At Last, The Plowgirl Has Arrived


The most obvious and promising sign of the new agriculture is the leadership that women are taking in the movement.  Women have always played the key role in farming but at least in the last two centuries in America, they have rarely gotten credit for it. Farming is a man’s world, American culture wants to believe, and, as is true of all culturally-treasured myths, no amount of plain everyday evidence to the contrary matters. Oh sure, women were the milkmaids of yesteryear but men pretended that milking cows wasn’t farming. Few males wanted to be tied down to what they considered boring barn jobs if they could escape it. Chickens too were “wimmenswork”. No real he-man farmer wanted to get off his tractor or step from behind his team of horses to do sissy work with a bunch of clucking hens.

Fieldwork was real he-man stuff, the men insisted, even though women ended up doing a lot of that too. Women rarely did the plowing however, and that seems to be the key difference. Lots of plowboys, nary a plowgirl.  In other field work, women did more than their share. (I have theories but will leave it to someone smarter to explain why women didn’t plow.)   The notion that males were the real farmers probably was rooted in the hunting and gathering stage of civilization where men brought home the game from afar (adventure time) and the women did the rest of the work at home (boring).

At any rate, after the plow became the symbol of agriculture in America, the role of women in farming did recede from the public eye. Women were supposed to stick to the kitchen and leave the real business of farming to their menfolks. This prejudice was astonishingly apparent even at farm magazines. As a journalist working for Farm Journal magazine, I often sat in farm kitchens interviewing farmers and their wives about their business. It was amazing how often the wives answered my questions much better than their husbands and how they so often did this by diplomatically and cleverly putting words in their husbands’ mouths. It was obvious that most successful farms got that way because the wives were smarter and more articulate than the husbands. But the wives knew how to keep the male crest from falling by seeming to defer to their husbands on every occasion.  The wives knew they had to make their mates look like top operators so that they could borrow the money they needed to keep on going. Bankers were no different from farm editors. They wanted to deal with men: women weren’t smart enough to run a business like farming.

Farm Journal felt the best way to handle the situation was to have a Farmer’s Wife section to appeal to the women with recipes and folksy charm about farm life. The real hardcore business of farming went in the front of the magazine. Amazingly, no one seemed to see the dreadful prejudice on display. I asked one time what would happen if we put a section in the back of the magazine designated as The Farmer’s Husband. All the men editors laughed, thinking that as usual I was making jokes. The women editors did not laugh.

The best evidence of the prejudice against females in farming occurred when Successful Farming, our rival magazine, decided to drop its women’s  section altogether, under the notion that womenfolk matters had no place in the real he-man world of modern farming. What did women know or care about 300 horsepower tractors? The decision cost Successful Farming a bundle of money because readership dropped precipitously. As it turned out, farm wives knew quite a bit about 300 hp. tractors, especially about whether their husbands could afford them or not. It also turned out that the wives read the whole magazine far more closely than the husbands. Successful Farming soon reinstated its women’s section and asserted how important women were to the “decision-making” process on the farm.

Eventually, however, Monster Farming did make farm wives more or less disappear. Of course it made farm husbands disappear too. Now in the vanguard of the new wave of caretaker farming in country, city and suburb, women are leading the way.  No surprise really. Women have traditionally been the caretakers of the food that finds its way to our tables. Why should it be any different today?


This is why I have ALWAYS loved you. Or, one reason. Thank you for this wonderful post which I am sharing. xo Heart from the Farm at Huge Creek

Thanks for another great article Gene. It seems to me, for any farm to work there needs to be a strong partnership. One person just can’t do it all. I can’t fix the tractor, and my husband doesn’t take the lead on our blog or marketing, but both jobs need to be done to make our farm successful.

I do wish I could get my wife to spend some time with me in the veggie garden, but at least I am very lucky that she is thrilled by everything I grow, and knows just how to use it in the kitchen.

The Amish are getting more like the ground hogs, though. On the last day of 2011, I was headed home on St.Rt. 235 up by Indian Lake, and came across a great deal of mud on the highway. I was all set to throw a hissy about people having tractors in muddy fields, but after a mile of tracking the mud, I caught up with two teams of draught horses pulling wagons and two bottom plows behind them. I hoped they were just moving machinery and not plowing, but they were covered with mud.

