Audra Mulkern's portal into photography began, innocently enough, with vegetables. Specifically, she was trying to figure out how to buy vegetables from local farmers. Living in western Washington in the late 1990s meant being surrounded by expanses of farmland yet being unable to easily access the fresh produce. Mulkern would drive to the local grocery store only to be confronted with vegetables from other parts of the world. She signed up for a CSA with Pike Place Market, but the situation still revealed a certain absurdity.
"I was driving all the way to Seattle to get vegetables from my own community," she says.
Eventually, in the early 2000s, Mulkern's rural community began offering CSAs and setting up farmers markets. Like so many other places in the country, the local food movement was booming. Mulkern reveled in the opportunity to know her farmers. But once she came face-to-face with local agriculture, she saw an opportunity to be more than just a consumer.
"Around that same time I started getting a bigger picture of our farming community is when the iPhone came out with a camera on it," she says. "I became entranced with this idea that these farmers markets were like an art gallery and these artists would bring their beautiful art to the market—a gallery without walls."
Mulkern started out with her iPhone, but soon borrowed a camera from a wedding photographer friend"They always have a backup or two," she notes—and set about taking photos of her immediate surroundings. "I literally sat on my rear-end in my garden and learned how to take pictures," she says. "I took pictures of bees and vegetables and then I went to a farmers market. I was going to have to come out of my comfort zone and take pictures of people and that's when this really clicked for me. I started to see that there were stories here that went beyond the images."
In 2011, Mulkern published a coffee table book called Rooted in the Valley: The Art and Color of the Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Markets. Her time spent on farms led to yet another discovery.
"A lot of the interns and apprentices that were coming on board to farm in my community were increasingly women," she says. "And seeing that—it was almost like a light switch for me."
Mulkern started documenting women on farms, expanding her scope beyond the Snoqualmie Valley to the world, including Iceland, Holland, France and England. In 2013, she launched The Female Farmer Project, an online series of short essays and large, colorful photographs depicting women farmers.
Mulkern came to Montana last summer to interview and photograph Tracy Potter-Fins and Margaret De Bona of Country Rail Farms in Dixon.
"They're a great combination of intentional and happy accident," Mulkern says. "They met in New York and decided to farm out West. On their way to Washington or Oregon—they weren't sure where they'd gothey stopped to see friends in western Montana and that's where they put down roots. They found themselves a really great community with lots of female farmers there."
Mulkern also interviewed Natalie Thurman, a Missoula-based Tibetan Yak farmer, as well as Michelle Erickson, a commodities farmer in Broadview who worked for UPS and Amazon before coming home to her family farm. "She's the first female secretary [for the Montana Grain Growers Association] and she will be the first female commodity president for Montana."
As with the popular photography-and-essay project Humans of New York, The Female Farmer Project is interesting in how it offers slice-of-life stories on individuals. The photographs are shot raw and Mulkern, who now owns her own camera, brightens them. But she does little editing beyond that.
"I'm dead set against making farming look romantic in any way," she says. "I'm not cropping the photos to make it look like a glamorous life, because it's not. At the same time I want to inspire other people to pursue it."
But The Female Farmer Project tells a much larger story about agriculture. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of women operating farms tripled between 1978 and 2007. There's no current data on the last few years, but Mulkern believes there's another surge happening.
"A lot of these women are coming from the workforce," Mulkern says. "They have advanced degrees, they've worked in business, but the call of the farm came to the point where they gave that all up—that comfort of health insurance, clean cars and clean fingers. And now they're farming."
It hasn't been easy for them. National Public Radio did a story on Thanksgiving a few years ago about a woman farmer trying to get a bank loan who was asked, "Wouldn't you rather be baking cookies?"
"A lot of the women I talk to still see themselves as the invisible farmer," Mulkern says. "They are not catered to for equipment, they are not catered to for finances. It's even difficult for them to find clothing and tools that work for them."
Those things are changing, if slowly. When Mulkern went to visit County Rail, for instance, De Bona and Potter-Fins had just received a grant from Red Ants Pants, a company that designs clothes for women farmers.
Gender equality and empowerment is always a positive way forward, but how the trend is changing the landscape—literally and figuratively—is still an evolving picture. In any case, the decision to focus on gender has led Mulkern to broader stories about technical and social innovations in agriculture.
"Even while I'm looking at this project through a gender lens, their gender is the least interesting thing about them," Mulkern says. "They are doing these super cool things with water rights and creating smart business models. There are women who are inheriting their family farms and turning the model of farming on its head. But I think part of the story is about them being women. A lot of women farmers are new to it—they aren't the fourth-generation farmer who inherited the family farm. And because of that, they have a new way of looking at it. They aren't proceeding with the status quo."