People Who Care: Audra Mulkern of The Female Farmer Project

woman in a field with a camera

Plenty of folks experience what Oprah dubbed an “a-ha moment,” in which a sudden realization shifts a person’s point-of-view, perhaps even spurring action. But few go on to radically change their lives, and the lives of others, the way Audra Mulkern has. After noticing that women staffed most of the booths at her Washington state, farmer’s market, Mulkern morphed from a stay-at-home mom into a world-class photographer, filmmaker, writer, and public speaker—acquiring any skill necessary to bring attention to agriculture’s unsung female workforce. Through her non-profit The Female Farmer Project, she’s raised awareness via podcasts, social media, TEDx talks, and photography exhibits around the world, including a permanent installation at the USDA in Washington, D.C. A children’s coloring book titled Girls Can Be Farmers Too and the documentary Women’s Work are forthcoming. Mulkern recently took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Seed Phytonutrients about the impetus for her activism.

SEED PHYTONUTRIENTS: How did The Female Farmer Project get off the ground?

AUDRA MULKERN: I can literally point to the day, in 2011, when I was standing in the middle of our local farmer’s market and noticed that the farmers around me were all women. I watched them move back and forth between each other’s tables, the vegetable farmer taking something to the woman who sells eggs, who brought eggs over to the one who bakes bread. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “They’re all women. I’m surprised that they’re women. Why am I surprised? Did I buy into the stereotype that only men farm?” These women were members of my small community. I ran into them while walking my dogs or dropping my children at pre-school, but it never occurred to me to see them as business owners, land owners, engines of economic success here in the Snoqualmie Valley. I realized this was something I needed to figure out. I went to the library and tried to find books on female farmers, hard data, and there was nothing.

SEED: So as a photographer and a writer, you decided to document these female farmers yourself?

AUDRA: Oh, no, I wasn’t a photographer then. I’d never even touched a camera. I wasn’t doing anything at the time, except for taking care of my children and volunteering. I just saw a story no one was telling and figured, “Well, I guess I’m the one who has to do this.” Over the next few years, I upgraded from my telephone camera to real cameras I borrowed from other people, finally buying a used camera for $500.

SEED: Hold up. Seriously? You’re an internationally renowned photographer whose work has been published in national magazines and exhibited at the United Nations in New York City and Rome….

AUDRA: I still have a hard time calling myself a photographer, because I’ve never taken a photography class. I’m fully self-taught. And I don’t think of myself as a writer, either. The only thing I’d ever written before was a press release, back when I worked as a program manager at Microsoft in the 1990s. I’ve settled on the title “storyteller,” though even that seems pretentious. All of this happened organically. Every step of the way, I’d decide I needed a new tool in my story-telling kit, like: “How do I make a compelling podcast? Or a documentary film that PBS will want to broadcast?”

SEED: You know this isn’t normal? Normal people don’t follow fleeting farmer’s-market realizations by confidently adopting whole new professions…

AUDRA: Yeah. I’ve been too busy telling the stories to stop and worry about whether or not I’m capable. It’s like running in front of a speeding train. I haven’t had time for self-doubt. I’ve just kept doing things.

SEED: Well, you certainly caught a wave in the culture.

AUDRA: I did. There was a perfect storm of people starting to care about food, about farmers, about gender issues. Yet, when I looked at the available information, it was told only through men’s eyes. The gender lens hadn’t been applied. Historically and agriculturally speaking, the media left women behind. When we talk about World War II, all we talk about is Rosie the Riveter. What about the women who kept farms afloat while men were at war?

SEED: When you first started The Female Farmer Project, would you have labeled yourself an activist or a feminist?

AUDRA: I don’t know if I would’ve called myself any of those things. I was a mom who was enthusiastic about local food and eager to help. I could see that the farmers in my area were having a hard time getting the message across, because they literally had no time.

SEED: Beyond raising awareness, is there more you want the Project to accomplish?

AUDRA: Awareness is a lot. Exhibiting my portraits at the UN and the USDA, getting these images in front of policy makers, is like planting a seed. If I can change these people’s minds about what a farmer looks like, then they can change policy. I don’t want to say, “mission accomplished,” but there’s a conversation now about women in agriculture, and it’s starting to include talk about equity and loans and accessibility to land. If we can get that stuff straight here in the U.S., it will ripple out globally.

SEED: And you’re doing all of this for free?

AUDRA: My photography was never intended to make money. I’ve never watermarked my images. I’ve always had it in my mind that they’re going to be part of the public domain someday. One end-goal is donating all of the images to the Library of Congress, so these women will be inserted into history forever. I’d also love for them to be exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, in that little corner devoted to food and farming, representing this era when women started to reclaim the food system.

SEED: That’s a big responsibility, no? Representing the new wave of female farmers and preserving their role in the food system for posterity?

AUDRA: It’s conversation between me and them. When I’m photographing these women, I’m talking to them, portraying them in a way that they feel comfortable. So many images of female farmers disembody them, cropping out their faces or showing them from behind, bending over. There’s too much of that out there and not enough of women just actually working.

SEED: Anything else you think our readers should know?

AUDRA: Yes, I want to encourage them to take action if they care about something. I wasn’t a photographer. I wasn’t a writer. It doesn’t take someone special to make a change.