Farming Out the Home: Women and Agribusiness

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Farming Out the Home: Women and Agribusiness

by Sally Hacker

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 10, No. 2, March/April 1978, p. 15–28

I grew up in a small town, and spent a lot of time on the farms of friends and relatives. Rural life, it seemed to me, offered a good blend of sensual pleasures, hard work and whole tasks. As an adult, I’ve spent most of my life in the largest cities of the U.S. I am familiar, then, with rural and urban living. But I wanted to know more about the transition from one to the other, and how it happened to so many of us so quickly. Especially, I wanted to know more about the changes in other women’s lives —in the shift from agriculture to agribusiness. 

I found that this shift usually means a change from rural to urban homemaker; from farmer to clerical worker or factory hand. For migrant women, it may mean further degradation in living and working conditions, or no job at all. This interest in women and agribusiness is both personal and political. It forms part of an exploratory research project on technological change and women’s work in several industries.1 Iowa is an appropriate setting for this research. A green and lovely place, it contains the largest farming population in the country (544,000), and the third largest percentage of farmers (19.2 percent of the population).2

It takes a lot of money to farm these days. The average Iowa family farm represents almost half a million dollars tied up in land, buildings and machinery. Yet the annual net income of this family is only $10,000.3

The family farm is a farm where people who live on the land also work it and make decisions about it. It is losing out to agribusiness. Agribusiness is the system of large corporations which control food production and supply industries, packaging, marketing, distribution, and sales. The key ingredient in agribusiness is a new technology—machines, processes  and social relations which have radically transformed the work of food production.4

Family farms don’t lose out because they’re less efficient. In fact, if one reckons efficiency in terms of energy consumption or environmental costs rather than in terms of people displaced, smaller scale farming outperforms agribusiness corporations handily.5 The large corporation “farmer”6 wins out in the uneven battle of land speculation, stock market manipulation and increasing control over significant industries.7

The U.S. farm population has dwindled from 23 percent of the total to less than 4 percent in the last 35 years. Smaller farms go first. For example, the size of the average farm in Iowa has increased from 190 to 261 acres since 1960.8 Concern is usually cast in terms of the displaced farmer and his son. Yet census data indicate that women are pushed or pulled off the land at an even greater rate than are rural men; except for the 30—40 age group, the ratio of men to women is larger in rural than in urban areas of the U.S.9

Rural life was none too romantic, particularly for the poor. Their farms, like that of my grandparents, didn’t stand a chance. Aunt Louise left the farm for the shoe factory, where she spent her working life. As she put it, “If we planted corn, wheat prices were up; if we planted wheat, it was a corn year.” Mother was a farming woman who left to work in a film-processing shop in town. When I’d tell her I’d like to try farming, she’d say, “oh no, the work is hard and it never ends.” Women’s lot was the worst—hard labor often coupled with an endless round of childbirth. Cash income for hard work would have provided some autonomy from the family unit, but there was little if any of that to be had on the farm. 

Still, many of us feel we’ve lost a lot in the transition to urban living. We would like a life closer to the soil, where physical, social and mental work again form an integrated, organic whole. Farm life can also blend work and leisure—living in the basement until the house is finished, working outside, cleaning out the barn, spreading manure, milking, listening to fine country on the barn radio, feeding chickens and gathering eggs, cooking and eating what you’ve grown. Although some women are regaining this kind of life,10 many more are still in the process of losing what they have. 

Women on the Farm 

The practical skills required by farming give many women and their daughters a sense of resilience, competence, and self-esteem. There is little in the way of a highly visible upper class after whom one’s daughters might be styled; daintiness in dress and manner are inappropriate for most rural work. Both rural sons and daughters learn a wide range of crafts as well as the agricultural skills directly related to food production. On the farm, homemaking entails useful and highly respected skills. As one Iowa farming woman explained: 

There’s always something different. There’s no other occupation like it, where you can spend that much time doing things with your family. In spring, you start planting. Everybody participates. Then there’s the hoeing, then grain to be harvested, bailing straw, then the cantaloupes start coming on. Then there’s irrigation all through this. My daughters work—they can all plow and disc. They do the same as my sons. Now, sometimes, I take care of the kids while my daughter rides the picker. I loved the sweet potatoes. The kids ravel [knock—off the dirt] in the morning. My husband and one son snap during the day. 

Farming women are often baffled by the (urban) feminist analysis of the degradation of the homemaker’s role. 

Equal pay for equal work is OK, but I want to be a wife and mother, the role God gave me. I don’t want to compete, I only want to be a loved person.

A Wisconsin farming woman noted: 

Most of the farm women I know declare fiercely that they are not feminists as they tramp out to  the barn to milk forty-one cows and shovel manure twice a day.11

In turn, adherence to traditional roles of wife and mother often baffles an urban feminist, for whom homemaking has become much less rewarding. However, many farming women realize that their way of life is threatened by the same forces that oppress women elsewhere. I spoke with a young farmer in her roadside vegetable stand. As we talked, her small daughter hammered a way, repairing a crate. 

If my husband died, I’d like to stay on the farm or rent the land. But for a woman alone in this day and age, it’s impossible. She wouldn’t be listened to as much as in earlier days; you really have to be strong-minded.12 Corporate farming is coming in. You can’t stop it. It’s just the way society is going. Just like the grain market is controlled by the government. Bigger everything. 

Bigger everything will indeed affect the lives of women. As Elizabeth Faulkner Baker points out in Technology and Women’s Work,13 labor in a variety of industries shifts from female to male as machines become larger and faster. Agribusiness technology affects women’s participation similarly.

Training for Agribusiness 

Traditionally, farm children have learned most of the technical and social skills of food production and preparation through observation and practice in the home. To learn the skills associated with the agribusiness systems, young people may attend formal educational institutions where these newer skills are taught. 

