Interview with Temra Costa, Author of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat

BlogHer Original Post

Did you know that more than 30% of U.S. farm operators are women?

Temra Costa's book, Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat, features the stories of over 30 women and how they are changing our food system for the better as farmers, educators, mothers, chefs, businesswomen, and policy wonks.  She is also co-host of the radio show, The Queens of Green on Green 960, which you can also be downloaded as a podcast.

I just *loved* this book, and also enjoy Temra's podcast, so I was super excited to interview her this summer for the Big Vision Podcast.  I've posted an edited transcript below, and you can listen to our chat online, on iTunes, or on the player at the bottom of the post.

Our conversation began with my asking Temra, "How are women changing the way we eat?"

Temra Costa: It was the big impetus for writing the book, knowing that women were largely behind the sustainable food movement, but that they were too busy being the movement and not having enough recognition. It really begged to be written, all these great stories, and there are hundreds more all over the country. There are probably thousands more, because women are so involved in not only preparing foods at home, but in the emerging farmer scene. The last ag census showed that we've increased to 30% of women-owned farms, so that's pretty exciting.

Above and beyond that, women are just all-around amazing, working at nonprofits, heading up over 60% of employees, and directing over 85% of household spending. We just know that women are there, very much involved in food, but for some reason those stories weren't being told.

Britt Bravo: You interviewed 30 women, and organized them by if they were farmers, activists, and different things. Overall, was there a theme among the stories of the women that you interviewed?

There was definitely a theme among the women. Not only were they from all over the country, but they all shared an international, multi-ethnic or cultural base. They are either from other countries, or they are embedded in communities of color or of other places, or they've traveled and worked extensively with communities. From Judy Wicks in Philadelphia to Nancy Vail at Pie Ranch to Mily Treviño-Sauceda, who started the Líderes Campesinas movement, they all share real knowledge and sensitivity around multicultural issues, which is a bit surprising.

They all represent either a farmer, educator, activist, or chef, but they still share the connection that they're aware of global issues. They're aware of human issues, both here and abroad, and that somehow drove them all into the position that food was a place where they would be advocating for change through their passion, their life work, and through wanting to celebrate not only communities, but also by becoming activists for changing the way we eat.

What's the path that brought you to writing this book? It's clear from the book, and from some of the things that you've done, that you're very passionate about this issue. What brought you here?

Food for me is something that impacts all of our lives, and it was a place where I could focus the most of my energy and really impact community, environment, health, soil, air, social equity issues, community building, and how we do, or do not interact with each other.  Food became the central hub for me where I would really focus. I became an activist during college. A lot of women in the book had that same experience. It's an eye-opening thing, college. You are exposed to new information.  I traveled overseas, similar to many of the women in the book. They traveled. They become more aware of global economies, of how our global economy impacts other countries, the opening of how we become more aware of our actions and how they impact others.

I was already studying agriculture at the University Wisconsin-Madison. It was a natural path for me, and I've been on it ever since. I was a women's studies minor, and there was never really a way to incorporate women's work into my work in sustainable agriculture, until the opportunity to write this book came along.

I was really excited about it, because it's something I've always believed in, that women are really changing our communities at home, that they are doing a lot of the background work. I myself am one of those women, so I also knew that it was necessary to tell these stories. I feel like the book came out of my background of not only studying agriculture, but of being aware of the different women's issues out there.

Now that you've written the book, whether it's another project or a book, where is it leading you next? What's next on the trail? You answered a question by writing this book, so what's the next question that you want to answer?

There are a couple, one being, do I want to farm myself? Last fall, I left my position with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers after six-and-a-half years to finish editing the book, to travel, and to WWOOF, Willing Workers on Organic Farms, in Europe. I went to France. I really wanted to make cheese. My great-grandparents were dairymen and dairywomen, so I went to France, and I dabbled a little bit in cheese making. I was like, "Wow, this is really hard. Oh my gosh." I came to the conclusion that the only way that I would ever farm or have lactating mammals is if I had business partners.

All of the women in the book exposed me to new information. Novella Carpenter got into the point that you don't necessarily want to go back to the land without your community. That was really driven home when I was at this small farm in the south of France. There were two farmers, and they were unhappy, so I know that I don't want to farm alone, but I'm still considering farming, especially since we need more farmers.

While the last ag censuses showed an increase in the number of small farms, and most of those farms are owned by people that are younger, which is great, we still need many, many more producers of food products in order to relocalize and regionalize our food systems in the U.S.  Because we're becoming so dependent on product from China and other countries, it's imperative that we have more farmers.

