Women Farmers Are Reshaping the Field in South Carolina

Woman farmer crouches in brick-walled barn to pet sheep

“I think a lot of things about farming are maternal,” says Tracy. Tracy is a white woman who owns a small livestock operation in the mountains of South Carolina. “Kidding, and lambing, and calving—I definitely handle those things much better than my husband does. You know, because there’s some basic anatomy . . . things that [as a woman] you can recognize and sympathize and empathize with.”

Tracy and I sit under a tree in lawn chairs, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sheep, rotationally grazed, nibble grass in the rolling pasture. Tracy offers me a cold drink. Her teenage daughter, interested in taking over the family farm, listens in a hammock nearby.

Country road lined with trees and picket fence winds toward the Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains sit in the background of many women’s farms in South Carolina. Photo by author.

I am interviewing Tracy for my graduate research about women farmers in South Carolina. The women in my study come from a variety of backgrounds but all operate small-scale, diversified farms across the state.

Women Farm Too

Although the presence of female operators in agriculture has been on the rise the last several years, the most recent census by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) detected a significant increase in women farmers in the United States. The number of women operators grew from 288,264 in 2012 to 798,500 in 2017 out of 2.7 million total operators.

The increase is deceptive, however, because the 2017 census was the first year that NASS allowed farms to count more than one principal operator. Historically, men were more likely to count themselves as the sole principal operator. Now, the census includes more of the women counterparts who have been farming alongside the men all along.

Women farmers struggle to be seen by society as farmers rather than gardeners or farmers’ wives.

Most regions in the U.S. have witnessed an increase in (and an increased recognition of) women-operated farms, spurring interest in research on women in agriculture. Most of the emerging research, though, has focused on women in the Midwest and, to some extent, New England. Of the already sparse literature on women-led agriculture in the United States, studies located in the South—an agriculturally and culturally distinct region—are hard to come by. By interviewing women like Tracy, I hope to better understand what it means to be a woman farmer in South Carolina.

Femininity in Farming

“I realized how disconnected my kids were from their food and (from) understanding where food came from. . . . I think a lot of women who are mothers recognize that our food system is broken and that is part of the reason they go into farming,” Tracy says.

During my fieldwork, women farmers with children consistently linked maternal qualities to agriculture. Many stated not only that motherhood is compatible with agriculture but also that becoming a mother is what made them interested in farming. Others stated that having children has made them better farmers.

The tendency to connect femininity or motherhood with farming is common among women in agriculture, who often view themselves as caretakers of others and the nonhuman world. Feminist geographers have written about how these views among women farmers are expressive of ethics of care. Women may be more comfortable describing their contributions to the farm as a form of care work, since many feel pressure to perform a certain kind of femininity in a traditionally masculine field.

Green tree-lined pasture with hutches for baby sheep
A woman farmer’s pasture has hutches for baby sheep. Many South Carolina women farmers find parallels between livestock care and motherhood. Photo by author.

Judith Butler’s foundational work on gender may help explain why some women feel that they must reframe farming in traditionally feminine terms. Butler suggests that individuals who defy traditional gender roles often feel that they cannot challenge prevailing norms. For example, a woman farmer who feels she must conform to cultural expectations of womanhood might reframe their agricultural labor in terms of domestic work like food preparation.

“After I had kids, I thought more about what was in food,” says Patty. Patty, a white woman, is the owner and operator of a mixed vegetable and flower operation in the coastal plains. “I think women in general . . . get stuck with a lot of the minutiae of family things.”

Patty also mentions that women may be better than men at marketing and pricing produce because they are usually the ones who grocery shop for their families. According to Patty, women are more familiar with what prices work for other families. By framing their farm work as care work, women farmers can avoid the discomfort of disrupting societal gender norms and more comfortably operate in a field traditionally coded as masculine.

Women may resist social constrictions by leveraging the very forces that confine them.

But this gendered performance is not without its costs—it can reinforce stereotypes about “women’s work” and exacerbate the challenges women experience. Women may simultaneously subvert patriarchy by farming while inadvertently reproducing the dynamics that create it. This can compound the challenges women farmers already confront such as unequal access to land, alienation in a male-dominated industry, and the struggle to be seen by society as farmers rather than gardeners or farmers’ wives.

Past USDA programing has reinforced the narrative that U.S. farmers are heterosexual white men. Environmental sociologists document how, in the early twentieth century, the USDA’s 4-H program—ostensibly aimed at teaching youth agrarian skills—reinforced the patriarchal family model in response to perceived threats to white supremacy and heteronormativity. Organizers specifically strived to train youth for heterosexual marriages. Although the program’s goals have since shifted, the image they contrived of the idealized farmer is still alive in the U.S. imagination, fortifying heteronormative, patriarchal, and racial stereotypes.

Race and Gender on the Farm

In addition to the barriers white women farmers face, women of color who farm are much more likely to experience mounting obstacles to participating in agriculture, including difficulty obtaining farm loans or land access.

Danielle is a co-owner and operator of a small, diversified farm in upstate South Carolina. We gaze out at her pasture and apple orchard from a picnic table.

A garden bed and hoophouse are framed by trees
Many of the South Carolina women farmers interviewed had diversified operations. Photo by author.

“I don’t mean to make this about race.” Danielle is apologetic.

She tells me that she loves farming but that the challenges she faces have much to do with motherhood and race. Like other women I interview, Danielle operates under an ethics of care. She tells me that being a mother makes her more compassionate toward her livestock and therefore a better caregiver to animals. At the same time, her farming struggles are amplified by her intersecting identities—Black, woman, and mother. She tells me about how difficult it was to involve her family in their community’s predominantly white church.

