Trending toward parity
While there’s still a ways to go, the agricultural industry is becoming more inclusive
By MELINA BOURDEAU, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 20, 2019
Inside one of Ang Roell’s 100 hives, bees swarmed together in a roiling mass slick with honey. The air was thick with buzzing wings as Roell, who manages They Farm Bees in Montague, lifted a honeycombed frame into the clear.
A hive is comprised of female worker bees, drone bees, who are male, and a female queen, Roell explains. It’s a collective society that’s working toward a singular goal. Each bee plays a key role in the colony’s survival.
Roell, 35, a first-generation farmer, is a non-binary/trans person who uses they/them pronouns. Since stepping into the agricultural industry nine years ago, Roell has faced their share of gender-based challenges including finding other non-binary farmers to have as mentors and running a business as a queer/non-binary/ femme in a rural landscape dominated by straight white men.
“When someone looks like you, you can relate to them,” Roell said. “It creates a level playing field, you can see what is possible above you.”
In farming, as with other fields, representation is important.
Currently, however, there’s no data on farmers who identify as anything other than male or female. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Census does not track sexual orientation such as lesbian, bisexual, gay, pansexual, or gender identities such as transgender or gender-nonconforming people. Notably, the U.S. Census Bureau does not track such data either.
In regards to women in farming, the USDA didn’t ask about farmers’ gender in its five-year Census of Agriculture until 1978. In that year, the census documented that only 35 farms in Franklin County were operated by women.
Since then, that number has risen. Locally in 2002, there were 278 farms with 306 women farmers and a total of 99 farms with women as the principal operator in Franklin County, based on the census. In 2017, there were 417 women-run farms in the region compared to 656 farms operated by men, according to the census.
Notably, beginning in 2017, the federal agricultural agency changed the way it collects demographic data. This caused a drastic increase in the number of women farmers who were documented, according to Megan Lipke, a statistician with the USDA. Before compiling data following the 2012 census, Lipke said the agency allowed farms to designate more people as “primary producers.” “When we reviewed the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there was a concern that we may not fully capture the role of women and new/beginning farmers,” Lipke said. To that end, the census phased out “principal operator” because it restricted the data collected and replaced the term with “producer,” according to Lipke. In correlation with that change, the number of women farmers with specific demographics reported jumped by 27 percent in 2017 over the 2012 census, underscoring the effectiveness of the agency’s attempt to better represent all people involved in farm decision making.
She said the reason why the census d o e s n’t record other demographic data is because, “we want to make sure no one single farm can be identified from the data.
“Because of this concern for confidentiality, there is some data suppressed in the census. For the race, ethnicity and gender questions, we follow the categories used by other federal statistical agencies,” Lipke said.
An apparent change
At Quonquont Farm in Whately, Leslie Harris, the farm’s manager, said she’s noticed a change in gender demographics since entering the industry in 2015. These days, Harris says there are a number of women-owned operations in the region including Quonquont Farm, which is managed primarily Harris, Allison Bell and Bell’s wife, Ann Barker, among others. Coming from a mostly women-dominated field (previously, Harris served as executive director of Dakin Humane Society for about 20 years), Harris says she initially noticed there were more men than women at farming conferences, especially among fruit growers.
In part, Harris says she suspects this is because area farms have traditionally been managed within family structures.
“When you think about how land is passed down, it’s not traditionally (given) to women,” Harris said, noting that in addition to that, “Women haven’t traditionally received training.”
As an example, Harris says she d i d n’t learn about the machines she now operates routinely while she was growing up. Her brother, on the other hand, did.
“We have mowers, tractors,
sprayers — and you want them working — part of learning how to grow fruit is learning about machinery and keeping it working,” she said.
But that’s not always the case. Following “tradition” in some ways, but bucking the trend in others, Tessa White-Diemand will eventually inherit Diemand Farm in Wendell from her family.
Nationally, it’s a similar picture.
Among more than 4,500 young farmers surveyed by the National Young Farmers Coalition, 60 percent were women and “the proportion of people of color and indigenous farmers in our survey was nearly twice that of the (national) 2012 Census of Agriculture.” In the survey, 37 percent identified as male, 1 percent were transgender and 2 percent identified as other or preferred not to answer.
For one of the owners of the farm, Anne Diemand Bucci, 63, this change in demographics isn’t a surprise. “There’s been a shift as far as gender, a whole shift in society,” she said.
Diemand Bucci, who began farming in her early 20s and manages the chicken farm on Mormon Hollow Road with her two sisters, a brother and, wants to pass the farm down to her daughter, Tessa White-Diemand.
Like her mother before her, White-Diemand says she grew up working on the farm before leaving the area to work in social work. After living in Boston for a number of years, White-Diemand says she came back to work on the farm last year. Currently, White-Diemand is working toward taking over the operation as her mother, aunts and uncle begin looking to retirement.
Growing up, White-Diemand says the farm is “where I was happiest. When I worked here, it felt like I had contributed and there would be more satisfaction in that work,” she said.
For Diemand Bucci, having her daughter move back to the area has been fulfilling so far.
“There’s something about being on the farm after you grow up here,” she said. “I like having my daughter here. We do things together. For example, we took an agriculture class together. It was interesting to take with Tessa — we are similar with thinking and brainstorming together. I bounce things off of her and have her bounce ideas off of me.”
In general, Diemand Bucci says she’s seen a shift in culture toward appreciating farmers in general. That, in turn, has helped the plight of women farmers.
“The idea that people used to think, ‘You’re a farmer, you’re stupid, you c o u l d n’t find anything else to do,’ has shifted to people saying, ‘Thank you for what you do,’ and ‘You and your farm produce amazing and good quality food,’” said Diemand Bucci.
Similarly, Roell says they have noticed an increase in queer and transgender farmers as well as a general effort to provide inclusive spaces for people — highlighting the importance of considering intersections of identity when considering inclusion efforts. At They Farm Bees, Roell says they’ve made a concerted effort to expand this inclusiveness.
“I want to teach people what it can look like to build their life on land, not necessarily expecting they will build a career. Maybe they’re interested in integrating beekeeping into their homestead or farming practice. I want to create a space inclusive to all identities,” Roell said. “To create a support system for people who live on land collaboratively and how we can share successfully, create stable housing and land access.” Reach Melina Bourdeau at 413-772-0261, ext. 263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to connect
The first Queer and Trans Bee Day is happening Sept. 27 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event is hosted by They Keep Bees at Yard Birds Farm in Montague. QT Bee Day is a part of the Out in the Open Summit hosted by Out in the Open of Brattleboro, VT. Details about Out in the Open and the bee day can be found at weareoutintheopen.org/summit.html.