C&J faculty document New Mexico ranch, farm women
Book, traveling exhibit for 2005 planned
By Laurie Mellas Ramirez
|Glenda Balas during a recent visit to her parent's peanut farm in Porales, N.M. Photo by Fred Stevens.
In rural New Mexico, raising and selling herds of sheep, cattle and goats or crops of vegetables, fruits and flowers is often women’s work.
Women choosing to root their lives in alternative farming and sustainable agriculture are growing these industries worldwide. They also provide priceless knowledge to policy debates about land use and resource management.
Formal reports and industry statistics tend to ignore these women’s contributions no matter how valuable, said Glenda Balas, Ph.D., UNM assistant professor of communication and journalism.
She and Miguel Gandert, renowned UNM professor of photography, will take to the state’s back roads this month to set the record straight. The two will document the joys and sorrows, values and everyday practices of 14 women of varying ethnicities, ages and backgrounds working in agriculture.
“Gifts of the Land: New Mexico’s Farm and Ranch Women,” was proposed as a traveling exhibit of large photographs, biographies and scholarly presentations. When Balas secured Gandert to photograph for the project, he told her “we also need to find a way to make this a book.”
A book-length manuscript is now part of the plan. Based on elements of the exhibit, its pages will include large-scale portraits, farm and ranch women’s narratives and scholarly essays. Overarching themes of land, family, religion, economy, environment, politics, history and social and cultural change make up the context.
“As complicated and diverse as the landscape that supports them, New Mexico’s farm and ranch women are rooted in a history that both depends upon and frequently forgets them.” – Glenda Balas
For Balas, who joined UNM in 2001, the project is a homecoming of sorts. The daughter of pioneering peanut farmers, she grew up in Portales in the 1960s. One of four daughters, all but one moved away to attain advanced degrees. The second to oldest, Eva, stayed on the farm to do the accounting and pass along the tradition to her two boys. Balas earned a master’s in business administration from Eastern New Mexico University and, in 1999, a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. She has 18 years of professional experience in public broadcasting, public relations, non-profit development and marketing. She taught at DePauw in Indiana before joining C&J.
“I always saw myself as a writer so I’m looking forward to working on the book,” Balas said. Other talented wordsmiths who will contribute essays and give presentations are Eastern New Mexico University’s Associate Professor of English Patrice Caldwell and Professor of Anthropology Janet Frost, Native American storyteller Sunny Dooley and journalist Sherry Robinson.
Balas’ parents, now in their 80s, worked side by side on a flourishing farm – dad in the trenches ultimately building and owning his own peanut mill and mom tending to the books.
“My dad was the face of the operation but he couldn’t have done it without my mom,” she noted.
“Women in agriculture don’t get recognized,” Balas said. “Women ran crews of hoe hands on our farm, organized them, did the labor and also took care of the business side of it. They don’t show up on official agricultural reports. And neither does my mom.”
One reason might be that the women, subject to culturally situated and gendered identities, did not self-identify other than “wife” or “housekeeper” on government forms.
“Dad would identify himself as a rancher, farmer, engineer, inventor and business man, but I’m sure my mom said she was a homemaker, mother and wife,” Balas said. “Until recently, women weren’t always included on the note or deed. So, this is all part of the complicated story about women farmers and their invisibility in New Mexico.”
Shortly after arriving at UNM, Balas approached Gandert about the project, conceived as a photographic exhibit, traveling to museums and rural areas beginning in September 2005. They secured funding from the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities and a grant from the UNM Resource Allocation Committee.
Recently, a second RAC grant was awarded to help fund three-dozen large matted and framed photographs Gandert will take and develop this summer.
Balas proudly shares tales of New Mexico women tending animals and fields in Abiquiu, Standing Rock, Pena Blanca, Espanola, Springer, Velarde and Willard.
She admitted, “I don’t have a ranch woman from Las Cruces yet. I also need a goat farmer from Lordsburg and a chile grower from Hatch.”
In Clayton, though, she found cattle ranchers Wanda Hughes, now in her 90s, and Tammy Kear. Hughes’ mother emigrated from Canada and her father was electrocuted while repairing a length of fencing struck by lightning when she was a child. Her mother then fought to become a naturalized citizen so she could continue to ranch.
“Wanda’s mother still holds a record for thoroughbred jumping,” Balas said. “You just don’t know what kind of story you will get when you go out and talk to these women.”
Kear also curates the Herzstein Museum located in a historic Clayton church.
“In addition to a display space for our exhibit, the Herzstein also has a performance space so women can come in from the county and tell their stories. We will have a video camera there so we can start to gather narratives that will hopefully make it back to the book,” Balas said.
Molly Manzanares of Los Ojos is an organic lamb breeder and sheep rancher. She and her husband raise 1,000 head of sheep on leased land near Chama. She shared with Balas that buyers purchasing acreage for vacation homes are driving up the price of land, changing the face of agriculture in northern N.M.
“Molly and her husband struggled to find a niche and way to survive. Now they raise organic lambs and slaughter 30 head a week,” Balas said. Then the two part and travel to farmer’s markets to sell fresh lamb under their own label.
Balas and Gandert begin their own road trip mid-June. Gandert will take formal portraits in large format and then photograph each women at work. Balas will conduct oral histories.
“As complicated and diverse as the landscape that supports them, New Mexico’s farm and ranch women are rooted in a history that both depends upon and frequently forgets them,” Balas wrote in her proposal.
And although her thesis suggests most women are invisible in the scope of agricultural documentation and policy, she also contends that in their own families they are legends.
“They weren’t acknowledged officially, but they were so much the glue of the operation that in a sense that was the acknowledgement,” Balas said.
For this daughter of a peanut farmer, the project is also an opportunity to understand where she is at in her life and who she has become.
“I was raised in one place and live in another,” Balas said.
Gandert, who photographed and researched Hispano farms in the upper Rio Grande for a previous project, plans to attend exhibit openings in fall 2005 to discuss his work and share insights.
“About 80 percent of agriculture around the globe is done by women, so it’s women’s work, but even today, it’s still viewed as men’s,” Balas said. “This project is about acknowledging these women and their contributions. We need their insights on how to live on the land in the coming century.”