When Paul Harvey’s "So God Made a Farmer" speech began playing in a truck commercial during the 2013 Super Bowl, it captured the attention of 108 million Americans, including everyone in Marji Guyler-Alaniz's house in Iowa. "We had a group of friends here and everyone stopped and just stared. As someone who’s from an agriculture state and grew up around agriculture, you stop and you have a huge sense of pride," she says of the spell Harvey's words, along with stunning images of farmers and snapshots of everyday farm life, cast upon the captive audience. Seeing this commercial was the first domino to fall in an unexpected chain of events that would lead to the creation of FarmHer.
Marji was born and raised in a small community in Iowa where she says "agriculture is just kind of everywhere; it’s part of everything here." Her grandparents were farmers, Marji's mom grew up on a farm and Marji herself grew up in the country.
As soon as Marji earned an undergraduate degree in graphic design, journalism and photography from Grand View College (now Grand View University), she entered the world of corporate agriculture by taking a job with Rain and Hail, the second largest crop insurance company in the US. She worked in a variety of roles for the company during her eleven years there before deciding to take a step back and think about what she wanted to do next.
She happened to be considering her next step that Super Bowl weekend, and was still thinking about what she'd like to do a few weeks later when she read an article in the local paper, The Des Moines Register, about the same truck commercial that she had seen and loved. Pointing out there were hardly any female farmers in the two minute commercial, the writer asked: Where are all the women? Why aren't more women farmers shown?
Marji was surprised that while agriculture had been such an integral and everyday part of her life, women were underrepresented in the portrayal of the farming world, and even she hadn't noticed it. After reading that article, Marji realized that despite the time she spent working in agriculture, including marketing and dealing with advertising, she never noticed that you don't see images of women in agriculture. In explaining why the person almost always depicted as a farmer in the images we see is male, she believes, "that's just how it's always been; I don't think anyone's taken the time to update the image."
And so the ah-ha moment struck. It jolted her from bed, the light bulb over her head illuminating her moment of brilliance: she would use her camera to document women farmers and begin working to update the farmer image. She suddenly knew she wanted to show the world who the farmhers are: women in all forms of agriculture from small family farms to large corporate farms. She had the idea, she had the name and she had the degree in photography…now all she needed was a good night’s rest and some female farmers to photograph.
Without a clear plan but in response to the strength of her epiphany, Marji dove right in and decided to start by contacting the same women she read about in the Register article to find out if either would be open to being photographed as they went about their normal work. Knowing it would take a great deal of trust to allow someone to come document their lives on their farms, without even seeing sample photos first, Marji was pleased that both agreed.
And from here, momentum really began to build.
One of these women connected Marji with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, a network for women in sustainable agriculture. After they put the word out about the FarmHer project, Marji received more replies than she can remember, so many she started a list to keep track of them all.
When FarmHer was in "project" phase, Marji would turn to that list or work through personal connections to set up photo shoots on farms in areas she'd find herself traveling to for other reasons, like family or to attend conferences. As her portfolio grew, so did her exposure and as coverage spread about FarmHer through the press and social media, more female farmers began contacting her, requesting to have their farms and their work photographed.
In addition to the photography requests she receives, Marji has also been contacted by hundreds of women to thank her for what she’s doing and express their appreciation. Through her work, Marji is bringing a feeling of connection to the women who make up upwards of 30% of primary and secondary farm operators in the US, and beyond. She's heard from women outside of the US, from women in agriculture in Canada, Mexico, Central America, South Africa and Europe. These women reach out to thank Marji for showing them they are part of a larger community than they realized, helping to alleviate the isolation that can come with being a woman in a male-dominated field—a feeling to which Marji can relate due to her time working in the corporate side of the agriculture world. Though Marji never expected this outpouring of gratitude, she says "honestly, that type of feedback makes me want to do [FarmHer] forever and go as far as I can and show as many women as I can."
It's been just over a year and FarmHer has now made the leap from project to business. In addition to prints that are available for sale on her website, Marji also sells sets of stock photos, images which can be purchased for royalty-free use, without attribution to the photographer. She plans to increase her focus on the stock photo side of the business in the next year because of her commitment to increasing the reach the images can have. For her, this work isn't just about the success of FarmHer, she says it's also about "making sure that everybody's aware of updating the image of agriculture."
As the business grows, she plans to visit farms outside of the Midwest and gather images from different agricultural regions. However, she doesn't have to wait until she can travel to photograph something different: her own local area is about to provide a trove of new opportunity. Right now, Marji is excited for the upcoming planting season. She says her window to capture the row crop planting of large fields is small because "people will really get on the big machinery only a few times a year so you have to hit it at the right time." Like the farmer who steadfastly waits for the right moment to sow her seeds, Marji also waits, with camera in hard, for that same moment so she can capture it and share it with the world.