“Every time I take a photo, I think about the woman behind the image and what she’s gone through to get there. Farming is a rewarding line of work, but not rewarding in the way society expects it to be. There are thin profit lines. To choose to do this work is incredible to me. I’m trying to understand it and help others understand it. I’m grateful to be allowed to look into the lives of these women, their cheese rooms, their fields…I feel incredibly blessed they have allowed me to tell their story.”
– Audra Mulkern
About Audra Mulkern: Audra is a true renaissance woman. A cook, a writer and a photographer, she’s playing an important role in the food movement by documenting the lives of female farmers. She’s the author of “Rooted In The Valley: The Art and Color of The Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Markets” (the book is a lush photographic essay of those who sell their products at local farmers markets). She’s the creator of “The Female Farmer Project,” which documents women’s work in agriculture, not only in the United States, but around the world. Audra and her work have been featured in publications such as the Huffington Post, Modern Farmer and Grist. (She writes…and is written about). Her award-winning photographs were on display at Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary in 2015. An exciting development? Her work is being included in an International Women’s Day exhibit that focuses on food (participating agencies include the FAO, IFAD and World Food Programme).
We value Audra’s work and relished a recent opportunity to talk about her work.
Q: How did you come to this work? What inspired you to begin documenting the work and lives of female farmers?
Audra: I was an unlikely candidate to come to this work. I didn’t pick up a camera until three years ago in May. The first year of the project I borrowed a camera. Then I saved up and bought an eight-year old camera and used that. I just got my first new camera last summer. I had no background, no qualifications, and no permission to be a photographer. I just decided that I was going to tell this story.
I live in a farming community, so these women are my neighbors. We get together on a monthly basis for potlucks. We call it the Ladies of the Tilth. These are my friends, my neighbors…the people who feed me quite literally. It was a long time in coming for me to see the gender make up in my own community.
I’d been to farmers markets, etc., and enjoyed the vegetables. And the iPhone came along and I started taking pictures of the vegetables I saw at the farmers market. And then I started talking to the farmers and that was where the shift occurred. When I started to talk to people, things shifted for me. And then I took a step back. I spent a couple of farmers markets sitting and watching interactions and figuring out if there was a story there. The story playing out in my head was the underground economy among the farmers’ market interns, who worked for the summer season. As I was paying attention to that, I realized all the interns were women that year. All women.
There is an artist who works at the farmers market…he does chalk art with the kids on the sidewalk. I started talking to him about what I was seeing. He suggested I focus on this topic and explore why women are attracted to farming. It has continued to be sort of an intellectual challenge on top of the emotions I feel around it. It’s been a really fun and rewarding project.
The Female Farmer Project is self-funded. It’s resonating; people have really responded to my photography. And they began hiring me, which is allowing me to pay for the Female Farmer Project. I go through a lot of windshields on those country roads! I became a photographer in order to tell the story and the universe conspired to help support it.
Q: What do you think about the value of the work you’re documenting in an historical sense?
Audra: I think I didn’t really come to realize the value of it until men started contacting me and emailing me and thanking me for putting a light on women in farming…their mothers, their grandmothers, the unsung heroes. And I realized the power of these images. They are creating an emotional impact I didn’t expect. I hear all the time that my images make people cry.
Every time I take a photo, I think about the woman behind the image and what she’s gone through to get there. Farming is a rewarding line of work, but not rewarding in the way society expects it to be. There are thin profit lines. To choose to do this work is incredible to me. I’m trying to understand it and help others understand it. I’m grateful to be allowed to look into the lives of these women, their cheese rooms, their fields…I feel incredibly blessed they have allowed me to tell their story.
Q: Did you ever imagine the project would be this successful?
Audra: I set out for it to be something for my community to rally around and it’s become sort of a global rallying point.
Q: Any “aha” moments for you?
