A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

When a Woman Owns the Farm: A Case for Diachronic and Synchronic Rhetorical Agency

Rachel Wolford, Texas Tech University

(Published June 8, 2016)

And there have been lots of times when I didn’t think I could stand things… and I’m still here.
--Annette (Research participant and Iowa farmland owner)

How does a woman make a meaningful life, despite tragedy, financial catastrophe, and marginalization? This article presents the case study of Annette (a pseudonym) and her journey from a discounted farm wife to owner and manager of the family farm in western Iowa. Annette’s narrative is about rhetorical agency, resilience, and how each of these concepts fosters the other. In feminist qualitative research, particularly, it is imperative to account for our participants’ multiple roles and developing identities as they continually respond to challenges and opportunities throughout their lives. Rhetorical agency—often thought about as the power to act through language (Geisler; Herndl and Licona) or as a “negotiation among competing alternative discourses” (Koerber 94)—is a shifty conundrum, difficult to pin down and write about; yet it remains an important topic for research particularly for those interested in power relations, social justice, and the individual and collective empowerment of marginalized/non-dominant peoples. Analyzing rhetorical agency especially helps feminist rhetoricians recognize resilience as a crucial characteristic of women attempting to build meaningful lives despite difficult circumstances. Elizabeth Flynn, Patricia Sotirin, and Ann Brady argue that resilient rhetorical agency focuses on one’s “continual reinvention” and possibilities for change (8). Every compelling story is about tragedy and resulting change, and for feminist rhetoric scholars, it is important to learn how women such as Annette reinvent themselves, exemplifying resilience and various forms of rhetorical agency.

Rhetorical agency is, of course, a contested concept in rhetorical study. In its most basic sense, Carolyn Miller argues that rhetorical agency offers an answer to Kenneth Burke’s fundamental question in the introduction to A Grammar of Motives: What are we doing and why are we doing it? (153). But as evident in the number of diverse definitions of rhetorical agency offered in the last two decades (Lucaites and Condit; Kohrsooper; Gries), it remains difficult to solidify and clarify the complex nature of postmodern rhetorical agency. Part of the struggle exists over to what exactly to attribute rhetorical agency, especially if we consider agency as a distributed act. But, for this article’s purposes, it is also difficult to settle on one single definition of rhetorical agency that can flexibly model the constant and varied circumstances that an individual inhabits over time. Lawrence Grossberg argues that a universal theory of agency is impossible; “it can only be described in its contextual enactments” within a specific history and set of relations (123). For feminist scholars interested in women’s resilience and agency, we need, then, to develop models of rhetorical agency that account for its shifting contexts and enactments.

In this article I attempt to do just that by offering a model of rhetorical agency that can account for the changing forms of rhetorical agency related to women farmland owners (WFOs) in Iowa, who are trying to make sense of themselves as farm owners after inheriting that role later in life. Annette’s case study is part of a larger ethnographic project about the experiences of WFOs. Annette unexpectedly inherited the family farm after her husband’s fatal accident. This research analyzes Annette’s intersections with varied forms of rhetorical agency as she slowly transformed from the role of a subordinate farm wife with little access to the family farm discourse to a widow and property owner with full responsibility for the farm’s management. To analyze Annette’s narrative of ongoing change, I will develop a diachronic-synchronic model (DS) of rhetorical agency. Diachronic rhetorical agency develops over time as an emergent characteristic through one’s resilience and experience as an interlocutor within discourse, while synchronic rhetorical agency occurs at specific, kairotic, temporal moments when action through language can potentially occur. Weaving these diachronic and synchronic forms together provides us with a more powerful, fluid model of rhetorical agency that we can map onto the narratives of our research participants in order to account more flexibly for their varied opportunities to effect change, both at isolated moments and throughout their lives.