To observe this training first-hand, I audited a series of vocational courses on “Agribusiness Orientation,” at a central Iowa community college. The curriculum included agribusiness sales and marketing, animal science, soils, crops, fertilizers, and petroleum and petroleum products. One of the first lessons of agribusiness is that this is men’s work—I was the only female. 

The more fortunate go the land grant university; the poor usually don’t go at all. This session, part of a two-year program, was directed toward the sons of lower—to middle-income farming families. These young men learn the skills necessary for middle-level occupations such as sales and marketing but are rarely encouraged to think about the more prestigious roles of corporate executive or scientist. 

The ideology of agribusiness was most obvious in the class on sales and marketing—the only class taught by men with an urban background. They preach the virtues and benefits of profit and expansion in guest lectures by representatives from industry, the Farm Bureau, and the state development commission; in texts, class discussion, tapes, and in films produced by the industry itself. We learned we should create and stimulate consumer needs, directly (e.g., for pork and beef) and indirectly (e.g., for microwave ovens, which increase the purchase of meat). Our teacher portrayed the ability to stimulate and create new needs as the manly art of salesmanship, as opposed to the womanly role of salesclerk, or “ordertaker,” who merely supplied what a customer wanted. 

Agribusiness, like any hierarchical system, is based on this rigid gendering of knowledge and experience that tells young men which occupations, attitudes, and behaviors to respect and which to ridicule and avoid. This applies even to specific classes. For example, the students in a horticulture class, including one female and a few long-haired male students, were referred to as “the flower sellers” by the agribusiness faculty. Students were encouraged to think masculine, think aggressive, and think business (more than farming) management. 

The message is clear in the sales and marketing class. Question: “How does a salesman contribute to the high level of living in this country?” Correct answer: “He creates a high demand for luxuries.” Question: “Why is the U.S. the richest nation in the world?” Correct answer: “Because luxury items have created new needs.” The microwave oven is one such luxury item, which cooks a turkey in one hour instead of seven. One “problem” the supersalesman must overcome is the housewife who prefers the longer cooking time, with savory aromas filling the house. The instructor is philosophic: “How do you sell against tradition like that? It would take four hours of class time to discuss it.” 

Photo by Ellen Shub

This experience was obviously alienating to me; I listened often in cold anger. It appeared to affect the young men as well, who could be seen playing with pieces of paper, ping pong balls, and chucking pebbles at each other. 

Some students did challenge faculty statements. For example, a faculty member blamed farmers in a nearby state for overfertilizing the land. A student suggested that the fertilizer firms that sponsor grain yield contests, and the salesmen who represent these firms were responsible for the damage to the land. To this the instructor replied, “No, the farmers just wanted to get their names in the paper.” Another student questioned the trend from dairy to beef cattle production. He was told “beef makes more money, and the name of the game is profit.” A third asked if the instructor thought destroying food, or cutting back on its production, was wasteful or immoral. Response: 

Waste is everywhere. I wasted gas driving in this morning. Could’ve walked. Waste is the name of it here in this country. Military men waste. I saw fifty gas masks thrown away, eggs thrown away at breakfast every morning. Some things are moral, some are immoral. Some are legal, some illegal, but let’s face it -that’s just the way things work in this economy. That’s just the good ol’ US of A. 

Most students were practical; job placement could, of course, depend on apparent acceptance of consumerist dogma. From conversation and observation, those who appeared most successful on tests and class reports seemed to resist the ideology least. 

Instructors acknowledge the degradation of the farmer’s work. Thanks to agribusiness development, the farmer has been robbed of many craft skills. However, instructors have an explanation for this: “Farmers used to get information from their neighbors. Now they can get it from the dealer.” 

Further, small farmers who lose out in competition with larger operations are blamed for their own condition. As a representative of the Beef Improvement Council stated: 

The name of the game is profit. How do you have a successful beef operation? Like any other business, a few inefficient operations will fall by the wayside …. He, like other industry speakers, ignored any other possible causes of this development—such as the onset of technology which only a few farm families can afford. Attrition, he would have us believe, is simply inevitable. 

This community college program represents an effort to ease the transition of these young men from farmers to agribusiness salesmen, merchandisers, and dealers. But the role of women is not ignored. Today’s farm woman should become a volunteer and provide free labor for agribusiness.14

Women’s “New” Role

Often women are expected to provide ideological support and promotional activities. The local Cattlemen’s Association publication contains a section for their women’s auxiliary, the Cowbelles, which informs women of their duties. They suggest that farm women “be knowledgeable about arguments refuting the high cost of meat and meat boycotts”15 and “organize to help fight legislation negative to meat prices.”16 Moreover, the woman’s role is explicitly defined as a moral obligation rather than an occupation. 

Lots of women are already helping their husbands in promotion of our beef industry, but we feel that belonging to our Cowbelles would make them consciously aware of their responsibility to the beef industry, and they would work a little harder on PR and beef education as well as promoting beef.17

The report on the accomplishments of Farm Bureau women in Nation’s Agriculture includes promoting products, meeting with legislators, and objecting to a high school text that portrays Cesar Chavez as a hero.18 These ideological support services, free to the industry, come from women who believe their best interests are identified with those industries and their power.

Photo by Ellen Shub

The PR campaign directed at farm women extends to attempts to alienate them from other women. Faculty contrasted the hardy, no-nonsense farm woman to the frivolous, know-nothing city woman, who might, for instance, side with environmentalists “who give blanket opposition to any chemical on the farm … then the New Jersey housewife is afraid of getting Iowa chemicals in her drinking water!” The urban homemaker can dangerously exercise her right of choice as a  consumer. She may choose meat analogues (vegetable additives) which, according to a representative from the Beef Industry Council, are “a cloud on the industry.” The urban homemaker might boycott high-priced products, even though she “doesn’t want to get her white boots dirty in the barnyard.” In class, the beef boycott effort was derided, but in the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman, the boycott was elevated to a serious menace similar to organized labor and government controls:19

We think Mr. Meany’s folks should pay for what they eat . . . . Neither he [Uncle Sam] nor the boycott gals can force us to raise meat at a loss. 

