recent years there has emerged a veritable explosion in media critiquing
the U.S. agrifood (agriculture and food) system, including Fast Food
Nation; Food, Inc.; King Corn; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; and Supersize Me1 .
These often searing critiques have provided the general public with
valuable insights into everything that is wrong with our industrialized
agrifood system. In contrast, Good Food and Ladies of the Land are
hopeful, inspirational, and celebratory documentary films. What both
films capture are efforts by what sustainable activist and academic John
Ikerd calls the “new American farmer”: that is, farmers working to
create an alternative agrifood paradigm2 . A paradigm focused on producing foods that are healthier, as well as socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.
Consumer concerns about a wide range of issues, including food safety,
genetically modified organisms (GMOs), animal welfare, pesticides, and
global warming, have provided new American farmers with the opportunity
to produce and market alternative foods that are fresh, seasonal, and
organic, as well as create niche-market products such as free-range eggs
or grass-fed beef. In Good Food, filmmakers Dworkin and Young spotlight
the work of small family farms in the Pacific Northwest involved in
this process. Importantly, the filmmakers include not only the efforts
of farmers but also of food retailers, restaurateurs, and even a local
fast food chain, to re-localize their food system. The sustainable food
movement’s mantra is “know where your food comes from,” and the film
features farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs),
which provide consumers with the opportunity to reconnect with farmers
and the process through which their food is produced.
classroom, it is likely that some students will dismiss the shift
toward sustainable agriculture as peculiar to more liberal areas of the
country and not realistic for places such as the Midwest, that are more
deeply entrenched within industrial agriculture. To help counter this
notion, I like to draw on data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service
website, which shows that growth in demand for local and sustainable
foods is occurring across the country and that the expansion in farmer’s
markets and CSAs nationwide, including in places such as Iowa, reflects
While Good Food
features women farmers and activists, it does not explicitly touch on
gender. In contrast, the new American farmers in Ladies of the Land are
all women and discussions of gender relations are central. While women
have always been involved in farming, they have not typically been
viewed—or viewed themselves—as farmers4 . This perspective is changing, however, as the number of farms owned and operated by women increases.
Ladies of the Land
features four women who are raising and marketing livestock, organic
produce, and dairy products for the local market. One of the interesting
points made in the film is that women typically have a different entry
point into farming than men, often transitioning in from other careers.
Since conventional agriculture is typically large-scale and
capital-intensive, the financial barriers to entry are considerable. In
contrast, the small-scale, diversified nature of sustainable agriculture
provide greater possibilities for individuals with fewer financial
resources, such as women, to enter. Importantly, consumers are typically
willing to pay more for niche-market products, making it financially
viable for women to sustain themselves on less land, with less capital
investment, and less dependence on additional labor.
However, it is not just
economic exigencies that lead women into sustainable agriculture.
Carolyn Sachs, one of the nation's leading experts on women in
agriculture, argues in the film that women have a well-developed social
conscience, which means that women often enter farming because they are
concerned about producing healthy foods and creating a healthy
environment for their children and community. This social conscience is
also reflected in the efforts by these women to develop relationships
with their customers, neighbors, and communities.
women do not romanticize just how tough it is to make a living farming.
Farming remains hard work 24/7 and dealing with the vagaries of nature
and the economy remains a constant challenge. At the same time, Ladies
of the Land is empowering because it captures the enormous sense of
accomplishment, satisfaction, and success (which is not always economic)
that these women gained from owning land directly, and being in a
position to make decisions and take control over what to produce, where
to sell it, and how.
In the classroom, I
would incorporate feminist critiques to help students understand that
the agrifood system is highly gendered5 .
Such a critique would be remiss if it did not also include a gender
analysis of the sustainable agricultural movement, which Patricia Allen
explains has remained largely “silent on gender issues both within the
movement and within rural communities6 .”
Moreover, she argues that there is a tendency within the movement “to
glorify family farm and agrarian values without questioning the
patriarchal privilege that underlies many of these values.”7
Similarly, a gender
analysis could consider how gender intersects with class within the
agrifood system and affects women’s workload. For example, Julie Guthman
argues that working women often depend on fast food as a means to
manage both family and work but then are criticized for depending on it.
On the other hand, ‘slow food’ such as farmer’s markets and CSAs,
relies on “a tremendous amount of unpaid feminized labour”8 not only for farm women but also for urban women who already bear a disproportionate share of procuring and preparing food9 .
The agrifood system is highly gendered and discussions such as these
will be valuable for ensuring that students consider how alternative
food systems might act to reinforce or alleviate particular gender
roles, responsibilities, and relationships.
Carmen Bain (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University. Her
research interests include the political economy of global agrifood
systems, and the relationship between gender and international
Food Nation, directed by Richard Linklater (New York: Searchlight
Pictures, 2006); Food, Inc., directed by Robert Kenner (New York:
Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2008); King Corn, directed by Aaron Woolf
(Amherst, MA: Balcony Releasing, 2007); Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s
Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006);
Supersize Me, directed by Morgan Spurlock (New York: Sony, 2004).
2Broken Limbs, directed by Jamie Howell and Guy Evans (Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, Inc. 2003).
Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/. See, for example,
Steve Martinez et al., “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and
Issues,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service ERR
97, May 2010, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR97/ERR97.pdf.
Also, “Your Food Environmental Atlas,”
Allen, Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the
American Agrifood System. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State
University Press, 2004), 157.
Allen and Carolyn Sachs, “Women and Food Chains: The Gendered Politics
of Food,” International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 15
Guthman, “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of
‘Yuppie Chow,’” Journal of Social and Cultural Geography 4 (2003): 56.
9Allen 2004, 156.