In the following sections I will review scholarship of women’s changing roles on the family farm, provide a summary of my qualitative methods, and discuss recent research in postmodern rhetorical agency theory. Then I present my model of diachronic and synchronic rhetorical agency juxtaposed with the case study narrative of my participant, Annette. Using a weaving metaphor, my goal is to demonstrate rhetorical agency’s diachronicity as the lengthwise “warp” threads of a fabric, and synchronicity as the interwoven “weft” threads that create various patterns in a textile (Fall). This metaphor helps us view rhetorical agency more as a tapestry of language and action than as isolated points of inflection.

Women’s Roles on the Family Farm

Much of the research concerning women in agriculture over the past thirty years from social sciences and feminist and women’s studies scholarship in Europe and North America concludes that conventional industrial agriculture in Western countries is a hegemonic, male-gendered institution that has obscured women as ancillary helpers with little or no decision-making power regarding the farm. In her 1983 text, The Invisible Farmers, Carolyn Sachs states that women in agriculture have traditionally conducted the invisible, household labor on the farm, which has marginalized their status: “There is still a strong tendency to see men as farmers and women as farmers’ wives” (xi). Sachs’s later argument in Gendered Fields had not varied much: “As in so many areas of their lives, women’s limited access to land is usually defined by their relationships to men, specifically by their husbands’ or fathers’ ownership or access to land” (45). Correspondingly, Brandth’s 2002 literature review of research on gender identity in agriculture concludes that even in the 21st century, the traditional “discourse of the family farm,” in which farms are owned, inherited, and controlled by male members of the family, still pervades male and female identification in agriculture, which leaves women the subordinate domestic tasks and separate from farm management (184). Amy Trauger, researching family farming in Pennsylvania, states that most women’s “social script” on farms is to handle errands for their husbands and “not to be conducting business as a farmer in her own right” (299). Additionally, in her article titled, “They Never Trusted Me to Drive,” about how adult women farmers learned the family business as children, Gloria J. Leckie states that “women have largely been excluded from the occupational inheritance of farming, in part because they are not expected to, and usually do not, own farmland” (310).

These explicit, gendered roles in the farming profession date back to the origins of the United States. Charlotte Hogg discusses the agrarianist model of agriculture that “rests firmly at the base of the collective U.S. Ideological framework” (citing Fink, 11), and this model depends on a “patriarchal history and description of farming and ranching in which women are seen merely as helpers to this lifestyle” (122-123). Hogg points to Thomas Jefferson’s writings as influential on agrarianism, and she critiques this ideology as “abstract, idyllic notions of community as the social realities are glossed over” (123). Hogg’s research focuses on how the literacies of rural women in her hometown of Paxton, Nebraska, offer an alternative, complicating narrative and history of women in agriculture: “The nuances of individual narratives can challenge easy conclusions about rural womanhood and rural life through descriptions resisting stereotypes of women as quiet agrarianism helpmates or unassuming little old ladies” (141). Through my own research on WFOs in Iowa, I reached the same conclusion. Women in agriculture offer unique, complex stories of their experience as farmers or farm wives and their relationships to the land and to their families; we just don’t often hear those stories because farming is such a traditionally masculine institution.

Women’s ownership of farmland is on the rise, however, and the owning and transferring property are sources of power, particularly economic and decision-making power (Shortfall 7). The number of women farm operators (who actively work the farm) tripled between 1978 and 2007, accounting for 14 percent of farms in the U.S. (Hoppe and Korb, 1). While the increase in women’s participation is encouraging, this percentage accounts for women working on farms, not necessarily owning them. Locating statistics on WFOs like the participants in my research is not so straightforward. The number of women in the U.S. who own farmland but do not necessarily work it themselves (instead they lease it to tenants) is not being collected, according to Jean C. Eells and Jessica Soulis (“The Overlooked Landowner,” 3). These researchers remark that the absence of these national figures is indicative of how women in agriculture are alienated by “the inappropriate design of survey instruments to measure and document their rightful place as decision-makers” (5). In Iowa, however, a survey conducted by the Iowa State University Extension office clearly finds that women own or co-own 47 percent of farms in that state (Duffy and Johannes, 18). Little research has been conducted about these women as farmland owners, rather than as farm wives. The case study of Annette in this article attempts to help remedy that oversight.