As the boycott demonstrated, the homemaker still exercises decision-making power at the supermarket. However, agribusiness representatives suggest stripping even this level of skill from women, transforming it into a paid occupation for the young men:

That the housewife sets the pace is the biggest fallacy yet. She doesn’t know the difference [between cuts of meat] . The housewife can’t tell by looking . . . she’s not educated enough to know. (Representative, Beef Improvement Corporation) Most housewives don’t know beans from apple butter. They need meat specialists to tell them what the cuts are. Meat merchandising could be a job for anyone in the room. (Representative and editorial writer, Farm Bureau Spokesman)

Catching my eye, he added, “Incidentally, you gals can do this too!”

In regard to women, the contradiction between agribusiness ideology and action is striking. Clearly, agribusiness representatives both fear and ridicule the urban homemaker, whom they perceive as troublesome and unpredictable. On the other hand, although they venerate the woman on the farm, agribusiness itself hastens the transition from the rural to the urban homemaker.

In industry, more sophisticated technologies lead to increasing hierarchy on the job: the number of levels between the top and the bottom increases.20 Management makes decisions; those at the bottom of the occupational structure are limited to routine, detail, and maintenance operations. The future agribusiness middlemen in the classroom were advised explicitly: 

Don’t spend dollars doing penny tasks …. The most productive type of labor for a manager is thought … plan, direct, analyze, control. If you want to be a manager, you’ve got to keep your head above the details. Hire somebody else to wallow in it …. Industry needs men who think …. Wars aren’t won by men with small ideas! (Tape: “A Challenge for Tomorrow’s Managers”)

Naturally, this division of labor allocates the penny tasks to women. In another session, they learned from an ace insurance salesman that he:

had no secretary at first. Then somebody said go out and get a secretary and you’ll double your business. I did, and sure enough, my business doubled. She takes care of all the details, every detail. 

Sexism is the first form of social hierarchy. Valuable tasks are taken by the men; detail work is left to the women. As one manager put it: 

My wife takes care of everything at home. I don’t have to do any of it. Sees the lawn’s mowed, takes kids to the dentist, the doctor. I don’t do any babysitting. 

Even more than classroom instruction, I gained insight into the future role of women by observing the experiences of women in agribusiness.


Women at Work

To illustrate the number and variety of jobs available in agribusiness, the college invites the young men on field trips to agribusiness corporations and cooperatives21 around the state. I went along, persisting in the face of a faculty suggestion that “women might be in the way.”

We visited a turkey plant that employs 600 people. According to our guide, 80 percent of the workers are women. The plant was cold, smelly, noisy, and wet. Some women wore galoshes as they stood in place on the assembly line. The first in line chopped off the feet. Others performed limited disemboweling operations on the carcass, as it passed along an overhanging track winding through the plant. A woman I spoke with reported her wages as $2.50 an hour. She said they had been organized by the Teamsters.

At a warehouse which employed some 60 people, men loaded, unloaded, and moved crates and cartons of tires by fork-lift truck. Our guide gave their starting wages at $3.50 to $3.60 an hour. A few women worked in the office, but he did not know their wages. 

A highly automated dairy again gave no evidence of women; the guide reported that a few worked in the office, but again he was unsure of their wages. He gave the average wage for the men as $5.50 an hour.

A similar situation existed at a large grain-loading port.22 Here, mechanization and automation had reduced the labor force to about 27 men. Crane-loading operators earned $9.60 an hour; once more, the guide didn’t know what the “few women working in the office” made.

At a grain exchange we visited, male industry representatives, traders, and brokers on the floor earned starting salaries of $20,000. Female chalkers, who stood at blackboards around the balcony changing the in formation as new statistics arrived, were reported to earn $2.50 an hour. 

The more varied and better paying occupations available in agribusiness are almost exclusively a male domain. A few women work in research kitchens, but most are limited to positions &s factory hands and clerical workers. When I asked about the role of these women in agribusiness, an instructor replied, “The gals on the line? They are not considered a part of agribusiness. They do no decision-making at all.”

Woodcut by Carlos Cortez from Industrial Worker

The alternatives for most women leaving the farm are bleak. Many are on welfare. Women occupy the lowest paid, most tedious jobs in packing and canning plants around the state. Since automation and other factors seriously affect these jobs, the unemployment rate among these women is much higher than for women in other occupations, and higher than that of male operatives.23

Many rural women turn to clerical labor, which is also notoriously underpaid. Des Moines, Iowa, is dominated by insurance companies and other financial institutions and has the lowest clerical wages and the slowest rates of growth in clerical wages among cities in the entire north central region.24 In fact, the state development commission invites other insurance companies to locate in the state and take advantage of low labor costs. The following advertisement appeared in Fortune magazine: 

Iowa workers add 15 percent more value to the products they produce than the average American worker. That’s 69 minutes productivity for an hour’s pay, 46 hours productivity for 40 hours pay, or 59 weeks of productivity for a year’s salary. But no matter how you look at it, the fact is, Iowa workers work better.

