Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic — you know, the one with the sour-faced farmer holding a pitchfork with his daughter at his side — might have been one of the first works of art to feature women in agriculture. Now Marji Guyler-Alaniz has come up with an entirely new (and way better) artistic approach to the subject: long a part of our lives but often overlooked women farmers. Or, as Guyler-Alaniz calls them, FarmHers.
Women in agriculture are the subject of Guyler-Alaniz’s television series FarmHer, now in Season 2 on RFD-TV, rural America’s most important network, available in 52 million homes 24-hours-a-day in HD.
Guyler-Alaniz never set out to make a TV show. She spent a decade working in crop insurance in Iowa helping farmers protect their livelihoods. But four years ago she got a hankering to do something different.
She grew up on a farm in Iowa, but was not a farmer. Her grandparents were, though (her uncle still is). So Guyler-Alaniz knew the territory. Her true passion was photography – she’d had a couple of cameras she loved as a little girl and majored in design and photography in college. So four years ago she decided to leave the 9-to-5 world and set out to capture the essence of women in agriculture with her camera.
Though 30 percent of ag producers are women, according to the 2012 Farm Census, they’re not often in the spotlight. In fact, the lack of women in a popular 2013 Super Bowl commercial celebrating agriculture became Guyler-Alaniz’s “light bulb” event.
“That was a big eye opening moment for me, fresh off a career of over a decade in agriculture and I’d never thought of it – why don’t you see women? Why don’t you see them in their real roles?” Guyler-Alaniz asks. “The image of a farmer is almost always a guy. That obviously hit a nerve and struck a chord with me. I couldn’t quite believe that I hadn’t ever thought about how other people perceived women in agriculture or how women in agriculture perceive themselves.”
‘They’re The Very Best People’
Within two months, the first FarmHer photo project had launched. She spent the summer of 2013 photographing women in ag, most in Iowa. She started promoting her work via social media and a website and “some people started taking notice. I thought, ‘Okay, this matters to me, it matters to other people,’ so I started selling a couple of t-shirts when people started asking.”
It wasn’t just Guyler-Alaniz’s photos that were resonating with people – “It was a name women in agriculture can use to identify themselves as well.” She started doing some public speaking, creating public photo displays, “trying to get FarmHer out to people any way I could.” Soon she had launched the GROW leadership program, which reaches out to young women interested in agriculture.
Word continued to spread – and then “I get this call from RFD-TV.”
Guyler-Alaniz had not thought about television. She certainly hadn’t considered hosting a show on-air. Within months, both those things had happened and Season 1 of FarmHer was in production.
“Patrick Gottsch, the founder of RFD-TV, leaves me a voicemail that says, ‘Give me a call, I want to talk about FarmHer – this is different.’ They were looking for a way to include women in their programming and provide programming for women and provide a different angle they might had not had before.
“It took a lot of talking to convince me that we could take what we were doing and turn it into a television show. But the opportunity to take these amazing women and their stories about their lives and what they love, and to share those with 50 million households – it was an opportunity for them that I couldn’t pass up.”
It took about a year to solve logistics riddles and get production in a groove. In September 2016 FarmHer premiered and was an instant hit with all audiences. Syngenta and Nationwide signed on as prime sponsors.
That first year was a blur; 26 episodes is a lot of television. Guyler-Alaniz had already photographed more than 250 FarmHers so knew who’d make the best subjects.
“Every woman is different, the story of her life is different, how she runs the family and the farm is different, but at the end of the day they’re all very much the same person,” Guyler-Alaniz says. “They love what they do, they love their families, they love their communities and they have a desire to nurture and take care of people. They’re all doing it because they love it. They’re the very best people. It’s pretty cool.”
Guyler-Alaniz’s travels have since taken her cross-country, from Kentucky cornrows to Florida fields to Texas ranches to California vineyards. As she’s delved deeper into the lives of her subjects, a generational divide in how women in agriculture view themselves and what they do has become clear.
“It’s just the way of things, it’s our society and it’s finally reaching agriculture. It’s nothing new. It’s not uncommon for me to call somebody and say we want to share your story and they say, ‘I’m not a farmer, what I do is not important.’ Generationally it seems like when you get over 50 its way more common for them to say that. It’s just a different comfort level in how they perceive themselves,” Guyler-Alaniz says.
“That’s one of my favorite things — people are shocked about how our cameras capture them and tell their story. People who can see themselves through these stories get a little different perspective on what they might consider a dirty gungy everyday job – and it is that, but there’s a whole lot more to it.
“But there is that generational thing out there and it is changing and it is getting better. Women are still a minority in agriculture and there is still a long ways to go with women getting involved in leadership positions in ag, but that’s changing too. Even from my perspective I have seen a change and a shift in four years.”
While the role of women in agriculture is changing, one thing isn’t.
“We need to eat and it’s not going to get better [as the population grows] – we don’t get more land, so it matters. Women are an important part of that,” Guyler-Alaniz says. “I like the ability to give people a different perspective about their food – showing the person attached to growing that food but maybe not the person they expected. My goal is to show the beauty these women bring to agriculture. Everybody can connect with an image.”