Champion of female farmers

Audra Gaines Mulkern photo by Julin Lee

Audra Gaines Mulkern would probably not describe herself as an activist, yet her mission, these days, is advocacy on behalf of farms in general and female farmers in particular. She fiercely believes that the plethora of “future of food” conferences that dot the urban landscape pay scant attention to farms and farmers, and even less to female farmers.

“The food movement has left out the producer,” she complains. “Why are we talking about food without production?”

True, only 14% of American farmers are women, and they cultivate less than 10% of the farmland. (And half of them hold outside jobs, in addition to caring for their own families.) But they are younger and often better educated than their brothers and fathers. Many have come to farming as a second or third career.

A decade ago she started the Female Farmer Project to call attention to the agricultural heroes in her midst.

Mulkern lives with her husband, two teenage children, and two black poodles in the farming community of Duvall, east of Seattle, Wash. Before she got pregnant, they lived in Seattle’s vibrant  Ballard neighborhood, with trendy shops and a year-round farmers market. A former business development executive for Microsoft, she had a new baby and “wanted to eat the vegetables I could see growing” out the kitchen window. So she started hanging out at local farmers markets, taking pictures of the produce with her cell phone.

She taught herself photography, originally with borrowed equipment. Now she uses a high-end Canon Mark III, and she steadfastly refuses to edit her pictures to make them pretty. “They’re unvarnished,” she told an interviewer a couple of years ago. “It’s important to me that’s it’s not glamorous. Farming can’t be glamorized.”

These days, she will jump into her black Honda Pilot and charge down country lanes and gravel driveways to take her pictures. “I go through a lot of windshields,” she laments.

The Female Farmer Project has become her mid-life calling. She got caught up in it, and only now realizes how important it is, not just to her personally but to the underlying cause of bringing more women into agriculture.