It’s one reason why 165 of America’s top 500 companies now operate 455 plants in Iowa. For more information, write: The Iowa Development Commission. A Place to Grow.25

According to the manager of another poultry processing plant I visited (which, incidentally, received a major share of its business from the Department of Defense), rural women make the best workers because they’re used to hard work. This particular plant employed some 400 workers; primarily anglo women on the day shift, migrant chicanas at night. Most women worked standing in the heat and the wet and the smell, stripping cooked meat from the bones of the chicken carcasses piled in the bins before them. Recently bone and joint difficulties have increased, particularly among older women, as the tempo of work has increased. The women wanted higher pay. The night foreman, the president’s nephew, wasn’t sure if company response would be mechanization (e.g., a deboning machine) or a move further west to capitalize on American Indian labor. Several months later, a newspaper reported the work force had been cut to 225, then the plant closed “for renovation.”26 It never reopened, but moved out of state.

Migrant Workers

Migrant workers are located at the bottom rung of the agribusiness ladder. Some 2,000 chicana/o migrant workers are employed in Iowa each year.27 They harvest the crops and work peak seasons in canning and meat packing plants around the state. As in the anglo community, men tend to work in beef packing; women in poultry. Some “settle out” of the migrant stream to become permanent Iowa residents. 

Two chicana nurses, Sister Irene and Sister Molly, described their reaction to migrant living and working conditions: 

When I came here and saw what my people, the chicano people, were really going through … I became a different person …. I was really shy and timid before . . . we’re not like the nice chicana [laughter]. We used to be on a lot of boards, you know, like the token chicanas. But now they’re catchin’ on to that. And they’re not going to ask us on too many boards because we’re not going to be their little tokens, huh-uh.

According to one man:

There’s this chicana woman behind all the trouble. We no more get the police to arrest some of ’em, than she’s down there way ahead of the police gettin’ to the station, gettin ’em out. And not only that, she’s a sister. And she’s got a sister who’s a sister. They’re both troublemakers. 

Sisters Irene and Molly spend most of their time helping the migrant field workers and their children, and those who’ve “settled out” get mind and soul and body together. 

They have low back pain, any time they have anything wrong with the whole spinal column or a disc, from all that lugging and backbending kind of work. Pesticides, There’s pesticide poisoning, and we know there is. But it’s never really been documented. And I think physicians sometimes miss it too. They’re not really trained as far as pesticides are concerned. But we’ve had incidents every summer . . . . Somebody will come in all swollen all over, difficult respiration, the whole thing, and says “it was right after I was out there picking tomatoes for an hour or so.” So what do you do? You document it. I think you can send it in to HEW, but there’s no real followup on it. And there are no warning signs that this field has been sprayed. None of that … nothing like that. Nothing. People don’t even know what the pesticides are. Sometimes the grower doesn’t even know the pesticides being used because [the company] is sometimes afraid to give away that information. 

Farm work is nearly three times as deadly as the national average, according to an assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor.28 And of all farm workers, the migrants are the least protected. 

Conditions in the migrant camps contribute to poor health. According to the sisters: 

They had high incidence of diarrhea—they didn’t like us coming in and checking the water. This was when we didn’t even have a migrant health and housing law, so we had a young man employed as a sanitarian, and he had to go out and check the water or I’d check the water. And then they had occasions when they had accidents—the lady was there getting water out of the faucet, and the cement was not really fixed there for her to step on, and she fell. And [the company J had to follow through and pay for all her health coverage. I made a point of it. 

In the face of continuing public pressure, the company recently got out of the migrant business. They sold the housing to the farmers and told them to take future responsibility for contracting and housing. The farm women I talked with employed about 20/30 migrant workers. The large cannery in their small Iowa city was a subdivision of an agribusiness giant. The cannery contracted the farmers to grow produce, hence the term “grower” applied to these farmers. Until very recently, this company also contracted and housed the migrant field workers. 

The farmers find it too expensive to improve the quality of housing: 

They [migrants] are only here six weeks, and it would cost us $20,000 to build new. 

Another reports: 

[The company] used to own the houses. They saw it coming, sold the houses —and gave the responsibility to the farmers. The houses are used only two months, but we have to maintain them during the winter. We got no increase from [The company] for this responsibility. 

Placing the responsibility—and the expense—of migrant housing on the farmers led to mechanization of the field work, e.g., through the use of the mechanical tomato picker.29 Under conditions of mechanized farming, there is a more profound division of labor. For example, one farm woman reported a migrant woman drove a truck and loaded, but this was unusual. Generally, the job of loading and driving was held by the migrant men. Almost exclusively, women and children performed stoop labor. A western Teamster official indicates that as technology becomes more sophisticated, anglo men will take over the operation of large farming equipment.30

As social and economic pressures continue to affect the farmer, it is likely that those who can afford it will move toward further mechanization. In 1973, the number of migrant workers coming through this area decreased by 15 percent because of mechanization.31

The farming women I talked with did not express hostility toward the migrant workers. They could identify with certain aspects of the migrant women’s lives —the double work of homemaker and field worker—but also knew their own lot was easier: 

I have another place here [the home]. Migrant women don’t. 

They opposed the general community feeling that poor housing conditions were the migrant women’s fault: 

The women said they didn’t come here to keep house. They came to work in the fields, earn money and go. They want livable housing. 

These farmers directed their sharpest criticism against the media picture of the horrors of working in the fields. They had experienced a lifetime of field work, although under obviously better conditions, and judged the horror overdrawn. They also resented “outsiders running through the backyard speaking for the migrants.” Before the local migrant health committee had formed, church groups had provided minimal services to migrants as an act of charity. The new era of conflict and confrontation was unsettling.

Given economic conditions, and the fact that the company does not compensate the farmers for the added responsibility of migrant housing, migrant living conditions are unlikely to improve significantly. As Sister Irene says: 

We had that big run-in with the grower and the inspector. I said [to the inspector], ” … when you tested that water, didn’t you see that hose attached to it?” “Yes I did, but that’s not my job to tell them to take the hose off.” [Water may test well at its source, but be contaminated by running through the hose; this practice is illegal] So we had a little round right there. OK. Then there was a lot of diarrhea in that camp, and that’s where, possibly, the contamination was coming from. They were filling their buckets and everything. 

