CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–Annie Farrell first got her hands dirty in 1973, when she bought a plot of land in upstate New York to experiment with growing her own food.

Today she’s the master farmer of Millstone Farm in Wilton, Conn., which means she’s no longer doing much of the daily vegetable gardening or animal husbandry.

Most of her time now is spent helping to preserve farmland, designing and building farms for others and working with the farm’s educational programs.

It took Farrell more than three decades to get to this point, and along the way she did plenty of hard physical work and had many moments of feeling like a one-woman farming pioneer band.

That is, until she had a recent epiphany: Women have done all this before.

The realization struck during a reading of “Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War,” a 2008 book by Elaine Weiss, a journalist of almost 35 years.

The book offers an account of the Woman’s Land Army, created by U.S. women in the First World War, to train women to farm while men were called away to join the military. Similar land armies were also aroused during this time in Great Britain, Canada and Australia.

From 1917 to 1920 the U.S. Woman’s Land Army drew 20,000 women–sometimes called “farmerettes”–to farms, where they lived in communal camps, performed “men’s work” for eight hours a day and demanded wages equal to those of male laborers.

“The knowledge and wisdom these women learned and shared gave people back faith and security; we realized we can take care of ourselves,” said Farrell.

But while the farmerette became a symbol of American women’s patriotism at the time, Weiss says today she’s been largely forgotten.

After Farrell learned about the farmerettes, she quickly sent a copy of Weiss’ book to her friend Wendy Littlefield, a beer importer in Chicago who once started a farmer’s market and has plenty of contacts in the networks of women’s rights and environmentalism.

Littlefield’s response: “We need to do something about it.”

Conference Reflects Past, Present

Littlefield teamed up with Nancy Stevenson, Victoria Post Ranney and Debbie Hillman to organize a three-day conference, “The Woman’s Land Army: A Series of Walks, Talks and Tastings,” in Chicago and surrounding areas. At the Oct. 5-7 events, Weiss, among others, gave talks, while farmers, activists and food enthusiasts gathered to learn about the Woman’s Land Army and exchange ideas that reflected a new movement.

“Now food justice and food security issues are in the news again,” Weiss said. “Today we’re in crisis, but it’s not a famine. It’s about quality of food; not quantity of food.”

One conference event took place in the dining hall of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at The University of Illinois at Chicago. It was here that women’s and immigrants’ rights activist Addams talked with her colleagues during the First World War about the famine affecting Europe and the resulting food shortages in the United States, particularly in poorer neighborhoods such as the one surrounding Hull House.

Over a dinner of spicy corn chowder, containing peppers grown on the campus farm, guests at the Hull House event talked about, among other food-related concerns, the problem of “food desert” communities, those with little or no access to healthy foods.

Dinah Ramirez, executive director of Healthy South Chicago, a coalition of food-oriented groups, described a local resident who was so disconnected from fresh food that she asked how many hours it would take to cook fresh peas.

Her group has offered tastings of various fresh fruits and vegetables in local grocery stores to increase awareness of how to prepare these foods. She says these supermarkets have seen an increase in sales of some of the sampled foods.

Jose Luis Rodriguez, who focuses on obesity prevention at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, blamed his community’s high obesity and diabetes rates on food deserts.

Johari Cole, who operates a certified organic farm in Momence, Ill., called the entire state a food desert because of Illinois’ dependence on imported food.

A National Movement

Farrell says groups with these concerns are popping up all over the country, despite the void of any central organization tying them together. She says the convergence of food safety and food security issues, plus climate change, have exposed the problems of food supply. Others at the conference said the economic downturn and increasing health problems are also part of the push to bring organic and locally-grown food to kitchen tables.

While most of the event’s participants were women, farms are still mainly run by men. Still, the 2007 Census of Agriculture found that women are gaining ground. Between 2002 and 2007 the number of female farm operators increased 19 percent to over one million from 847,832. More than 30 percent of U.S. farm operators are now women.

Sharon Gaughan is an educator at Prairie Crossing, a conservation community that began in 1992 in Grayslake, Ill. In the community, open space, trails, more than 300 houses, an environmentally-focused charter school and a children’s “learning” farm surround an organic farm.

Gaughan says she’s observed that women are often more involved with smaller farming operations, which are more likely to use organic growing practices.

Colleges Get Involved

By hosting small organic farms and gardens, colleges are also playing a role in this movement. That echoes their role during the time of the Woman’s Land Army when, Weiss says, they led the way for training women in farming.

In January, Elizabeth Birnbaum, program coordinator of environmental studies at Lake Forest College, 30 miles north of Chicago, proposed creating an organic vegetable garden on campus. The new garden has helped bring different students together, she says, and the college’s cafeteria has now started to use some of their food.

All of these efforts may be trickling up to create higher-level change. The week after the Woman’s Land Army event, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the regional planning organization of the Chicago area, unveiled a 30-year development plan. It includes a section to promote sustainable local food production.

Weiss says the Woman’s Land Army can be a model for communities everywhere since it was an example of ordinary citizens working to solve a national problem.

Conference co-organizer Littlefield agrees. “Women can continue to organize in the ways these women did,” she said. “If they did it then, we could do it now.”

For more information:

GO TO 2040:

“Local Food, Farms & Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy” report: