UNIVERSITY PARK — Even under ideal conditions, rural farmers have their work cut out for them. This is particularly the case for women, who are responsible for a multitude of chores in the field and in the home.
The coronavirus pandemic has made female farmers’ to-do lists more daunting as they manage added domestic responsibilities while ensuring a safe and ample food supply for their families and communities.
Reflecting on the challenges, but more importantly, the triumphs of women in agriculture in the era of COVID-19 was the impetus for the blog, “Gender, Food, Agriculture, and the Coronavirus,” created by gender scholars in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Women are the glue keeping their families and communities together at this stressful time,” said Ann Tickamyer, professor emerita of rural sociology and demography. “Many are juggling homeschooling their children, caring for sick relatives and dealing with added economic pressures. The pandemic has created unique challenges for women farmers around the globe.”
The blog, which debuted in May, is an offshoot of a book, titled “Gender and Agriculture Handbook,” that will be released in December. The book is edited by faculty members Carolyn Sachs, Leif Jensen, Paige Castellanos and Kathy Sexsmith.
They, along with Tickamyer, are part of the college’s Gender Equity through Agricultural Research and Education initiative, which brings together a team of faculty from across the college dedicated to addressing global gender issues.
Sachs, professor emerita of rural sociology, explained that the group was putting the finishing touches on their manuscript when the coronavirus hit. “We thought we might be able to include an epilogue on gender, agriculture and coronavirus in the book,” she said. “We asked colleagues to contribute a paragraph or two about their experiences, and within two weeks, more than 20 people responded.”
The overwhelming response — coupled with the timeliness and relevance of the issue — spurred the blog’s creation. The idea received enthusiastic support from Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs for the college, who helped move the project forward.
A call for submissions from researchers, development leaders, current and past graduate students, and partners at international nonprofits such as Oxfam and World Vision yielded inspirational stories from countries such as Nepal, Vietnam and the United States.
A common theme among the submissions is the issue of food security. “One thing we see is that with lockdowns, the demand for local food is skyrocketing in places as different as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Vietnam, Scotland and Sweden,” Sachs said. “Thus, small-scale women farmers are facing issues of not enough supply rather than limited demand.”
And there is no easy fix, she pointed out. “With people having to work from home and children unable to go to school, women, who already did the bulk of work for their families, are spending more hours cooking, cleaning, and taking care of and teaching their children. For some women farmers, this has meant less time to farm.”
Contributions also cover critical issues related to the intersections of gender and race, sexuality, and class, which demonstrate disparities in the impacts of COVID-19 globally and show the challenges of continuing to conduct research on these topics during this difficult time.
To date, the blog has garnered close to 600 views from readers in seven countries. The team plans to expand its reach and is seeking new entries. A long-term goal is to publish a book of the featured essays.