You see a lot of staph infections, and that’s just from the conditions they’re living in. We had a lady that was bitten by a brown recluse spider. We wanted to document that. Oh, she had, she was a mess. She was prevented from working, the whole thing, taking care of her children. We had to dress it every day. We went out to check on the house, to document it, maybe file a suit. [The grower] burned the house that same night, or the next day. 

Maternal and infant mortality rates—a key index of overall health care32—are reported to be more than 100 percent higher among migrants than the national average. The conditions producing these rates are immediately apparent: 

Sometimes families come in large semi-trucks—carries two or three families all squashed in there. 

And sometimes he doesn’t make an effort to provide sufficient stops along the way, so consequently the people are really sick, and the babies arrive with vomiting and diarrhea. The mother was breast-feeding her child during the trip but her milk went dry. She didn’t produce enough milk for the child and the child had diarrhea. He didn’t make enough stops along the way. A lady arrived with a gall bladder attack after the long hard trip. We had another arrive in labor—we had to deliver the baby ourselves. 

When you’re pregnant, I don’t care if you’re pregnant, or what you are, a diabetic or whatever condition you have, you’re out there pickin’. I mean you’re here to earn some money and if you’re physically ill, that really too bad. You’re still out there doing it. They don’t complain, they’re just out there. And you say, you know, you really got to be home and elevate your legs, if it’s varicose veins, or whatever, but they feel like they have to go out there. Provisions for pregnant women? No. Nothing. We say, I think you should go, you have this kidney infection, and the grower sometimes accuses us of taking his workers away from the field. 

We had a maternal death here about two years ago. This was just because of a lack, a lack of prenatal care. She didn’t have any money. They said they just didn’t have the money to go and see the doctor. She arrived here in her eighth month of pregnancy. We got her to the doctor right away, and she had a history of weight loss and anemia. At about the same week she went to see the doctor, she went into labor on the weekend, and she delivered a premie, and she died of post-partum hemorrhage. The doctor from our clinic said it was a lack of prenatal care, and she wasn’t followed, and they just didn’t have the money.

Conditions for the children who survive are also perilous: 

When you get a family history, invariably you always find at least two or three children that died at two years old, died at eight months. And then you ask, and they said, “well,” they said, “I thought, well, I never really knew, they never really told us.” And that just kills me when they say that. “We think it was pneumonia, but we’re not really sure.” You always get a history of somebody dying: the children. 

Last summer we had a child, he was just, he had parasites; he had amoebas. He was just, he looked pregnant, like two or three months, right along, a little tummy. He was just full of them. He was just full of parasites, amoebas, the whole thing. They had to take him to Iowa City. And that’s another thing. He left the area before the treatments were finally done. Treatment had to be gradual. You didn’t want to irritate the worms too badly, because when you did they’d start coming out his nose, his mouth, other cavities —ultimately they would choke him. But the whole family had them. They were living in some of the most atrocious conditions over there. You know the grower doesn’t understand that. They say, “It’s their fault, and they’re not clean.” 

Migrant women also provide useful, unpaid work stabilizing the community. Some growers formerly hired only single men, but no more, according to a member of the migrant health committee: 

Single men? Growers don’t want single men. They have more problems—more drinking, they bring girls, women there from the community. There’s not one camp left with single men, and this guy will never have them again. Not because they want to keep the families together, but just, economically, it’s better for the growers. 

This same health committe member, a priest, comments on the role of the migrant woman: 

It’s really true, the migrant woman does suffer the most. It’s harder for the husband in his dignity, and income and all that (compared to the nonmigrant), but the woman—not only because she works right next to the husband full-time, but she still does have to take care of the kids, the cooking. There’s no doubt about it. She’s the child bearer, and again, with the pride issue, the maleness, and all that, the migrant, not because he’s chicano, but because of the migrant situation, and the subculture, and the economic situation, children are still important. I hope they’re always important; but they need more children. 

Sister Irene tells of some community response blaming the victims, the migrant women, for their own conditions: 

“Why don’t those women take care of their kids?” they’ll ask. You know, “the kids are dirty,” or this type of thing. “If they have enough time to go on to meetings and fight for this or that, how come they don’t take care of the kids?” Or when they see the children running around all the time. Or they say, “why don’t the women take care of their homes?” And I’ll say, “well, have you thought about working your tail off for ten hours in the fields, and then come home and clean up a house, or shack, and make the food?” Who’s going to worry about the house being clean? My god. Housekeeping. 

A young migrant woman spoke briefly about her experience during her hurried visit to the migrant health clinic—the migrants had only recently won the privilege of time off from the fields for clinic visits. The young woman was married with two small babies. She had not come from a migrant family. Her mother was a homemaker, her father a school janitor. Because her husband couldn’t find work in Texas, they joined the migrant stream. She often felt unwelcome there, in anglo motels, stores, and coffee shops. She said she wouldn’t mind working in the fields so much if the pay were better but thought she would like to train to be a nurses’ aid instead. “Application after application was turned down,” however. 

The worst part of field work was: 

when it’s cold and rainy or muddy, or when all eighteen women I work with line up outside the single toilet facility. Sometimes you have to wait. 

She doesn’t let her babies use this toilet but uses a clean can instead, for their safety. Usually she works alongside her husband, picking four rows of vegetables each. But at home: 

I do it all myself. [My husband] rests while I’m bathing the babies, making tortillas, cooking, cleaning. It makes me mad, but it’s just easier to do it. Maybe things will change. If sons and daughters are raised the same, maybe there will be some change. 