Annette’s case study is part of a larger project that included six participants in central and western Iowa, each of whom I interviewed three times over a one-year period. Each interview lasted approximately one hour, and I transcribed the recorded audio files. I initially met these women farmland owners at “Learning Circle” events in various small towns in Iowa. As I introduced myself to women at these events, I simply asked them if they would share their stories with me about how they came to own their farms. The ones who agreed to be interviewed became my participants. Learning Circles are sponsored by Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN), a nonprofit organization for women in agriculture, which seeks to educate and empower women in farming to make stronger conservational decisions about their farmland. WFAN organizes these learning circles 1) to help WFOs learn to practice more sustainable agriculture, as opposed to the dominant industrial farming practices in the Midwest and 2) to overcome “communication barriers” they may find when making decisions in this male-dominated profession (WFAN.org).

As I began this series of interviews, analyzing the intersections of rhetorical agency and WFOs was my primary focus; however, a kindred friendship developed over time with these women, particularly Annette. This easy rapport became foundational to my methodological framework, as I learned much more than I would have predicted about my participants’ “lived experiences” (Pillow and Mayo, 160). Jeffrey T. Grabill points to these relationships one develops with participants as knowledge-producing opportunities (166), which was indeed the case, because my interviews led to a rich collection of qualitative data from Annette and the others that may have been difficult to obtain using other methods.

Introducing Annette

Annette, my WFO participant from western Iowa, inherited sole ownership of the family farm in 1994, when she was 68 years old, and only after her parents-in-law and husband had passed away. During her 44-year marriage to a farmer with whom she lived on his parents’ farm, Annette was intentionally left out of any management or financial decisions related to the family’s 160 acres by her parents-in-law and later by her husband. At the outset of this narrative, Annette explains how she had led a quiet life as a farmer’s wife with little access to decisions made on the farm. Then, when she was widowed unexpectedly, Annette suddenly became the farmland owner, responsible and yet unprepared for managing the farm. Annette states: "[My husband] and I were married in June 1950. He was an only child. And he brought me here as a bride…. [His parents] told me I wasn’t having anything to do with the business of the farm. And I never did. And they made all the decisions. And then [my husband] died; it was in my hands."

Annette was 84 years old when I interviewed her and had been a widow and sole property owner for 17 years. Although her personal circumstances are unique, Annette’s overall story exemplifies the situation of widowed farm wives from my larger research project as well as other survey accounts of Iowa WFOs (e.g., Druschke and Secchi 99; Wells and Eells 137; Eells and Soulis, “Do Women Farmland Owners Count” 121). WFAN has gathered extensive data on WFOs in Iowa and reports that typically these women are at least 65 years old and did not participate in the farm’s management decisions before they inherited the land (Eells and Soulis, “The Overlooked Landowner” 2). Likewise, the women in my research have spent much of their lives largely uninvolved in farming decisions because the men in the family handled the business of driving the machinery, planting, applying chemicals, harvesting, and selling the crops. Then, suddenly and sometimes without preparation, these farm wives find themselves occupying the multiple positions of farmland owner, manager, steward, and legal decision maker over their property after their husbands or other family members have died.

Annette is an example of someone with large agential shifts in her life, transitioning from a terrified farmer’s widow to a knowledgeable and confident property owner. This profound metamorphosis in identity over the years is a journey of rhetorical agency in many forms, as Annette gradually developed and demonstrated “a capacity to act” (Geisler 12) in the role of farmland owner.

Weaving Together Forms of Rhetorical Agency

From a feminist perspective, rhetorical agency is largely concerned with how women use available means of persuasion to effect change in our spheres of influence. Such a definition also recognizes that language is not the only way that women gain agency. Postmodern critiques have long since eradicated any straightforward understanding of an individual autonomously possessing rhetorical agency. Instead, agents are generally considered by theorists to be deconstructed subjects who react to external circumstances; any ownership of agency by these subjects is an antiquated myth. Jacob Rawlins and Greg Wilson efficiently summarize this conundrum: "On the one hand, the humanist tradition claims that we have direct control over our actions. On the other hand, cultural studies explanations claim that we are overdetermined by social forces that shape what choices are available to us, or what choices are even thinkable" (14).

