The Farmer’s Daughter

By Gina Williams

I’m Gina. I’m thirty-three years old and the fourth generation to tend our farm on the lower foothills of Maungatautari, in the Waipā District. From my great-grandfather Jack and his brother Ted, and on to the current custodians, my parents, Neville and Louise, our family has worked the land for almost a century. Having recently come home to the farm after over a decade away, I’ve become curious about unpacking the role and representation of women on New Zealand’s land in 2018 and the implications for our food system.

Illustration by Frances Haszard

A good place to start is always with the facts. I had managed to get a World Bank estimate for New Zealand women in agriculture at 4 per cent, down from 8 per cent in 1991. But projections can only get you so far and the inputs were a haze of econometric modelling. After contacting almost every organisation in New Zealand around the topic, I wasn’t successful in acquiring any data. It appears only one organisation is actively tracking how many women are working the land every day.

The Ministry for Primary Industries was the most helpful, pointing me to a 2015 report. After rummaging through page after page of charts and summaries, I finally struck gold on page 127, which used Census data to tell me that in 2015, women on the ground in agriculture (dairy, red meat and wool, horticulture and arable) accounted for 37 per cent of total workers. This figure is even lower if you’re looking at those who work with animals, with an average of 33 per cent. And yet for a country that is around 51 per cent female, one of our biggest industries has some catching up to do.

Or does it?

The conversations I had with women in the industry said they felt that more women were rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in. The recent good news stories about sheep shearers supports this. Therefore, the lack of clarity around the numbers led me to consider that further investigation is needed. There may even be a gender pay gap issue at play. After all, we know that benchmarks such as gross domestic product are known to be fraught with difficulty. GDP’s detractors usually say it doesn’t accurately represent the reality of a lot of output, for example domestic duties. Some even believe it has lead to an invisibility of female labour. Perhaps an extension of this is women who work in agriculture?

Since the end of World War 2, the traditional structure of the family farm in New Zealand has been closely aligned to the nuclear family unit. Typically, the husband would be the full-time farmer and the wife would pick up the slack. On a dairy farm, this ‘slack’ could mean feeding calves, ‘doing the weeds’, keeping a keen eye on the books and, of course, raising children and generally keeping the house in order.

According to Angela Clifford, chief executive of Eat New Zealand, things haven’t changed that much. “Women don’t often ‘front’ farms. They’re not often the public face of the farming business. But if you ever go onto a farm and talk to the farmers there is almost always a significant women’s presence there. Even if they don’t say much in comparison, you’ll notice the finishing of sentences, the subtle coughs at the right moment, the changing of subject or a shift in body language.”

Farming has never been easy and my mum, Louise, believes you need to be a tight team to be good at what you do. “Dairy farming is very much a partnership,” she avows. “At times, it can be really challenging and successful farmers need to operate as equals, if they’re to succeed.” This is probably more true now than it ever has been. Farming in 2018 isn’t just muscle and brawn. With an increasing shift towards automation, as well as business operations becoming more challenging and complex, today’s farmers need a whole new skill-set in order to have a clear handle on the economic, environmental and social impacts.

Says Clifford, “In my experience it’s women who often challenge the status quo and question tradition; they’ve learnt to be flexible and open and invite new thoughts and ideas.” All signs clearly show that, in New Zealand and globally, agriculture needs the best of us to progress forward in a sustainable way. And, to quote Helen Clark, “Any serious shift towards more sustainable societies has to include gender equality.”

However, the traditional pathways into agriculture have shifted dramatically over the last 10 years. Family-owned farms are declining and more and more young people are struggling to buy a house, let alone gather the substantial resources to buy a farm, or even a herd of cows or flock of sheep. The danger of the more corporate style of farming is that corporations are largely consumed with the profit and loss of today. But when you live on the land you can’t help but be connected to it. Good farmers have their eye on the financial bottom line, but also on doing right by the community and the environment.

As we are increasingly becoming aware of the improvements needed in our food system, I believe, now more than ever, that we need diverse representation within agriculture. Farming needs the best of us to be on the land day in, day out. Our food and our future depend on it.

A few days ago, I was in a farming supply store in Cambridge, shopping for gumboots. As I zigzagged through the aisles, I stopped dead at the kids’ clothing section: a shocking-pink tee-shirt caught my eye, with the words ‘farmer’s daughter’ emblazoned across the chest. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with being the daughter of a farmer. After all, I am. But is this how we should characterise women who work on the land? We should ask if it’s helpful for us to define women through their relationship to their husband, or their father. Maybe then, we will start to have a clear view at how we’re quantifying New Zealand women’s contribution as food producers and makers of new.