Irene and Molly have seen many changes. The migrant health committee is beginning to work more closely with the farmers, whom they can see as allies in their struggle with the company:

Growers are really up a creek, and they know it. They don’t know from year to year, from season to season, how many workers they’re going to need. Because [the company] waits until the last moment to say. They say “we want every grower to cut back … from 100 acres to 70 acres of tomatoes.” Even the growers don’t know how much the other growers get paid for a ton. It kind of sets the growers against each other too. They don’t know until the very last moment, when [the company] is ready to give out its plans, how many acres they will have, if they will be contracted… or not. That’s their concern, and they’ve been voicing that with us very seriously. Very openly. 

For the most part however, Sister Irene and Sister Molly work with the migrants—rapping in Spanish with older chicanas about folk medicine; helping a woman whose husband’s immigration papers weren’t properly processed; dealing with workers’ difficulties at the cannery; rushing a woman and her daughter, whose arm had been caught in a wringer, to the clinic after a local doctor put them off; printing cards with instructions in Spanish and English about rights when arrested. 


A rigid, divisive organizational structure—rural divided from urban, chicanajo from anglo, men from women, decision-making from labor—is brought to us by “agribusiness and the companies it keeps.”

Most people are convinced that the spread of agribusiness is inevitable. One farmer, describing the company’s policy of secrecy about pesticide contents used under contract, was very concerned with effects on the local environment. But, she said, “there’s no way to go back. I know we’re taking some chances, but there’s no other way to feed people here and abroad.” This ideology of necessity, of course, is exactly what agribusinessmen have told her. 

Neither the farming women nor the students in the agribusiness classroom had encountered workable alternatives to agribusiness as we know it.33 They were unaware that, in many ways, agribusiness has a detrimental rather than a positive effect on the poor in Third World countries. Susan DeMarco and Susan Sechler, in their book The Fields Have Turned Brown,34 document increased unemployment and decreased protein in the diet of the poor, as Third World Countries adopt western agribusiness technology. Advocates of the new technology encourage the production of luxury crops or herds grown for export to wealthy nations. Meanwhile, land allotted to grains and other staples has decreased. The distance—in wealth and protein consumption—between the rich and the poor increases. 

In auditing classes, taking trips, talking to people, looking at data, I learned a little about the transformation in women’s lives when agribusiness replaces the family farm.35 Women’s work on the farm is often directed by the needs of the man. To some extent it differs from the work of that man. But compared to the way agribusinessmen organize work, farming women and men more often shared skills, tasks, responsibilities, and power.36

The organization of work under large corporate agribusiness diminishes the autonomy of most farmers considerably and all but eliminates it for women and migrants. It creates alienating work for many anglo men as well but keeps many of them content with minor power over others—e.g., the secretary, wife, and factory hand. Hierarchy holds it all together. You’re relieved not to be at the bottom, or unemployed, but scared you will be if you’re not careful. Hierarchy, with its related fear and uneasy relief, is a very effective source of control and characterizes most, but not all, forms of social organization.37 Agribusiness, compared with agriculture, exaggerates hierarchy in social relations. 

Profit and expansion are powerful engines in this industry which has such low regard for people in general, and women and minorities in particular. Accompanying these economic factors are older tendencies of political domination—concentrating power and decision-making among the men at the top.

Agribusiness didn’t create, but certainly increases, the subordination of women, people of color, and the poor. It is not unreasonable to think that liberation from these conditions is intricately related to the problem of technology—who controls and directs it, and what kind of technology we get. 

Technology—the way we organize energy and materials to get work done—can be and often is selectively developed to insure social hierarchy. Technology is not simply a collection of machines. It also includes social relations in the way that work is organized. Technology, then, is both social and technical. It doesn’t simply emerge. It is not operating on its own internal principles. It is carefully selected and its development directed by those men who own and manage. And their choices are made in their own interests.38

Migrant workers have organized a response to agribusiness.39 Farm women now also discern the outlines of this industry which destroys the way of life they value for themselves and their children. Few can afford the mechanization now in process. Along with migrant workers, they are increasingly excluded from the skills to use it, anyway. The land is more easily rented and bought from the farming woman, who, as one said, “isn’t listened to as much these days.” 

Farm women are beginning to see they hold a very different economic and political position than do farming men. They are beginning to to fight back in the areas of most immediate interest to them. 

One farm woman wrote recently to Roxanne Conlin, a vigorous feminist and Iowa’s assistant state’s attorney at the time: 

At the present time, if a farm husband and wife own property jointly and something happens, the entire property is thrown into the husband’s estate and taxed. A farm wife is not considered to do a thing toward the family income. This is a very bitter pill and has caused the selling of the farm in some cases to pay the tax and [the farm] was the very lifeblood for the widow. This is very ironical when many, many farm wives spend every bit of their energy and 10 to 12 hours a day beside their husbands assisting with milking, farrowing baby pigs in -20 degree temperature when you have to be with them 24 hours a day, driving tractors 12 to 16 hours a day in 100 degree temperature, endless chores 7 days a week, cooking for hired help, chasing, sorting, loading hogs and cattle, and on and on and on. There is no time for us to go to town and get a job as we’re desperately needed right here and town people resent us coming in and taking jobs they want. Yet, the way the law is now, only personal money that the wife earns from an outside job that she can prove was away from home will apply to give her any little share of that property at his death as tax exempt even though she had to sign all the notes to borrow the money and has done without numerous things in the house, which other women regard as absolute necessities, in order to provide the necessities outside to keep the farm operation going as it is very tough to pay expenses in spite of the fact people think we’re rich.40

Conlin points out that before this Ia w was changed, it had deprived 3,600 women of their property each year. Even greater difficulties were faced by divorced farm women: 

Farm wife married fifteen years, three children, started with nothing and bought a $100,000 farm. She worked during his final year of school, had her babies and continued to work part-time in town as well as raise her children, keep her house and of course, help generally with the necessary farm work. After their fifteen years of marriage, he wanted a divorce. The court awarded him the farm, and the machinery. He also, of course, kept the college degree she had helped him earn. She on the other hand got one third of the value of the land, and the children to raise on her own while attempting to train herself for a payingjob.41

