Audra Mulkern unearths the stories behind the growing number of female farmers
“There’s a really a special thing going on out in nature that I kind of fell into. Who wouldn’t love documenting people who have so much passion for their work?”
The best ideas come out of one’s personal experience and passion. When Audra Mulkern set out to find out where her produce came from, she got more than she bargained for. She stumbled upon a movement and a mission: a growing number of women are turning to farming as a profession, and Audra is showcasing these women’s stories through the Female Farmer Project. We talked to her about how the idea took root and how’s it’s continuing to grow.
The seed of an idea
A few years ago, Audra Mulkern was like most people, buying her produce from the grocery store without questioning where it actually came from. But there was a difference: she lived in the rural farming community of Duvall. She started to wonder how she could get her vegetables from neighboring farms.
“At the time, tech hadn’t found its way onto farms. Websites and Facebook pages weren’t up and rolling at that point. To find these farms, you just had to drive around and drive onto one when you found it. I eventually went to Pike Place Market. The irony was not lost on me, driving through farms to go to downtown Seattle to get a box of vegetables grown in my community.”
Through the list of farms serving Pike Place Market, Audra was able to find her local purveyors. A local farm in her valley decided to do a CSA (Customer Supported Agriculture) box: Full Circle Farms went on to be the largest CSA in the nation. At the time, however, only a handful of people like Audra were going to the farm to get vegetables out of a 100-year-old barn. They grew, and she grew with them.
“I became interested in the local farming community and how that strengthened our local economy. Eventually, farmers markets started popping up and I started getting my vegetables that way.”
Audra began snapping photos and posting them to Facebook. When people started asking to buy prints, she felt that there was something bigger she could do with her pictures. She pulled them together, asked for essays from different farmers and artisans, and self-published a beautiful little book called Rooted in the Valley.
That was the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
An idea takes root
She got even more serious about the project and her photography. With a loaner camera, she spent several days practicing by taking photos of her garden. Then she called up her farmer friends and asked if she could take photos of them and their farms.
They agreed, despite being initially shocked that anyone would want to take pictures of their produce or them.
“Farmers by nature like the solitude of their work, but they trusted me. I started building a website, sharing their photos and stories on social media, and it took off right away. The project struck a chord with people about who these people were who were growing their food.”
That was three years ago.
Cultivating her mission
As she continued to showcase farmers and their stories, she realized that everyone she was talking to was a woman. One farmer told her that all her interns were young women; no men had applied. During the winter months that year, Audra wanted to find out why this was. She put her Microsoft research and analytical skills to good use, talking to people, going to the library to apply a methodology.
“What I saw was at odds with statistics. No books represent women in agriculture. Any kind of visual search all came back with images of women in Africa, or women in shorts and sexy boots. There was a real lack of imagery and storytelling, while something special was going on in my community.”
With this, her mission came into focus: she set out to document the women in her farming community in Duvall and Carnation. The Female Farmer Project was born.
“Melinda Gates says that the gender gap is in the data. And the data for women in agriculture is terrible. They were just not counted for a very long time. Only recently have they started being counted.”
Audra started sharing her images and flooding with internet with as much counter visual programming as she could, grabbing mindshare and squeezing out the images to which she took offense.
“Farmers have long been romanticized and my pictures don’t do this,” she says “I try to capture nice lighting and have great composition but these women’s hands are dirty and they have manure on their pants. I don’t even have Photoshop!”
A Microsoft state of mind, a garden of ideas
Audra began her Microsoft career in 1991 and moved into various roles including Program Manager for the Windows Media and ChromeEffects teams. She left the company in 1999 to start a family. But in talking with her, it’s clear that Microsoft has left an imprint on her thinking and perspective.
“I think many people don’t regard farmers as especially intelligent but what I’m finding is that agriculture is the origin of all things STEM. Every discipline is in play on the farm: geometry, weather forecasting, engineering, you name it.”
Farmers had no interest in doing social media after a long day working in the field. Audra assisted a few farms with their social media. She listened to the farmers’ voices, figured out how to use tech for them, and grabbed mindshare. Through this, she gained a deep understanding of their challenges, as well as what people wanted to know about them. When some farmers discovered that Audra had previously done event planning for Microsoft, she also started creating and planning events, such as a Spring Sow Down and Fall Hoe Down, setting up booths around a farm where visitors could learn how worms worked, discover how to can and pickle, plant seeds, and cook seasonal produce.
Through all this, it became clear that people were fascinated by the behind-the-scenes look at farming and responded most to visual stories. “While it seems obvious now, it wasn’t a few years ago. People want to see what’s happening in the field. They want to see farmers out in muddy fields rescuing pumpkins before a severe frost. They want to know the effort behind what’s going on,” she says.
When she was invited to speak at George Washington University, a professor referred to Audra as an “American griotte.” Griottes are storytellers from a West African tribe who travel from village to village, telling stories and keeping cultural tradition and history alive. In traveling from farm to farm, Audra found that farmers wanted to interview her first to find out what she had learned from other farmers in the community. They weren’t connected but that’s changing, in no small part due to Audra’s work.
The natural next step in the Female Farmer Project is a podcast. “It’s a great way to deliver stories to the farmers themselves in a way they can consume them, listening on their phone while milking goats or driving a combine.”
This is just one more tool that Audra is adding to her tool belt. “If I had just set out to take pictures, I would have been bored in six months. I learned to use a camera as a storytelling tool, then took writing classes and learned how to write compelling profiles. Now I’m launching a podcast and thinking about these stories from another perspective,” she says.”
The Female Farmer Project has attracted national attention and Audra is frequently invited to speak about the project and issues facing farmers today. Popular Photography asked her to write a feature about how to photograph on the farm and she took it as an opportunity to talk about bigger issues of modern farming.
“People think of a farm as a national park and it’s not, it’s a business. It can be dangerous—it’s in the top 10 most dangerous professions, ranking after jobs like logging and roofing and just before iron and steel workers.”
While it might not be an organized movement, women are going back to the farm in significant numbers. Audra was meeting more and more PhDs who were first-generation farmers, as well as a handful of former Microsoft employees who are now farming in her community. They are changing the paradigm, bringing business experience and higher education to the farm.
“I’m a documentarian, trying to understand what’s going on. And there’s something going on, for sure. I stumbled onto a revolution.”
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