Audra: I had a lot of “aha” moments on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. I took a morning to visit the Museum of American History. The last time I had been it was closed. But since we have family heirlooms in the museum, I received a private tour. But this time was my first time really seeing the museum; I was first in line. I went over to the ag and food section and realized that women were missing from that story. And I realized my work could be the next part of that exhibit. It’s a time in history when women are saying, “That’s enough…we’re taking this back.”
I feel like we’re really coming into the age of the feminine. There was a bubble, but women are waking up. They are tired of being invisible. There is something tangible here…I’m not the only one seeing it. There is really a movement towards women’s empowerment, not just in U.S., but globally.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Audra: My parents are ministers and they were transferred around quite a bit. They were Salvation Army officers. I grew up with parents who served. This project has been my way to serve. It’s been a way for my children to see service, as well. I grew up all over the West Coast. I didn’t go to college. In fact, I opted out of high school my junior year, got a GED, took occasional community college classes, then worked at an airline.
My husband got a job at a company called Microsoft. We moved up to Washington state and within six months I was working there, as well. My last position there was doing business development. I was working with the coolest of technologies and I loved the work. I left when I had my first child. During that time, there was lots of eating out. I didn’t really know how to cook.
I decided I would get my vegetables from the farmers I saw in my own community. At that time, there weren’t a lot of farmers with websites, or CSAs and there wasn’t a local farmers market. I found a CSA in Seattle, which was 45 minutes away. I was driving by farms that were providing vegetables for the Seattle CSA. I knew where the vegetables came from, so I started seeking the local farms out. A local farm eventually started the Full Circle Farm CSA (now one of largest CSAs in the U.S.). I was one of the original members. That’s how I learned to cook.
Q: And now you’re doing food styling and photography for Martha Stewart…
Audra (laughs): I’m trained for nothing, but I’m qualified to do it because I’m doing it. I hope others are inspired by it, too. If you feel compelled to tell a story, tell the story. I hope my work becomes a microphone for others. I want to be a platform for others to share their stories.
Today I was chewing on this idea that when people see women in agriculture in the outside of the U.S., that they see huge inequalities between women who farm and land ownership. But this also applies in the U.S. Women represent 30% of our nation’s agricultural workforce, yet only 14% of farm operators. Women represent only 7% of farmland owners and only 3% of sales. Those are shocking numbers. We’re not in parity here. I agree there should be parity and equality outside of U.S., but we also need to understand why it’s equally important here.
Q: What is inspiring you?
I’m consistently inspired by the intellectual approaches to farming that women take. I’m inspired by the support that women offer to each other…they hold each other up. They have found other women through the Female Farmer Project. The project is creating a meeting place, a rallying point. I love how supportive women are of one another. They don’t judge others, they accept.
Q: What is concerning you?
Audra: The divide between conventional and organic farming. I would love to see everyone come together at the table. We have a hot planet, there are challenges ahead of us and we need to figure it out.
Q: Do you have any new projects in mind?
Audra: I think that the Female Farmer Project would translate so well to other platforms, not just the web. It lives on the web and in print now. I believe it would lend itself well to film or TV. That would open it up to a really different audience.
What really surprised me at first about the work is that so many people outside of the agricultural community liked the work and found it meaningful. It pleases me that it translates to people who are not involved in ag and that they are inspired by the women’s stories. My challenge is that I want to do all of it. I want to photograph women who cross the border to work and leave their children behind. I want to photograph the women who leave their high-powered careers behind and start farming.
I’ve made the project pretty open source. Recently, I asked women to participate by sharing their images on social media using the #ILookLikeAFarmer. I’ve turned over website to let other women tell their own stories. I’ve done this because there is no way I could photograph all of them. So the idea of the #ILookLikeAFarmer was to get everyone together and really make a one-day impact where people would see that, yes, they look like a farmer because they are one. It worked. I was so excited the whole day. I wasn’t aware the campaign was trending on Twitter because I was at the orthodontist with my child.