saying by Antonio Machado, it’s part of a longer poem. But that one line gets me through the times when I feel like I am in the weeds. For me, it means to keep my head down and work to create my own path.
What do you carry in your purse or bag with you every day?
In my camera bag, in addition to my camera, I carry two lenses, an extra battery and charger, and a lens cloth. But I also carry a rain bonnet that I found in my husband’s great aunt’s camera bag. It’s from the 1950s, its unused and in a sweet little plastic container. It’s my talisman. I also have red lipstick, sharpies, a granola bar, and thank you notes. Because with red lips I feel pulled together, sharpies are never a bad idea, I get super hungry after a shoot and manners never go out of style – people love to feel appreciated. l love sending and receiving thank you notes. The things I don’t carry - insecurity, other people’s expectations or past mistakes.
What are 3 things left on your bucket list?
Great question! Hike Machu Pichu, take a pottery class and be published in the New York Times.
What are your go-to indulgences or guilty pleasures?
I didn’t have T.V. for almost a decade so I have been out of the pop culture loop. I recently got satellite and streaming services - and my guilty pleasure is watching the Real Housewives of New York. I’m still pretty far back in the seasons, but I’m hooked. What should I watch next when I’m done?
You can pick one superpower… what would you choose?