Woman takes photos of female farmers

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Farm Forum

DODGE, Neb. (AP) – The Sunday morning sun crept over the green and gold hills as Joan Ruskamp walked the feedlot, greeting her cattle.

The Angus made way as Joan took slow strides, checking for sick cows, ornery cows, anything out of the ordinary, tending the business she runs with her husband, Steve.

It would have been an ordinary morning on the Colfax County feedlot, except for another woman in rubber boots and a gray hoodie nearby, holding a camera. She’s capturing Joan, a friendly woman in blue jeans and a down vest on her blue four-wheeler – a modern farmer’s horse – coffee in the cup holder, taking care of morning chores, like she does every day.

“She’s not here on a Sunday because I’m here,” said Marji Guyler-Alaniz. “This is her life.”

Marji’s life is in Urbandale, Iowa, but last weekend her business was here, in central Nebraska, with her Canon.

The 34-year-old mother of two with an MBA had spent the past three days taking pictures of a young woman driving a silage truck and a grandmother harvesting apples. She’d captured a woman raking hay in the soft light before sunset, a woman cleaning calves before a sale, a woman tending her pumpkin patch, Joan at her feedlot.

Marji started FarmHer 18 months ago, documenting the lives of female farmers. Since then, nearly 50 women have agreed to have their photos taken, signing over rights to their images for the honor of appearing on Marji’s web page at farmher.com – and a courtesy piece of FarmHer apparel, an income-producing sideline to the serious business of changing public perception of farmers.

She’s traveled to Minnesota and Wisconsin and Illinois with her camera, paying her own way, most of the time on weekends so her husband can watch the kids.

Joan was the photographer’s last subject before she headed north to South Dakota, and then home.

Marji grew up in Iowa – granddaughter of farmers – and had worked in ag insurance for 11 years after graduating college. But she never thought much about the women who worked in agriculture, who, according to the latest census figures, make up nearly a third of all farmers.

It was a Super Bowl commercial – and its aftermath – that spawned FarmHer.

Maybe you saw it. A 2-minute spot for Dodge Ram during the 2013 game, set to the voice of Paul Harvey’s “God Made a Farmer” with airbrushed images of rural America and faces of those who tend it – predominantly male – filling the TV screen in Marji’s basement where friends had gathered for the game.

They were all stunned by the beauty.

But it wasn’t until a month later, reading a story in the Des Moines Register that pointed out the lack of women in the commercial, that Marji noticed, too.

“It was like, ‘Yeah, where are the pictures of the women? And where are the women?'”

She put the article down and decided she was going to find out.

“I actually woke my husband up in the middle of the night.”

And FarmHer was launched.

She’s not knocking the commercial, Marji says. She’d spent her whole life doing the same thing – equating farming with men.

“I never thought about how many women are involved. They’re right there, on every farm.”

After she shook her husband awake with her idea, she tracked down two female farmers who were quoted in the Des Moines Register article and asked if she could take their photographs.

“I fully expected them to say, ‘Get lost.'”

Instead, those women, and the women who followed, embraced the project. Farmers – FarmHers – from across the country have contacted her, inviting her to visit.

For now, she is keeping it small and sustainable, the way many of her photo subjects run their farms.

She has a limited budget and constraints on her time. She put out a calendar last year – and this year – another for next year. Sales of her FarmHer clothing, which she had envisioned as simply courtesy gifts to the women she photographed, help keep the project going.

“When I came up with FarmHer, I didn’t realize people would like wearing shirts that said that.”

Her hope is to help others see what she sees, women running combines and driving John Deeres, women tending cows and pigs and sheep and goats and turkeys, women making cheese and growing vegetables and balancing the books and baling hay and birthing calves.

All the photos are documentary images, capturing moments. And often, Marji focuses on hands and feet and strong bodies in motion.

Female farmers are thrilled.

Her trip to Nebraska came about after she was asked to speak at the AG-Ceptional Women’s conference in Norfolk later this fall. Marji said yes, of course.

And then they offered some Nebraska farmers she might want to photograph, a way for them to showcase what they do.

Joan Ruskamp, one of the conference organizers, was one of them.

She tells a story Sunday morning, taking a break from checking cattle on the land where she and Steve have raised cattle for more than 30 years. Where they’ve raised five children, too, building their feedlot business side-by-side.

Joan remembers six years ago looking for sponsors for AG-Ceptional Women, then a new group. She remembers calling the local phone company, and her contact having a question: Are there women in agriculture?

“So, yes,” she says. “This is important.”

The Nebraska farmer puts on her gloves and opens the cattle gate – and a woman from Iowa picks up her camera.

The Angus make way.