In recent years there has emerged a veritable explosion in media critiquing the U.S. agrifood (agriculture and food) system, including Fast Food Nation; Food, Inc.; King Corn; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and Supersize Me1 . These often searing critiques have provided the general public with valuable insights into everything that is wrong with our industrialized agrifood system. In contrast, Good Food and Ladies of the Land are hopeful, inspirational, and celebratory documentary films. What both films capture are efforts by what sustainable activist and academic John Ikerd calls the “new American farmer”: that is, farmers working to create an alternative agrifood paradigm2 . A paradigm focused on producing foods that are healthier, as well as socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.
Consumer concerns about a wide range of issues, including food safety, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), animal welfare, pesticides, and global warming, have provided new American farmers with the opportunity to produce and market alternative foods that are fresh, seasonal, and organic, as well as create niche-market products such as free-range eggs or grass-fed beef. In Good Food, filmmakers Dworkin and Young spotlight the work of small family farms in the Pacific Northwest involved in this process. Importantly, the filmmakers include not only the efforts of farmers but also of food retailers, restaurateurs, and even a local fast food chain, to re-localize their food system. The sustainable food movement’s mantra is “know where your food comes from,” and the film features farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs), which provide consumers with the opportunity to reconnect with farmers and the process through which their food is produced.
In the classroom, it is likely that some students will dismiss the shift toward sustainable agriculture as peculiar to more liberal areas of the country and not realistic for places such as the Midwest, that are more deeply entrenched within industrial agriculture. To help counter this notion, I like to draw on data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service website, which shows that growth in demand for local and sustainable foods is occurring across the country and that the expansion in farmer’s markets and CSAs nationwide, including in places such as Iowa, reflects this3 .
While Good Food features women farmers and activists, it does not explicitly touch on gender. In contrast, the new American farmers in Ladies of the Land are all women and discussions of gender relations are central. While women have always been involved in farming, they have not typically been viewed—or viewed themselves—as farmers4 . This perspective is changing, however, as the number of farms owned and operated by women increases.
Ladies of the Land features four women who are raising and marketing livestock, organic produce, and dairy products for the local market. One of the interesting points made in the film is that women typically have a different entry point into farming than men, often transitioning in from other careers. Since conventional agriculture is typically large-scale and capital-intensive, the financial barriers to entry are considerable. In contrast, the small-scale, diversified nature of sustainable agriculture provide greater possibilities for individuals with fewer financial resources, such as women, to enter. Importantly, consumers are typically willing to pay more for niche-market products, making it financially viable for women to sustain themselves on less land, with less capital investment, and less dependence on additional labor.
However, it is not just economic exigencies that lead women into sustainable agriculture. Carolyn Sachs, one of the nation's leading experts on women in agriculture, argues in the film that women have a well-developed social conscience, which means that women often enter farming because they are concerned about producing healthy foods and creating a healthy environment for their children and community. This social conscience is also reflected in the efforts by these women to develop relationships with their customers, neighbors, and communities.
Importantly, these women do not romanticize just how tough it is to make a living farming. Farming remains hard work 24/7 and dealing with the vagaries of nature and the economy remains a constant challenge. At the same time, Ladies of the Land is empowering because it captures the enormous sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and success (which is not always economic) that these women gained from owning land directly, and being in a position to make decisions and take control over what to produce, where to sell it, and how.
In the classroom, I would incorporate feminist critiques to help students understand that the agrifood system is highly gendered5 . Such a critique would be remiss if it did not also include a gender analysis of the sustainable agricultural movement, which Patricia Allen explains has remained largely “silent on gender issues both within the movement and within rural communities6 .” Moreover, she argues that there is a tendency within the movement “to glorify family farm and agrarian values without questioning the patriarchal privilege that underlies many of these values.”7
Similarly, a gender analysis could consider how gender intersects with class within the agrifood system and affects women’s workload. For example, Julie Guthman argues that working women often depend on fast food as a means to manage both family and work but then are criticized for depending on it. On the other hand, ‘slow food’ such as farmer’s markets and CSAs, relies on “a tremendous amount of unpaid feminized labour”8 not only for farm women but also for urban women who already bear a disproportionate share of procuring and preparing food9 . The agrifood system is highly gendered and discussions such as these will be valuable for ensuring that students consider how alternative food systems might act to reinforce or alleviate particular gender roles, responsibilities, and relationships.
Carmen Bain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University. Her research interests include the political economy of global agrifood systems, and the relationship between gender and international development.
1Fast Food Nation, directed by Richard Linklater (New York: Searchlight Pictures, 2006); Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner (New York: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2008); King Corn, directed by Aaron Woolf (Amherst, MA: Balcony Releasing, 2007); Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006); Supersize Me, directed by Morgan Spurlock (New York: Sony, 2004).
2Broken Limbs, directed by Jamie Howell and Guy Evans (Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, Inc. 2003).
3USDA Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/. See, for example, Steve Martinez et al., “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service ERR 97, May 2010, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR97/ERR97.pdf. Also, “Your Food Environmental Atlas,” http://www.ers.usda.gov/foodatlas/documentation.htm#numberfarms.
4Patricia Allen, Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 157.
5Patricia Allen and Carolyn Sachs, “Women and Food Chains: The Gendered Politics of Food,” International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 15 (2007): 1-23.
8Julie Guthman, “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow,’” Journal of Social and Cultural Geography 4 (2003): 56.
9Allen 2004, 156.