Though born and raised in the Iowa countryside, Marji Guyler-Alaniz is quick to point out she was not a farm kid. When it came time to show animals in 4-H, she used a bit of ingenuity. “I showed my cat,” she laughs.
Like many Midwesterners, agriculture was part of Marji’s story, if not directly through family. Her grandparents farmed nearby--corn, soybeans, popcorn, pigs and cattle. She looks back fondly on her visits to the farm.
But, it wasn’t until she saw a 2013 Super Bowl ad depicting farmers across the country--most of them men--that Marji gave much thought to who’s really growing America’s food. “We often think farmers look like my grandpa in overalls,” she says. “We got that from visual images.”
That ad brought Marji to a crossroads in her career. She set out to change the public perception of farmers and to include women. It was the beginning of FarmHer, a movement she created by simply snapping photos of female farmers.
TIME FOR CHANGE. Marji had spent 11 years climbing the corporate ladder at a crop insurance company. “Sometimes, I went to farms when I’d get out of the office, but overall, I dealt with policy,” she explains. “Supporting farmers and agriculture was what we did from a risk angle, but it wasn’t boots on the ground.”
In 2013, the Urbandale, Iowa, resident found herself looking for a new balance. She had two toddlers at home and says, “It just hit me that life goes really fast. That career wasn’t what I wanted to be doing 30 years down the road.”
Marji dug into that same ingenuity that convinced her a cat was a good 4-H project and got a camera. Her first subject: Denise O’Brien.
The weather in Atlantic, Iowa, wasn’t what she’d pictured for her inaugural shoot. Gray skies loomed with no sun in sight. Still, she trained her lens on her subject, slogging through mud and crouching down to snap portraits as O’Brien went about her workday.
That evening, she loaded the images onto her computer, not quite sure what to expect. “And I was like, ‘Yes! This is what I wanted them to look like,’ ” she says, a note of excitement still evident in her voice five years later.
Marji published the photos in an online gallery she named “FarmHer” and posted the link to social media. O’Brien was so delighted with the portraits that she shared them with friends who shared them with friends and so on.
As a result of all that sharing, she caught the attention of an ag magazine, and, suddenly, her project was off the ground in a big way.
Emails flooded Marji’s inbox. Farm women from across the country reached out asking her to visit their blogs to see what they do on their own operations and, naturally, to come photograph them.
“That’s when I realized being seen mattered to me and to other people,” she says. Marji recognized there were countless stories she needed to tell about women whose identities lay in producing food. She got out on the road and began visiting farms, walking alongside farmers and shooting photos. As she traveled, the name “FarmHer” took on a meaning beyond a photo gallery.
“I decided FarmHer would be a defining term for the women I focused on,” Marji explains.
One operation she visited recently was that of first-generation Buena Vista, Colorado, farmer Jen Welch.
“I love that FarmHer is bridging the gap between farmers,” wrote Welch in an email to Marji after the shoot. She said she’d seen men congratulating women, women congratulating women and organic producers congratulating conventional producers on their successes. She noted while they may have different philosophies about agriculture, it meant a lot to everyone to be appreciated for what they do every day.
THE POWER OF A PICTURE. Since she started, Marji has photographed more than 250 women as part of FarmHer. The website has grown exponentially, from a humble photo gallery to conferences, T-shirts, online forums, even an RFD-TV show--giving viewers stories behind the photographs. While Marji remains busy juggling all those elements, she’s also traipsing across thousands of acres, crouching in the dust and aiming her camera to capture the milking, the feeding, the planting and the harvesting. Through the power of image, Marji says her goal is to validate each woman she meets.
“What you do is really, really important,” Marji tells her subjects. “I don’t care if you say, ‘I just raise the kids or make the meals, or just drive the tractors, or just do morning chores.’ Without all those pieces, the farm doesn’t run.”
While every operation Marji visits is different--from the large feedlot to the small organic garden--she says the common denominator is that women are extremely hardworking. She believes it’s a fact borne out of love for the land, the food and an innate desire to nurture.
“It’s in us, that nurturing,” Marji says. “They’re growing food or raising livestock that will feed or clothe people. It’s that care about community and connection with community that’s just inherent.”
Through what began as a small project, Marji has forged her own connections to the land and to agriculture. FarmHer, she says, has become her life’s work and part of her identity.
“It is most definitely an extension of me; it’s part of who I am and, I guess, how I show my connection to the land,” she says. “I feel proud of what I have done with FarmHer to help change perceptions and, hopefully, open doors for others.”
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