Book Review: The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture

Sachs_webCultivating a New Agriculture

by Angie Carter

Book Review: The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture by Carolyn E. Sachs, Mary E. Barbercheck, Kathryn J. Brasier, Nancy Ellen Kiernan, and Anna Rachel Terman. Published by University of Iowa Press , 2016. 202 pp., $29.95.

The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture is a collaborative project, written by long-time advocates—Carolyn Sachs, Mary Barbercheck, Kathyrn Brasier, Nancy Kiernan, and Anna Terman. All are part of the Pennsylvania Women in Agriculture Network (PA-WAgN), and use their experience and research with PA-WAgN to offer a much-needed framework for shifting our agricultural system to one that prioritizes equality and social justice.

Part history, part analysis of women in sustainable agriculture today, and part blueprint for change, the book is an interesting read for all involved in sustainable agriculture.

Like WFAN, PA-WAgN began with partnerships among farmers, activists, and researchers with the expressed purpose of supporting women in sustainable agriculture. The authors combine women farmers’ personal stories with historical and contemporary research to bring to life how women are changing the face of agriculture, creating new identities for farmers, and creating new models of farming.


Carolyn Sachs published The Invisible Farmers: Women in Agricultural Production in 1983, a ground-breaking book documenting the often-ignored importance of women in agriculture and the taken-for-granted patriarchal landscape of agricultural production. Since that time, women have led important transitions in food culture and food justice activism, and agricultural institutions have begun to pay new attention to groups that have historically been marginalized in agriculture, such as women, African-America, Latinx, and Native American farmers.

As the authors share, 30% of farm operators in the US are women and the majority of these women farm smaller, diversified operations. Yet, even as the face of the farmer is changing, agricultural institutions that serve farmers are not. The authors’ research finds that agricultural specialists and advisors are often still stuck in the status quo in their thinking of who is a farmer and what is a farm. In too many situations, the invisibility of women in sustainable agriculture continues. This is why, the authors argue, women-centered organizations, such as PA-WAgN or WFAN, continue to be essential.

Personal stories of PA-WAgN’s farmers illustrate myriad of ways women access land, labor, and capital despite these challenges. The innovative and creative strategies identified through the authors’ research and experience in PA-WAgN, and studies of sister organizations such as WFAN, Maine WAgN, Vermont WAgN, and Daughters of Yarro, shape the a blueprint for agricultural systems change. This “feminist agrifood systems theory” or (FAST) may sound familiar to WFAN’s members—it centers women’s experiences in agriculture, uses peer-to-peer networks for education, mentorship, and advocacy, and prioritizes personal, economic, and environmental sustainability. This framework is a ready tool for those actively engaged in farming and farm advocacy, as well as specialists and researchers working with women in agriculture.

History teaches us that social change takes a long time. In The Rise of Women Farmers, we learn how and why women farmers lead changes in sustainable agriculture, and that these changes, deeply rooted in a long history of women in agriculture, promise to continue to grow.

Angie Carter

Angie Carter is a WFAN board member and an environmental sociologist. She lives in Davenport, IA, where she teaches at Augustana College.