So, that's one of my next things is, do I want to farm, and how is that going to happen?  I'm exploring some different co-ownership ideas or options with different friends, because I definitely don't want to do it alone, and in California, nobody can afford the land.

There are some great organizations out there, like California FarmLink; for example, that will link farmers that are aspiring to farm, with retiring farmers to help bridge the gap a little bit. Otherwise, there are co-ownership models that are interesting today where you can have people from the city that are buying into your farm, and then they have part ownership.

Our farms of the future are going to look very different from what they used to be, a family staying on that land for many generations, because we need so many new farmers. Less than two percent of our population is farming right now, and we need at least eight percent to grow our food. That's just a guesstimate, and that would be 50,000 new farmers every year. It would be a lot of people. So I want to farm, but I don't know how to do it yet.

Two, social equity is becoming very important to me, the whole class structure about how some people have access to the food, and some people don't. The Farm Bill supports foods that are bad for people, and it goes to the people who can't afford the good food.

All that social inequity is really driving me crazy and was brought to the surface by listening to the story of Mily Treviño-Sauceda, from the book, about how women and children are still abused in the fields that are growing our food. It was shocking and deplorable, really terrible, to learn that and know that it's not at the forefront of a lot of people's thinking when they think about local food or regional food. It stops at a certain point.

You could stick with the local radius, but we really want a food system -- at least, I do and the women in the book do -- that cares for people, the planet, and is also viable for the people who are doing it. What does that mean? It means that we haven't even gotten to domestic fair trade. There's also criticism of international fair trade. So, how can we really increase the equity and the justice for our food system?

I feel like the bar's been raised so high in the country around awareness of eating local foods, and policy is definitely the next step. For the next 2012 Farm Bill, it's imperative that we all advocate for change, because that's where the dollars are allocated to different funding pots that support either corn products -- which are making us sick, type 2 diabetes and obesity -- or organic food, and young farmer and rancher programs.

The USDA has made some moves towards applying funds towards these more progressive things that we care about, but really, it's been pennies considering that they're still supporting genetic engineering and biotechnology in billions and billions of dollars. So the next 2012 Farm Bill, is definitely a thing that I will be advocating for.

I'm continuing to tell the stories of women, since I could only fit 30 stories in the book, and there are so many stories out there. Everywhere I go and talk about the book, it's so fun to meet a new community of food producers. It's the best community you could ever want to be networking in, because there's always great food. There are always great people, and you always get to see beautiful farms.

I've been having a lot of fun with that, and I'm continuing to tell stories about women on the FarmerJane.org website, where I feature Farmer Jane, and then Civil Eats has been posting some of those, and the Rodale Institute. It's been really fun for me to continue telling the story of all the different women all over the country who are changing our food.

You mentioned the connection between community and food systems and new models of farms. What are some new farm models that you think are exciting, or new community food systems that are working and that you feel like have the potential to grow and spread?

Well, I think that it's necessary to get really creative. If you go to thegreenhorns.net website, they have a great manual on there. Severine von Tscharner Fleming's in the book, and she's really helping new farmers -- doesn't matter how old you are; everybody can grow food for the first time -- to access the resources of the federal government, and then to think creatively about how you can access land. Land is the biggest inhibitor to how you can start farming. Leasing is usually what a lot of people will do, but there are also some interesting programs happening with parks departments.

As the government funding for parks declines, they're looking for people to care-take that land, essentially.  How beautiful would it be if we could produce food -- organically, of course -- so that it regenerates the soil, and that promotes biodiversity of not only insects, but of animals on those properties?  What if all those greenways and all that wasted water that was spread all over grass that our parks department puts and spends -- look at the budgets of our parks system. But not only that, the greenways themselves, what if they were planted? What if the people that were employed by the government to plant them were actually skilled at producing food? That would be pretty amazing. That's one unique thing that's happening.

I think governments are starting to think about how they can creatively manage our land with food in mind, and that's because awareness has been raised about the demand for local and regional food, and also just about people's need for doing it from a health perspective. People need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

People are gardening a little bit more than they used to. The National Gardening Association has shown that 35% of Americans have gardens, which is a really exciting statistic (I love statistics). I think it's really fun, because it means that if you grow a plant, it has so much more value to you if you can grow it yourself and you see that growth process, especially for kids, but adults, big kids, too. Everybody benefits from growing their own food.