Farm women are beginning to communicate with each other about many of these issues which affect them so vitally. A recent issue of Do It NOW, the publication of the National Organization for Women, has as its theme, “Rural Women.”42 Theme editor Nancy Knaak describes her life as a farmer; the experiences of others in such groups as the Cowbelles and Porkettes; problems with tax laws. She reviews Country Women by Tetrault and Thomas; and reports on a Women’s Educational Equity Act study of “Rural Women’s Educational Needs.”43 She announces plans for a ’77 summer conference in rural Missouri of NOW’s newest task force, Feminism in Rural Life.44

Rural feminism also poses a direct challenge to political/economic structures. One of the most recent projects in the Compliance (employment) task force is the project on Women in Agribusiness.45 The NOW chapter in Des Moines has worked closely with agricultural and migrant issues, e.g., the local Grape and Lettuce Boycott Committee.46 At last report, other women in that city have enrolled in the community college Agribusiness Orientation course, and have formed a study/action group of agribusiness workers. Some members of this group recently attended a San Francisco conference on “Multinational Corporations and the Food System in California.”47

Rural feminism has a unique constituency; most of these women do not have several generations of urban, industrial, highly stratified workers behind them.48 Their experiences provide them with different potential from their urban sisters.49 As the growth of agribusiness subordinates women and the womanly, it helps create feminist awareness and protest. At this point, the protest promises to help clarify anti-feminist implications in our economic and political systems in general, through a focus on agribusiness in particular.

Sally Hacker has been involved in the women’s movement for more than ten years. She is most interested in the problems of working women. Her teaching and research is in the area of technology and women’s work at Oregon State University. 

This article was originally printed in the Winter 1977 issue of The Second Wave. This journal, having begun as a project of female liberation in Boston, is one of the oldest feminist publications in the country. As a “magazine of the ongoing feminist struggle,” it is committed to the development of our women’s culture by providing a forum for fiction, poetry, and graphic work by/for/about women. It presents political issues, feminist analysis, health, sexuality, continuing struggles and evolving topics of importance to the women’s community. To subscribe ($6 for four issues for individuals) or contribute material to The Second Wave, write to P.O. Box 344 Cambridge A, Cambridge, MA 02139.

>>  Back to Vol. 10, No. 2  <<


  1. In part funded by a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship to study women’s role in society; Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, 1973-74. I explored telecommunications and agribusiness, and, with Irene Talbott, printing and publishing, and insurance industries.
  2. Facts on Iowa Agriculture, Communications Division, Iowa Farm Bureau, March 1977, p. 27.
  3. Facts on Iowa Agriculture, pp. 6 and 12.
  4. Susan DeMarco and Susan Sechler, “The Green Revolution,” The Fields Have Turned Brown: Four Essays in World Hunger, 1975. Agribusiness Accountability Project, 1000 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007.
  5. Michael Perlman, “Efficiency in Agriculture: The Economics of Energy,” Radical Agriculture, Richard Merrill, ed. (New York: NYU Press), 1976.
  6. A group of four or five family farmers who incorporate for the protection it affords should not be confused with corporate “farmers” such as Dow Chemical, Tenneco, Standard Oil, Del Monte, or H.J. Heinz Co.
  7. Perlman, op. cit.
  8. Facts on Iowa Agriculture, p. 1.
  9. “Nativity by Age, Race and Sex, 1970 and 1960” Table 189, Detailed Characteristics: U.S. Summary, 1970 Census of Population, U.S. Department of Commerce, Social and Economic Statistics Administration, Bureau of Census. Very recent data indicate a trend toward increased participation in farming on the part of women – Lynda Joyce, Annotated Bibliography of Women in Rural America, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Society, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, August 1976, p. 3.
  10. Cf. the magazine, Country Women, Box 51, Albion, California, 95410; Jeanne Tetrault and Sherry Thomas, Country Woman: A Handbook for the New Farmer. (New York: Anchor Press Doubleday), 1976. See also a fascinating book by Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press), 1975. Kolodny suggests we will have to radically change the metaphors we use to think about both gender and nature.
  11. Quoted in “Rural Women,” Nancy Knaak, Do It NOW, Vol. X No.4, April 1977, p. 4 (Publication of the National Organization for Women) P.O. Box 7813, Washington, D.C.
  12. Cf. Louise Noun, Strong Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State U. Press), 1969.
  13. (New York: Columbia University Press), 1964.
  14. For an Iowa feminist report on volunteerism as it serves business and industry, affects the services rendered, the unemployed and the volunteer, write Louise Noun, 3131 Fleur Drive, Des Moines, Iowa.
  15. Iowa Cattleman’s Association, Vol. 3, No.3, 1973, “Cowbelles Corner.”
  16. Ibid., No.4.
  17.  Ibid., No.5.
  18. Vol. 47, No. I, 1972, p. 13.
  19. Vol. 39, No. 44, 1973, Editorial, Dan Murphy.
  20. Joan Woodward, Industrial Organization: Theory and Practice, (London: Oxford U. Press), 1965. In a study of British industries, Woodward found the application of “scientific” management irrelevant to business success. A firm’s technology has an overwhelming impact on social relations. These relations become more hierarchical as one moves from unit to mass to process (e.g., oil refining) production technologies. Her view however ignores the fact that men carefully choose the technology they want.
  21. For an analysis of the interlocks between agribusiness and large farming cooperatives, see Linda Kravitz, Who’s Minding the Coop? Farmer Control of Farmer Cooperatives, March 1974, Agribusiness Accountability Project, 1000 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007. We visited several Land O’Lakes Cooperative locations, e.g., the turkey plant and the dairy. Land O’Lakes, one of the eight largest U.S. Cooperatives, is described in Kravitz’s Appendix, pp. 120-122.
  22. See Martha Hamilton, The Great American Grain Robbery and Other Stories, 1972, also an Agribusiness Accountability Project report. Cargill, the corporation location we visited, is described on pp. 16, ff.
  23. Manpower (sic) Information for Affirmative Action Programs: 1975. Iowa Security Commission Report, tables 3, 3A, 4 and 4A.
  24. Table 87, “lnterarea Pay Comparisons – Relative Pay Levels by Industry Div ., 1967-74,” Handbook of Labor Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bulletin 1905, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. P.P.), 1976, pp. 163-176.
  25. May 1976, p. 167.
  26. Des Moines Register, April 30, 1974.
  27. Depending on who’s counting. A federal agency reported around 2,000 migrants; a state agency reported only 637. The difference was that the latter did not count those who stay in the state six or eight months for work in the plants as migrants, but as residents. A migrant committee in southern Iowa recorded over one thousand migrants in their three county area alone.
  28. Des Moines Register, December 12, 1974.
  29. See Jim Hightower and Susan DeMarco, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times: A Report of the Agribusiness Accountability Project on the Failure of America’s Land Grant College Complex, Forward by Sen. James Abourezk, (Cambridge, Mass: Schenkman Pub. Co.), 1973. The book documents agribusiness rip-off of land grant college research and other resources intended to help poor farmers. The title comes from the development of hard tomatoes for the mechanical fingers of the picking machine, which in part was developed to replace troublesome field laborers.
  30. Des Moines Register, December 12, 1974.
  31. Muscatine Migrant Committee Annual Report: 1973, Summary, Section 1-D. 218 West Second Street, Muscatine, Iowa, 52761.
  32. The U.S. has slipped to the rank of 16th among industrialized nations. “Infant Mortality Rates for Selected Countries,” data from United Nations Office of Statistics, February 1975. These data appear in literature from Mother, founded by Carol Downer, Edith Berg and Ginny Cassidy, 1050 Garnet, San Diego, California, to reclaim birth and motherhood for women.
  33. Cf., an account of intermediate agricultural technology in China, in China: Science Walks on Two Legs, a report from Science for the People (New York: Avon), 1974. SftP offices are located at 897 Main Street, Cambridge, Ma. 02139.
  34. op. cit.
  35.  I might have learned more. For insight into college, university and corporate resistance to this research – lying, distortion of data, secrecy, delaying, etc. – see “People’s Methodology as Response to the Social Control of Critical Research,” S. Hacker, in progress.
  36. Ester Boserup’s Women’s Role in Economic Development (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 1970, outlines the way in which western technology deepens the subordination of farming women in Third World countries as well.
  37. For alternatives, see Peggy Kornegger, “Anarchism – the Feminist Connection,” Second Wave, Vol. 4, No. I, Spring 1975. See also Barton Hacker, “The Prevalence of War and the Oppression of Women,” ms., Oral History Program, MIT, 1976, a paper which analyzes military institutions as core institutions of “civilized” societies, and women’s oppression as the cornerstone of such institutions.
  38. Evelyn Nakano Glenn and Roslyn L. Feldberg, (Boston University), “Structural Change and Proletarianization: The Case of Clerical Work,” paper presented at annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, New York, 1976, p. II ff. Forthcoming in Social Problems

