Women in food talk gender, career

At a Thursday panel, New York farmer Annie Farrell discussed how she ended up in the food industry and the role her gender plays there.
At a Thursday panel, New York farmer Annie Farrell discussed how she ended up in the food industry and the role her gender plays there. Photo by Hyung Mee Lim.

During her early days working on a farm in rural New York state, Annie Farrell said she had little time to think about what role gender played in her work.

But yesterday, Farrell, another female farmer and a woman chef took time to reflect on the paths that led them to careers in food production and how being a woman affects their professional lives at the Women’s Work panel in William L. Harkness Hall. An all-female audience of about 20 students and faculty attended the discussion led by Maria Trumpler, who teaches a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies course about women and food and formerly worked as a dairy farmer and cheese-maker, and which began with Farrell’s story.

“I didn’t have time to think about being a woman!” Farrell said when Trumpler asked her how being a woman specifically contributed to her story.

Farrell said she raised two children as a single mother while working on a farm in Bovina, N.Y. in the early 1980s. Farrell said she lived with her family in a stone house that she built herself. The house had no electricity or running water — but it did have an outhouse.

At the time, she said she and her ideas about organic farming were part of the “lunatic fringe” — but when New York’s tap water became contaminated by run-off from non-organic dairy farms, Farrell said her ideas were suddenly “cutting-edge.”

While all three women agreed that their genders have not defined their careers, it has impacted their day-to-day lives in the food business.

Tagan Engel, a professional chef and food blogger based in New Haven, said that she feels the need to prove her professional abilities because she is a woman. This feeling is especially acute when she meets with potential clients, she added.

At this, an audience member asked, “How does that make you feel?”

“There are times in my life where I think, ‘I just wish I were a man,’” Engel exclaimed in response.

Engel added that as she has gotten older, she has realized that people judge her less for being female and more for being the “woman I want to be.”

But throughout the discussion, the women expressed their hope for the future of women — and men — in the food production business.

With a Yale English degree and little agricultural experience under her belt, Dina Brewster ’98 said she decided to take over her family farm after the property’s caretaker died unexpectedly. Brewster said six of her seven co-workers at the farm, the Hickories in Ridgefield, quit when she assumed control because she is a woman.

Still, she said the greatest prejudice she faces is from Yale classmates and others who “cannot believe that I am picking beans for a living.”

“Well, I brag about you,” Farrell interjected. “I’m so proud.”

After the event, Chloe Rossetti ’11 said she found the conversation “extremely inspiring.”

“It was a very level-headed and realistic representation of feminism as it pertains to women’s issues in the agricultural workforce,” Rossetti said.

Zan Romanoff ’09 is the leader of the Yale Sustainable Food Project and organized the event. Romanoff said the idea for the panel stems from Farrell’s earlier visit to the Yale Farm, adding that she thought other women would want to hear about Farrell’s success.

The panel was sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project and coordinated in conjunction with Women’s Workday at the Yale Farm.

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