You also appreciate the work of farmers a little bit more. Instead of thinking of a farmer's market as a place that's not affordable for you, maybe you value it in a new way, because most of the farmers at farmer's markets are growing on a smaller scale and they don't have the efficiencies afforded by machines and industrial agriculture, which is hard on the soil. They're also providing a lot of jobs locally.

It gives better respect for who's growing your food and really appreciating that service as a social service. In addition to the parks department model, we're seeing it here. City Slickers Farm is taking over a park, with the support of the city of Oakland. They're going to be growing some food in one of the downtown West Oakland parks, which is pretty exciting. Then the big question is, how do people share in that risk of our food production?

Back to the models.  Co-ownership of farms is definitely happening. People will go in and they'll buy a farm together. You can also get investors. You can have people that care about farms help you purchase your farm, and then you can work off your share of the farm by what people call "sweat equity."  It means that you're working the land and you're getting it up to farm standards, which is exactly what Pie Ranch did down in Pescadero, and other farms I know have done through CSA models on the East Coast and in the Midwest. The members actually put the money in upfront.

Sometimes a land trust will even own the land, and the farm will pay a lease or rent from the land. There are a million different models out there. I feel like thegreenhorns.net did a great job of pulling it all together into one manual about how to access land creatively.

I went to a panel you moderated about eating locally on a budget.  I think it was shortly afterwards that you wrote a blog post called Did Industrial Food Really Liberate Women? which is an idea that really interests me. 

You wrote, "How are we supposed to eat seasonally without canning, freezing, and planning ahead? How are we to eat more healthfully without adding more time to our food budgets?" which, I think, is such an important question that's not really discussed or talked about. A month has passed since you wrote that post. Have you had any new thoughts about it since then?

I found myself in a conundrum. Was I saying by promoting the fact that women are largely involved in this food movement that women should be largely involved in this food movement, that women should, because they step down from their jobs and their careers, step back and produce those foods? Was that the message I was trying to send? It's not at all. It's just looking at it through the lens of the fact that it takes more time. It does take more time, and people with limited economic resources don't have time. So how can we expect those people to be able to find the cheap buys at the farmer's market at the peak of season? What did that mean for our food?

I've really been enjoying Shannon Hayes' new book called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity.  That book came out right at the same time as Farmer Jane. I feel like there's synchronicity in the movement all around, and that's a sure sign of it.  Shannon has found that both men and women are going back to the home a little bit more to produce the foods that we have left the home to make money to pay for. She's a proponent of, why pay for it when you could do it yourself, and that there's a value to that.

During my women's studies programming in college I learned that there's no GDP for at-home work. If you take care of your own kids, you're not contributing to the GDP. You're not contributing to your home income. It doesn't have a value of any sort. But an oil spill does, because money is spent on that oil spill, and that makes the GDP go up. Cancer does, because money is spent on medical services, and the GDP goes up.  Anything short of restructuring our economic framework would be challenging, so we have to choose that for ourselves. We have to put our own value on it. But, again, some people can, and other people can't.

You have a lot of great tips at the end of each section of Farmer Jane for what eaters can do, farmers can do, and what was the other one?

Food businesses.

Businesses, yes. Farmers, businesses and eaters. I'm going to presume most of the listeners are "eaters," so can you give a few tips for the eaters who are listening about how they can support sustainable food and farming?

I feel like I have to get really geeky here, because I know that people know that they should try to shop at the farmer's market. I know that people know that they should eat as locally, and as close to home as possible.  One of the tips I'll often give is that for time-strapped people, your freezer is your best friend.  I work full-time. I do book. I do radio. I do these other things. I think freezing has become a really quick and easy way to eat seasonally on a budget.

You can oftentimes buy food now directly from wholesale places, which is something that most people don't know. You can go in and buy a case of organic peaches or this or that, and those prices are very, very good. Then what you do is bring it home, wash it, and put it in the freezer, if you don't have time to can.

Can it if you can, but that takes a little time, and after you add up the amount of time going into canning -- you have to think about it, and there's embodied energy, too.  I think freezing is a great option.  Shopping at wholesale produce companies is a great option, which a lot of them are open to doing today.

Where would you find a wholesale produce company? I wouldn't even know where you would begin to look for such a thing. I'd be like, "Hi, can I come in and buy your peaches?" I'm just one person. How does that work?