    Stephen Marglin (Harvard University), “What Do Bosses Do? The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production,” Review of Radical Political Economy, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1974 (Part 1). 

    David Noble (MIT), America By Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 1977. 

    Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century (NY: Monthly Review Press), 1974. 

    Marglin points out that a technology which increases control over workers is often chosen over those which would merely increase profits, but leave workers more autonomy.

  39. Peter Matthiessen, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution (New York: Dell Publishing Co.), 1969.
  40. Roxanne Conlin, “Women and the Law: Protected or Neglected,” Address to the Iowa Farm Bureau, June 10, 1974.
  41. Ibid.
  42. op. cit.
  43. Report can be obtained from Women’s Education Resources, University of Wisconsin Extension, 428 Lowell Hall, 610 Langdon Street, Madison, Wisconsin, 53706.
  44. Task Force Coordinators: Mary Rhodes, Box 286, Nevada, Mo., 64772; Anita Wasik, 1914 Sol 20th, Grand Forks, N.D., 58201; Jennifer Hipp, 211 N. 5th St., Murray, Ky., 42071; Sally Hacker, Dept. Sociology Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore.
  45. Task Force coordinator: Judy Goans, 9237 Guyot Dr., Knoxville, Tenn. 37922.
  46. Contact: Elyse Weiss, 1065 26th St., Des Moines, Ia.
  47. Contact: Lynn Price, cjo 1310 7th St., Des Moines, Ia., 50314.
  48. On the other hand, we share a social context similar to that of the “moral crusaders” of the 19th century feminist movement, as analyzed by Alice Rossi, “Analysis vs. Action,” and “Social Roots of the Women’s Movement in America,” The Feminist Papers: From Adams to Beauvoir, (NY: Bantam) 1973, pp. 3-6, 241-282. While noting similarities, Rossi contrasts rural, small town moral crusaders such as Stanton and Anthony with their more sophisticated urban sisters of the later 18th century. Crusaders organized, others analyzed and wrote. Crusaders, however, held back from radical challenge to church and family.
  49. Perhaps because of smaller scale or intermediate scale social organization, rural feminists explore utopian possibilities. Des Moines, for example, is a center of anarcha-feminist action and analysis of political and economic structures rooted in sexism. The fragmentation afflicting movements in larger areas seems slow in coming, and may be circumvented altogether; lines of communication across ideological differences are remarkably open. People seemed to be developing a hardy, earthy mix of analysis and action as they went along.