Russ, thanks for mentioning the Rodale Institute interview. One of the advantages of this writing racket is that sometimes a snaggle-toothed old farmer type in ripped jeans can get his picture taken with beautiful women.
As for plowing, no need to make apologies. I love to plow too. Have you ever read any of David Kline’s peons of praise (in Farming magazine’s early issues,) for moldboard plowing with horses, and how when done correctly it is no more destructive of the earth than no till. All you have to do is look at the thousands of acres plowed by horse-farming Amish to see the truth of that. Gene

I thought I had the strength of will to weather this passing storm. But I don’t. I must confess. I love to plow. I’ve always loved plowing. From the first furrow that my dad let me turn as an early teen, I loved the smell of the earth, the attending sense of accomplishment, the contrasting beauty of the plowed and the unplowed, the challenge and satisfaction of straight furrows creating a last pass everywhere equidistant from the fence line. And as a teenager who both wanted and chafed at his father’s instructions, I relished the ungrudging respect he gave me for my plow work. I was forced out of farming in the mid 80’s about the time that moldboard plowing was losing its tillage primacy and I agree that it was for the best that it was dethroned. Having reentered farming on a part time, smaller scale, organically inclined level, I still guiltily enjoy the “necessity” to break the sod of my hay fields for a year or two of corn and/or small grain before reestablishing the hay stand. I now know about oxidation and the vulnerability of erosion and the disturbance of ecosystem that plowing entails and my pleasure is a wary one as I try to minimize the impact. As Red Green famously says,”I’m a man— I can change—————-if I have to.”
P.S. I also love store bought mayonnaise. I know I shouldn’t. But I do.

See Karen, its something about tractors that pull the men into the farming business. If you get a tractor, I bet your husband would quit his job in town and become a farmer too. The older the tractor the better. For some reason, other than cash, I think men look for the oldest one that will break down so they can work on it. If they farm in TN, once the tractor dies, the farmer just pulls it off the the side and parks it…for parts. In TN, no body (especially farmers) throws away anything. You just never know when you’re gonna need it.

Honk if you drive by and see me bringing in the cows or on the skid steer or tractor! I’m a 50 year old woman, whose husband works in town, while I operate our 35 head grazing dairy Jersey dairy between Findlay and Arlington- not far from Gene’s stomping grounds.

Gosh, I consider myself to be a farmer especially when I come in from a hard day’s work covered in milk, manure, afterbirth, etc! But I’m not sure most of my traditional (men) neighbors consider me to be “a real farmer” since we don’t own and operate the “big” tractors. Honestly, I’m not “in my element” while on equipment and we own the minimum amount you can dairy farm with. It’s one of the many environmental reasons we chose a grazing system. karen in ohio

I really enjoyed reading your blog, I could close my eyes and see what you were talking about. We have moved from the city to a small home stead this has been my dream for a long time. We only have four acres but that is enough for us to have a garden and some chickens and other animals. One day I would like to learn how to drive a tractor so the one acre pasture we have could be turned into a wheat field or some other crop. Ellen from Georgia

I’ve interned at three farms and every one was owned and run by women. The first farm I interned at, in fact, hadn’t had a male there for years. I was rebreaking long-crusted ground.

Based on my experiences, women are pretty fantastic farmers. Since those three farms, I’ve now started working for two others, which raise animals, and those have more of a male presence. But both also have very strong female presences, and there’s no question that they both have pretty major hands in the operations. I wouldn’t want to see what would happen to either farm if the women left.

I also have to agree with Deb up there. I’ve never been particularly interested in plowing and have no desire to run a tractor. Interestingly, one of the reasons that the first farm I ever worked on hadn’t had a male in years was because they didn’t have a tractor–only farming about two acres–and that most of the males who contacted the farmer expressed interest in tractors. Boys and their machines. I never understood that interest. I’d much rather prepare a bed by hand then suffer the process of prepping it with a tractor. But then, I like my quiet and I’m not much one for exhaust fumes.

Monster Farming…heh heh heh…..

Ayuh. Here in Maine, it’s mostly women who farm. True to tradition, one spouse farms, the other brings in income from outside. Also, true to fact, men in general have more muscle, women have more stamina. So men work the machinery, women do the sunrise – sunset labor. Here in Maine, we cannot work the large acreage that, say, Iowa has. We are hilly and rocky. We have less ability to machine over a large area than the flat planes do. Therefore there is less a machine can do. Much is small detail work, which is the realm of women. So, in most farms, women farm and men bring in the outside income, though there are certainly exceptions. I think this presents the most fundamental division.

Why did you delete my previous comment?!? I didn’t say anything bad.

Well there you go, making sense again. I imagine that even in the Taliban households, women get far more accomplished than they are ever recognized for. Keep up the good work.