When the kids were younger, this one summer I kind of forced them to participate in that summer program at the church down the road. . . . On Sunday, (parents) go to church, and . . . show face and talk about different things. So, I went down there to represent the kids . . . and one lady at the end of services, she came up and she said, “You know Vera?”

I was like, “I think I’ve heard of [her].”

“Well, you know, Vera go to that church over there. You need to go talk to Vera to see what church she goes to, so you can go to her church.”

On top of dealing with blatant racism, Danielle finds it challenging to juggle the demands of farming and motherhood.

“You can’t neglect anything,” Danielle says. “You have to do it all. Whereas a father doesn’t have to worry about washing clothes.”

The image of the ideal farmer fortifies heteronormative, patriarchal, and racial stereotypes.

Danielle is not the only woman of color in my study who worries about the demands of motherhood. Gina, a Filipina woman in the South Carolina Midlands, has decided to delay or entirely forego having children to avoid the extra challenges with which farm mothers wrestle.

“[Being a mother is] a huge responsibility as a woman because you do your wife duties and mom duties,” Gina says.

She states that managing domestic responsibilities on top of farm chores is not currently feasible for her. On the other hand, her husband, she believes, would not confront the same parenting expectations on top of his farm duties if he were a father.

Embracing and Defying Gender Roles 

Though some may think that women who frame farming as care work perpetuate stereotypes, others disagree. The reality of the work women do is often complicated and evades simple explanations. Women may resist social constrictions by leveraging the very forces that confine them.

Woman farmer presses collard greens to her face in a high tunnel lined with vegetable rows
Women of color work to reap abundant harvests, in spite of racism, low access to land and loans, and other barriers. Photo by Brandon O’Connor, USDA, 2021.

Josephine Beoku-Betts studies foodways of Gullah women in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Gullah people are descendants of African enslaved peoples who have formed strong communities centered around history, culture, and food.

Though making food for the family is traditionally coded as feminine, Gullah women are often empowered by their foodways because cooking offers a site of resistance to white power. One of the only opportunities women who were enslaved had to nurture their families under white oppression was through care work such as cooking. Rather than simply conforming to gender roles by assuming responsibility for food preparation, Gullah women resist such social pressures by self-defining safe spaces with other Black women, forming community bonds that allow for resistance and resilience.

My fieldwork similarly illuminates how farm women wrestle with the tensions that arise by operating within social hierarchies while simultaneously subverting them. The mothers in my study code their work as feminine while, often in the same breath, also expressing pride in challenging gender norms by farming.

Women farmers in South Carolina are leveraging gender roles to construct compassionate spaces for themselves.

“I will be honest,” Tracy says, “there are plenty of times when I wish that we could revert more to . . . [me] tak[ing] care of the household . . . and those were my only duties . . . because it is so much to handle when you are working a full-time job and farming and raising children.”

Tracy does not want to revert back to a time when there was a stricter gendered division of labor, but she does want to decrease the amount of responsibility and stress she faces as a woman farmer. In this context, taking on only domestic work—rather than also farming and working outside the home—represents a respite. But this doesn’t mean she wants to take a back seat. Tracy seems proud to tell me that visitors are surprised when they learn who oversees her farm.

“I’ve known farmers who have just completely disregarded what I had to say . . . because I was a woman,” Tracy says of men farmers in her community. “Or [they] would [ask] me where my husband was or what my husband thinks. . . . And thankfully my husband is great because he will tell them, ‘She’s the one who makes the decisions.’”

Women Farmers Supporting Farmers

The stress of pushing up against gender norms, heteronormativity, and racial stereotypes can wear down farmers who don’t fit the straight white male image presented in media and society. In response, women farmers, queer farmers, and farmers of color are forming supportive social networks.

The participants in my research create spaces for themselves in informal neighborhood groups and social gatherings through the non-profit Annie’s Project, which serves women in agriculture in South Carolina. Danielle says she is starting to see a lot of younger women becoming involved. Almost all the women in my study mention the organization as an essential outlet for community.

“I have a core group of friends who are women playing a big role in their farms,” says Tracy. “That has been very empowering and very nice.”

Rows of garden beds filled with variety of flowers
Women farmers form and find support networks, such as one grower who credits a Facebook group with helping her learn to cultivate cut flowers. Photo by author.

Although many women speak about the importance of relying on others nearby, such as befriending an experienced cattle farmer to help with a breech birth, most of the women also emphasize the importance of digital communities. One flower grower in the Blue Ridge Mountains says that participating in a Facebook group about cultivating cut flowers was partly responsible for her success as a first-generation farmer. Others say they reach out to other women farmers via Instagram. These digital communities seem to be just as vibrant as neighborhood ones. Whether virtual or face-to-face, all the women assert that having a community of other women farmers is necessary for overcoming obstacles.

Despite the challenges women farmers experience compared to men, they carve out room for themselves in the industry, creating opportunities for growth. Rather than upholding traditional gender roles, women farmers in South Carolina are using an ethics of care to construct compassionate spaces for themselves that might not have been otherwise possible.

Featured image: Emily Chamelin is a professional sheep shearer who raises lambs on her farm in Westminster, Maryland. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA, 2021.

Sarah Melotte is a graduate student in geography at the University of Colorado–Denver, where she serves as the Geography Department’s Lead Teaching Assistant. She loves telling stories that challenge others to consider alternative perspectives. Her thesis examines the woman farmer’s experience in South Carolina through a political ecological lens. Her writing has appeared in The Waking and 100 Days in Appalachia, among others. Website. Twitter. Contact.