Olympia Yarger’s agricultural day begins at sunrise. At eight in the morning, she has already collected the eggs. Then she feeds the animals and checks the air conditioning system. Then she cleans up. âThere is a lot of cleaning to do,â she says. âAs with any other animal. It’s a day-long affair, but a truly rewarding job.
Yarger is an insect farmer. Growing up as a city dweller, Yarger has always loved being around animals. She loved to ride horses and spent most of her weekends on her friends’ farms. But when she was transferred to a Catholic girls’ school in eleventh grade, Yarger had her first reality test.
âThey were horrified that I wanted to get into farming,â she recalls. âThey told me that the daughters of Sainte Claire did not become farmers.
A farmer was not a thing. But Yarger was determined to follow his passion.
Like Yarger, many women in agriculture began to reject traditional stereotypes and claim their place in the industry. Motivated by social and environmental justice, women farmers are thriving, showing the country that turning farming into a more sustainable practice is possible and profitable.
Women in agriculture: by the numbers
Women have always been essential contributors to agriculture and food production around the world. According to the UN, nearly a third of women’s employment worldwide is in agriculture, including forestry and fishing – and this statistic may exclude self-employed and unpaid family workers.
While the percentage of female farmers in upper middle and high income countries is less than 10%, agriculture remains the most critical employment sector for women in low and middle income countries. of the lower edge. Yet women farmers have much less access to and own land than men. Women make up only 12.8% of the world’s agricultural landowners, and often the enormity of their efforts goes unrecognized.
In Australia, the role of women in agriculture has been recognized and ignored to an equal extent throughout history. Census data shows that women made up 32% of Australia’s agricultural workforce in 2016. Today, they produce at least 48% of real farm income in Australia. Yet gender barriers, such as funding, lack of access to land, education and training, equal treatment and lack of representation in industry bodies, significantly disadvantage women. women farmers even before sowing a seed.
âWomen have always played a crucial role in the farming business, but were not recognized as farmers,â says Dr. Lucie Newsome, lecturer in political economy and industrial relations at the University of New England, NSW. âThey were seen as silent, non-contributing partners. “
Newsome says decades of intensive policy of productivism have pushed women out of the industry.
Australia’s political regime and an export-oriented economy have led to what is known as competitive productivism – the pressure to develop businesses into large, export-oriented firms. The momentum to increase production while squeezing market prices has prompted farmers to use large-scale production programs and use more external inputs such as chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. âRural debt is skyrocketing and producers are under pressure to get big or get out,â Newsome explains.
This philosophy has led many people to quit farming, especially the younger generations. Small and medium-sized farms have disappeared, contributing to the disappearance of rural communities. Ten ecological communities have been classified as threatened or critically endangered due to development and agricultural practices over the past decade.
Between 1981 and 2001, the number of farms decreased by 1.3% each year and the average farm size increased by 23%. Over the past 40 years, the percentage of farms with revenues over $ 1 million has increased from 3% to 16%, with the richest 10% of Australian farms producing 90% of the production.
The productivist regime particularly disadvantages women farmers because it is more difficult for women to access land. Traditionally, family farms are passed on to a son, while women inherit only 10% of cases. In addition, most women have fewer opportunities to accumulate enough capital to buy farmland, which means they are less likely to compete with large producers.
Do women farm differently?
Putting another spoke in the wheel of women is the patriarchal mentality still dominant in the agricultural industry.
Yarger says that âeveryone grapples with the costs,â but being a woman with an alternative business idea comes with its own set of challenges.
âWhen I looked at insect farming, it was hard to prove that the idea I had was the right one,â she says. âBut the biggest obstacle I faced as a woman was that I really had to work to make people believe that I could make this thing work.
Many years later, and with a successful farming business behind her, Yarger says that barrier has not gone away. âWomen face subliminal undercurrents. No matter how hard we try, there is an unconscious bias as to whether we are credible or capable. It’s something intangible, but it’s frustrating.
âWomen have similar experiences in all areas,â Newsome says. âBut in agriculture, there are clear binaries. Women are caregivers, nurturers and mothers. Men are producers, dominant and primary farmers.
During her studies, Newsome discovered that women learned to make these traits their strengths. Their caring and benevolent approach to agriculture translates into an agricultural philosophy that departs from conventional practices.
Women farmers were more likely to engage in sustainable and alternative farming practices because they reflect their values, according to Newsome research. Many women interviewed by Newsome said they try to work in harmony with nature rather than trying to dominate it, disrupting the traditional and masculine view of what farming means.
Sustainable agriculture also has lower financial barriers to entry and results in higher value products that make small farms more viable. Women farmers reduced their production costs by replacing machinery and energy consumption with manual labor, which also gave them a sense of empowerment. They avoided the use of fertilizers and pesticides, instead following the natural cycles of the earth.
Women have focused on producing high-quality niche products rather than large-scale production. They have found ingenious ways to market their products by building trusting relationships with their customers, continually adapting to changing trends and demand. They have demonstrated transparency and accountability on farms through social media posts, photos and videos in the markets, thus avoiding the cost of organic certifications.
âI was really surprised to find that women cultivate in different ways,â Newsome says. “And those ways were about environmental sustainability and connecting with the community.”
The (agricultural) future is feminine
The destruction of the environment caused by the agricultural sector often prompts women to enter farming, especially those who were not born in this business. The sector is both one of the main causes of the climate crisis and one of the industries most affected by it.
Government data shows that the rate of clearing of woody vegetation in New South Wales, for example, has doubled in the past decade, and agriculture is responsible for more than half of the destruction. Cultivated land covers 58% of the country and represents 59% of water withdrawals.
And yet decades of drought across the country, exacerbated by rising global temperatures, have brought many farmers to the brink of collapse.
In recent years, Australia has seen an increase in demand for alternative and sustainable foods. But large agricultural companies and large supermarket chains have not responded to this demand.
Women have been able to carve out a share of this market with creative and innovative ways to grow crops and farm animals, reducing their farms’ environmental footprint.
At his 12,000 square meter warehouse in Hume, on the southeastern outskirts of Canberra, Yarger has created a circular process where food and farm waste is converted into high protein feed.
The larvae of black soldier flies and mealworms live in culture chambers for 12 days, where they consume the waste that Yarger collects from nearby businesses. Later, they are moved to the processing room, sifted through droppings (waste by-product) and washed with water in a large sieve to remove remaining waste.
Most of the larvae are then euthanized with carbon dioxide, dehydrated and sold as animal feed. Yarger’s farm produces 1 tonne of feed per week, during which it consumes up to 40 tonnes of food waste.
Some larvae are left to grow for a few more days until they become pupae. These are moved to aviaries, large rooms where flies mate and produce eggs. And the cycle begins again.
âWe waste a third of all the food we produce, which creates a lot of methane,â says Yarger. âIt’s a way of doing more with what we already have. It’s exciting. The climate crisis is for me the motivator to be a better farmer.