Food raising/gathering, farming and ranching have always been a team effort because that was the only way you could get it done! I do think that once agriculture moved into the realm of the plow, it become more difficult for a woman to handle either the team or the tractor with a baby. There’s a limit to what you can do with a baby in a sling or backpack (although I once butchered and elk with my daughter in a backpack). The other difficulty with more than one child is that it’s hard to drive a team with a couple of toddlers at heel. But I have always been able to take small children to the garden for hand work. And since we women are the ones who can nurse the little critters, we usually wound up minding the kids. Chickens, pigs, milking, gardens, cooking and housework are more doable with small children than running the tractor in my experience.

I’m a beekeeper because Steve was and I always helped him with the business. When he died, I just kept it going and have even expanded it a little. Everybody was shocked, especially the vultures that came to try to “claim” hives and “take them off my hands” after the funeral. It’s alot of hard, heavy work, and I’m not big or young so I just had to find ways to do it that I could handle–that’s where physics 101 came in handy. It takes longer, but I find the work enjoyable so spending more time on it is just fine with me.

Also spent this week bushhogging with my “new” 1949 Farmall Cub. I had so much fun with it that I too wonder why women don’t do the tractor work more often. Steve did tell me how to plow a straight line before he died. He said you pick a point on the horizon, point your d— (another word for penis) at it, and just stay on target (had to modify that a bit too!).

Good post, Gene. Brings back memories of my grandparents farm. My uncles and aunts own it now. Don’t know if it will ever be more than grown up fields any more.

karl francis kohler February 1, 2012 at 11:29 am

Thats an International Farmall “Super A” – nice little tractor, maybe you could ask – where did she find the implements? I have a 1946 A and Im looking for the under belly plow and a disc harrow and a rake…

From the time I was little, I always thought the men had it pretty easy. I remember on the praries, on my uncles ranch, my aunt was up around 4AM or ealier getting breakfast ready for the cowboys – 20 guys who ate 4 to 6 eggs, a steak, coffee, half a loaf or bread w butter and jam – EACH, everything made fresh incl the dozen or so loaves of bread!
There was yard work, feeding the chickens and pigs, tending the garden, doing the wash – then lunch, snacks, laundry for 30+ people, the kids coming home from school, more yard work, house cleaning, the ranch hands house ( the house where the cowboys lived was always a mess ) and then all the boys would come in for dinner – and they were hungry! and they wanted pies for dessert! Clean up, do the dishes, check on the kids ( my aunt had 8 kids! )
Lucky to be in bed before 10
I think she would have loved a day out on the tractor :O)
This was back mid 1950s

I have a Cockshutt 30 with a three bottom plow and a disc harrow, and my Farmall A with a single bottom plow and a sickle mower. I have never had more fun or enjoyed “work” more!
After I finish working” – the girls come in and make the rows neat, do all the planting, weeding and garden tending…

I know many professional urban gardeners and rural farmers.
In Canada it is a good opportunity for women to own their own businesses and land, as well as cut the cost of food for your family. Many women operate the farm independantly while the guys go off to work in town.
I think those boys would rather be out on the tractor

You really paint the traditional roles as being completely without merit. Not only that, but now I’m lazy, coniving (sp?) and stupid, since the only work I do, I was tricked into doing by my “fully superior in every way” mate. Wow. I’ve been following your blog Gene for a few months and have found some good conversation among the folks. Maybe I’m just getting cynical or I’ve lost my sence of humor (are you joking) or maybe I’m seeing the otherside, but I believe you are pandering to women and non-christians lately (and go ahead it’s your blog). And just so ya all know I don’t have anything against women or non-christians, it’s just the pandering part. I don’t think there is anything brave about your “stirring the pot” (as some put it). But if you are going to do that don’t ever wonder “why we all can’t just get along”. You certainly aren’t building bridges.

Among the Wyandots, and in many other American Indian cultures, most of the farming was done by the women. I think I remember reading that the men did help with tilling, but all the rest was “women’s work.” Of course, when the Whites came along, they couldn’t imagine that anything done by women could possibly be “important,” and so they concluded that Indians did NOT practice agriculture.

It’s the whole “power” thing. It supposedly takes a “powerful” person to harness all that “power”. I made this mistake long ago on a club camping trip. My parents had loaned me their van for the trip. Not really thinking about it, I made a bit of a rotation of guys driving. Some of the women eventually told me I was being sexist. I had to agree. I pretty quickly had the women who wanted to drive doing some of the driving.

The first thoughts that ran through my head when they pointed it out were that if the power steering or power brakes went out, it would take someone strong to deal with things. But thinking again, I realized that was a pretty slim chance of a problem, and some of these young women were pretty sturdy – at least as much as some of the guys who were driving.