The first hurdle to get over is finding and locating your local wholesale distributor. It's definitely key. If you don't have any, many places don't, rural areas don't, but you might have farms close by, and you might be able to buy wholesale from them. If you live in a city, there are always distribution hubs. We live in the Bay Area, so we have an Oakland produce market in Oakland. We also have one in San Francisco. They open very early, and close around late morning. Usually around 11AM or Noon they're closed, so you have to go early. You can go on the weekends sometimes, and then you can buy your bulk product.

You can even go with friends and make it more of a community event. It's like, "OK, let's go down there and get those cherries and pit them and freeze them all together." It's more fun when you do it with other people. I think that's the celebration part of the whole food movement.  People are really coming back to food as a conviviality thing, of a way to engage with other people again.

We've just been in our own little isolated homes for so long, since the '40s, and everybody wanted their white picket fence and their two cars in their garage. People are coming back around with the community essence of food.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about Farmer Jane or sustainable food systems, or anything coming up that you want folks to know about?

It was really fun writing the book after working in the field for six-and-a-half years.  How do you articulate the sustainable food movement, and how do you explain to people where the bar has been raised? There are a lot of food writers out there, I feel, and there's a lot of material out there on it. So, how do you go deeper into the movement?  I get asked that question a lot, because people are interested in what's next. Definitely soil is up and coming. Water is up and coming. Right now, we're already in drought largely in the U.S., and we need water to grow food. How are we going to overcome those challenges?

In the book I covered some topics that aren't normally discussed, like Native American seed preservation and traditional growing techniques. I was just out on a Hopi reservation in Northeastern Arizona, and they grow their corn in the sand. There's this thin layer of clay under there.  But they don't irrigate at all. It's pretty amazing. They're dependent on rain coming through, which is something that's becoming more challenging now with sporadic weather conditions, aka global warming. It's really interesting how people used to grow food without it, and now we're seeing a lot more farmers using dry farming techniques.

Those are just a couple things. We need to get deeper into the ecology not only of the community aspect but the real environmental impact of food systems, and growing food, and how we can do it with these changing climate conditions, because we definitely want to continue producing food locally.

Maybe someday the hard to get petroleum will make it way too expensive to be importing our food from all over the world. We'll have to deal with it when it comes, and hopefully we're thinking about it a little bit more now than we used to. Maybe we'll be creating more demand in our country so that we're at least consuming products within our country a little bit more than we used to. I'm sure that's the case.

I also want to say that people have to continue asking the questions about where the food is coming from and don't take "local" as an answer sometimes. Is it really local? Sometimes I'll be eating, and I'll ask, "Are there organic greens?" because I saw that the Environmental Working Group just came out with their Dirty Dozen. I just love lists like that, because they're so vivid, and really capturing. Lettuce is on there, so I don't want to eat non-organic lettuce.

People need to continue not only asking for organic food, but also to make sure that it is truly local. I know some Safeways, for example, put up a big local sign when you walk in, and when you ask, they say, "We support local farmers."  What does that mean, exactly? Are you purchasing a certain amount from them every year? We have to keep pushing, unfortunately. I'm sorry, but we've made the local food movement very successful, and it's become so successful that it's being marketed to us, even when it's not the case.  People have to continue asking.

There are a ton of resources on FarmerJane.org. The goal of the book was to make it as useful as possible and really help people engage, and know how to take immediate action to help change our food system. There are tons of resources that I had a research assistant, Logan Rockefeller Harris, work on, and she did a great job pulling them all together. They're all up on the website with links to the organizations.

Those are just a couple things, and then there are more Farmer Jane events coming up. Farmer Jane is on Facebook and tweeting and doing all those things.

 My last question for you is, sometimes all this stuff about food systems is depressing and overwhelming, so how do you keep hopeful and cheerful about it?

I try to focus on the solutions, number one, and things that you can do. I spent my early twenties really frustrated with the world in general. It seemed like everything was going to hell in a handbasket.  The environment didn't look good. Everything was looking pretty bad, but all you have to do is think about the solutions and what you can do.

For a while, I was really into guerrilla marketing, so I would go around with pens and I would write stuff on signage.  I would do direct-action kind of stuff (that nobody can arrest me for today!).  That felt really good. It was instantaneous. It was something I could do, and it was immediate, and immediate gratification is what our culture loves. We're all about immediacy.

I've heard of those mob gardens where people get together and they all just put in a garden.  If you're feeling helpless, plant a plant somewhere. Do something different. Surprise yourself, and you'll be happy you did.


If you like this interview, you might also like:

Britt Bravo also blogs at Have Fun, Do Good.

 

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