On Thanksgiving, most of them won't be churning butter to baste the bird, or baking fresh bread to crumble into stuffing. Like everybody else, farm women get their butter from the local supermarket, and either buy bread, or cheat with Stove Top dressing.
In this age of agribusiness, the celebration of the harvest has turned into a celebration of the express lane and a last-minute dash for cranberry sauce. With only 2 percent of the population producing food for the rest of the country -- and most farmers growing only a couple of crops -- the Norman Rockwell image of a family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner gathered from its fields barely exists anymore.
Most farmers don't feed themselves, says Carol-Gay Eikermann, who with her husband farms about 300 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans and vegetables in Bourbon, Mo. "They are raw material producers."
"The typical farm family no longer has a poultry flock, or a fruit tree. They may have a vegetable garden, but after that, most of them buy their milk and their chickens at the grocery store just like us," says Calvin Beale, senior demographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With profit margins so small for family farmers, many women have been forced to take jobs off the farm. Of the approximately one million women living on farms, almost 75 percent are employed in nonagriculture jobs, according to USDA. This percentage has been growing steadily in the past 30 years, says Beale. (The percentage of women who are the sole or principal operators of farms is the highest it's ever been, but at 6 1/2 percent of total farm ownerships, it's still quite small.)
"Particularly with the average farm wife being employed outside the home, this has contributed to the abandonment of home production. The garden was typically the domain of the farm wife," he says.
In fact, Eikermann says that since many farm women work in town and don't have time to cook a roast or preserve vegetables from the garden, they are becoming ever more dependent on highly processed foods.
Eikermann says she is in the minority, for at the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner for 18 guests at her home, there will be home-canned or frozen produce from her garden: broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, corn, pickles, tomatoes. The only item Eikermann will purchase is the turkey.
"We take great pride sitting down at a meal and saying, 'only this and this, we didn't produce.' Many times, it might only be the sugar, salt and pepper. I wonder how many farmers could put that much of their own food on the table?" she says.
But even for those women who don't work outside the farm, there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. "I need a wife," says Sandy Greiner of Keota, Iowa, who lives on a livestock and grain farm with her husband, has three sons and is president of American Agri-Women, a coalition of farm and ranch women. Greiner adds that rural women have the same concerns, time constraints and pressures as their urban counterparts.
"I'm too busy to have a garden," says Greiner, who does have three tomato plants and an apple tree, but purchases 99 percent of the food her family eats from the supermarket.
Another reason many farmers no longer produce their own food is that farming has gotten extremely specialized. USDA figures show that only 4 percent of the farms in this country are considered "general farms" -- that is, no one class of commodity produces as much as 50 percent of their gross income.
"Many people specialize in producing only two or three commodities," says Sherry Saylor, a part-time teacher who lives on a cotton and wheat farm in Buckeye, Ariz. "But that's not all they eat. It's quite a change from 30 or 40 years ago when people were producing many, many things."
Fifty years ago, about a quarter of the population was living on farms; in the late 1800s, more than half were. In those days, people didn't worry about fat and cholesterol; they worried about having enough to eat to sustain themselves through hard manual labor.
Meat and potatoes still reign on many farm tables. Yet dietary concerns have hit some farms at the same time that self-sufficiency is no longer the norm. Helen Neese, who keeps the books and pays the bills on a New Market, Va., dairy, mushroom and crop farm, has a husband with high cholesterol. Neese says they used to raise hogs, from which she would make hams and render lard. They no longer have the hogs, nor do they have any use for the lard; Neese buys margarine.
And although the Neeses do raise dairy cows, Helen Neese purchases skim milk from the store. When egg prices dropped because of cholesterol concerns, the Neeses lost money two years in a row. Now they raise shiitake mushrooms, and buy eggs as they need them from the store.
So with their hands out of the pea patch, farm women have been able to get their hands dirty doing other things. Although there are probably few organizations for plumbers' wives or lawyers' spouses, there is a multitude of organizations specifically for farm women -- WIFE (Women Involved in Farm Economics), Farm Women's Leadership Network and American Agri-Women, to name a few.
While some of these organizations have been around for years, they are assuming a higher profile these days. And while many of these groups were set up with the primary purpose of promotion, they are getting more involved in lobbying and policy issues.
According to Lorraine Harness, president of the National Pork Council Women (formerly the Porkettes, until the name was changed about six years ago to give the organization a more professional slant, according to Harness), "I do see a switch. We are becoming more involved in policy issues, such as animal welfare and food safety."
Still, their primary focus is developing educational materials for urban schools ("these are the children who ask if hogs are hatched from eggs," says Harness), visiting other countries to learn about their agriculture and meet with farm women (or men, in the case of a trip to Japan), and giving speeches to schools, churches and community groups.
And in this age of environmental concerns, many farm women are going on the defensive. Like broken records, they are quick to get on their soap boxes: "The American farmer produces the safest, best and most economical food in the world," says Neese, who is on the Women's Committee of the American Farm Bureau. "Farmers are consumers as well as producers. We would not produce food that is not safe for us to eat. Sometimes the public forgets that we're consumers, too."
Eikermann, who is the secretary-treasurer of the National Family Farm Coalition, a lobbying group that represents 40 small farmer organizations in 30 states, begs to differ. "I really think we're doing bad things to our land. I don't believe that everyone should go 'bingo, organic.' But there needs to be a serious look at how we can farm without so many chemicals," she says.
Eikermann also objects to farm organizations devoted solely to women. "It's a concern of mine," she says. "Are women not good enough to be in the organization that they have to have an auxiliary?"
Women in these groups, however, say that they provide support systems and a forum for sharing common concerns.
And while policy issues may be more at the forefront for these organizations, farm women are still consummate promoters. For Washington readers, Harness says on behalf of the National Pork Council Women, "just tell them to eat pork for Thanksgiving."