I’m trying to get the kids, particularly my sturdy daughter, to do much of the tractor duty. My wife’s too busy doing the real work 🙂 The one problem I run into there is keeping the kids’ heads in the game. In particular, understanding what’s going on enough to see a problem starting with equipment and stop before it gets too much worse. I don’t know if it’s being sexist, but that’s one area where my engineer-inclined son does a bit better than his veterinarian-inclined sister.

I have a newspaper article from the 1920s with a picture of my grandmother behind a plow drawn by a horse. The article states how she runs the farm to feed her dozen children. Her husband (my grandfather) was always gallivanting around the world. This was in RI. So you see, women did plow!

In the days of the traction horse it took a weight lifter at the end of the furrow to re-position the plow. Tractor hydraulics can do this with one finger. Women farmers carrying a nursing baby in a sling might manage plowing from the tractor seat but would have had a struggle doing that behind a team.
In Cuba, after Russia dropped out and fossil fuel diesel dried up, farmers switched a lot of the 75,000 tractors to electric drive. I have a German surplus forklift electric motor and have my eye on a small garden tractor sitting beside the road with a blown engine, and plan to give it a try myself, parking it next to the solar photovoltaic mini array to trickle “gas it up” during the many hours it is idle, and scheduling field work the day after clear sky sunburn days.
I don’t have a wife anymore, wish I did, but she wore herself out doing women’s work. Maybe I will need a PTO driven washing machine when going to the town laundromat is no longer possible as the juice of rocks dries up from too many 350 HP pickups.
I don’t expect Chemo-Mechanical Farming to last much beyond 2032,(horse breeders take note]

Successful farming has always been a whole family operation. And an operation where both sexes have to sometimes do work that is boring, and dirty, and hard. And where both sexes are appreciated for the work they do, and the devotion they have to the family enterprise.

To pit the plough-girl and the plough-boy against each other is the height of folly in a family farm. Whether that comes by denigrating the girl, or the boy, it is equally destructive.

(And it’s not only farming where that is true.)

I have a few theories too, and it seems to me the tractor seat isn’t much different from Archie Bunker’s armchair, lol.
Thank you, I enjoyed it.

O fun, I get to be the first woman to respond. I have to come clean, I’m not a farmer, but I find farmers an interesting bunch. I married a farmer and didn’t even know it. I married a beekeeper…full time…small commercial operation with 200-300 hives (USDA’s criteria for commercial). I got involved with farming from that angle. From there advocating for the honeybees to be brought back to the farm….teaching even farmers that beekeeping is farming and the importance of providing one’s own pollination, the medicinal and nutritious bounty of raw local honey for the family…not necessarily for sale. Perhaps if beekeeping comes back to the farm, men farmer will do a shift and experience farming the way women do?
Ok, so you see where I’ve been and coming from. I’m observing up close how the farmers are coming off the farm and going to market to sell local. The women…I love the farmer women! They are the ones that communicate more with the customers and educate. They show all the emotion of farming that the men hide. They “feel” as they work the soil, birth and name the animals, collect the eggs. Its not just a lifestyle, it is life that is being born every day, whether its a seed, in the compost, or the lovely flowers they take time to plant along side the food. Giving women credit does nothing to disparage what men do on the farm. The perfect farm is managed by a family, in my eyes. Kids born on the farm leave, but being born on the farm is like everything else that comes to life there…it is nurtured and cultivated. Women, if they find themselves on the farm, seem to relish all the life that is being created constantly. Are women aware of this? Probably not on a physical level. But on the farm, so much more is going on than what meets the eye.
The Journal you wrote for came to a very important realization. Thank you so much for honoring the women on the farm.

    Amen! Thank you for your point of view Ms Deb. I grew up in a farming community where all kids (includling girls) helped out with the chores of what ever. I even learn to bail hail, an put in in the barns.
    My husband and I are moving to Greenwood SC, later this spring on 3 acres @ a house dated 1890.. We are going to trun to farming and raisings some chickens. I am so excited that I get to finially get to go back to my roots .

Women didn’t plow because it is a dirty, noisy, boring job. So we convinced men that it was “too hard” and “too important” for women to do. Besides we had enough work to do already…milking, cleaning, cooking, birthing, raising kids, chickens, garden, orchard, butchering (not the killing, but all the stuff after that…except of course for poultry which we killed too).

Sheesh, if we didn’t con the men into thinking some of the chores were “special” we’d have to do them all!

I love reading pretty much everything you write. You make me smile, laugh out loud and nod my head. Thank you again for making my day.
by the way, I also have my theories about why it is that men do the plowing 🙂

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