Postmodern anxiety that questions the extent to which people can take autonomous action or make meaningful decisions is a set of academic questions that may never be satisfactorily answered. Yet in reality, each of us makes decisions (or decides to put them off) and takes actions (or doesn’t) continually. Sometimes we are even faced with very few options. We need a more flexible perspective on rhetorical agency that provides qualitative researchers with a sharper lens to analyze the varying circumstances that people encounter and respond to over time. Using multiple, situational models of rhetorical agency can help us account more accurately for the multiple roles and identities that we and our research participants inhabit, particularly in times of crisis-producing change when tragedy or opportunity disrupts the vicissitudes of daily life and resilience is demanded. Therefore, I propose that we think of rhetorical agency both diachronically and synchronically. A diachronic view accounts for rhetorical agency over a longer period of time and across the evolving identities and myriad changes that fill our lives. A synchronic view accounts kairotically for rhetorical agency in the context of single situations. Applying a DS framework of rhetorical agency to analyze participants’ narratives keeps us from having to choose one single definition of rhetorical agency or concoct a one-size-fits-all model. This approach also allows us to recognize the potential for rhetorical agency in almost any situation but especially in situations when resilience is key to understanding how our participants respond to challenging events and adversity.

A Diachronic-Synchronic (DS) Model of Rhetorical Agency

In this section, I forward a Diachronic-Synchronic (DS) model of rhetorical agency that acknowledges how agency emerges differently and intermittently throughout a woman’s life. The diachronic view of rhetorical agency forwarded here is largely influenced by past work with feminist rhetorical resilience. Resilience, defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (m-w.com). Resilience often refers to individual accomplishment in the face of adversity; however, as the editors of Feminist Rhetorical Resilience note, resilience is actually relational instead of individual, and exists within a network of relationships, rather than as one lone person struggling and succeeding against the odds (Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady 7). As these authors explain, feminist rhetorical resilience is “rhetorical action within pernicious circumstances” that “begins from a place of struggle and desire” (8). It thus is important to note that it also begins in a marginalized space: “Against the assumption that rhetorical agency is the province of those who can marshal resources and have access to forums for public action, resilience allows us to focus on those who have neither available resources nor taken-for-granted access” (Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady 7). In synthesizing these ideas, Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady write, “Resilience as feminist rhetorical agency is thus a relational dynamic, responsive in and to contexts, creating and animating capacities and possibilities (7-8). In short, these authors suggest a diachronic form of rhetorical agency “that continually recreates possibility” through relationship building (8). This is both a strategy for survival and a principle for living with long-term hope.

In addition to resilience, emergence is another influential aspect of diachronic rhetorical agency important to a DS model, namely the study of how an actor changes and is changed longitudinally through discourse. Marilyn Cooper argues that rhetorical agency is an “emergent property,” not a possession in the sense that one “has” agency; rather, it is attached to an individual’s personal history, development, and disposition. Cooper resists postmodern conceptions of rhetorical agency, arguing that postmodernism has resulted in “fragmented” subjects “incapable of coherent intentions or actions” (423). Instead, she proposes abandoning the subject/object dichotomy and turns to Latour’s more nonmodern understanding of the “actor” as part of a collective (424). For Cooper, rhetorical agency is an “emergent property” of an actor, or agent (421). Drawing on complex systems theory and neuroscience, Cooper states that agency works through us with our every interaction because it is already part of us, as we are complex systems: ". . . individual agents are determinate [with their own goals] but not determined, in an ongoing becoming driven by the interactions among the components of their nervous system and by their interaction with the surround. They change themselves through these interactions and at the same time instigate changes in others with whom they interact" (428). This “ongoing becoming” is a lifelong process of constant change based on interactions and discourse with others.

Many rhetors, of course, must be authorized into discourses through which change can occur. If a person is beginning her journey of resilient rhetorical action in marginalized circumstances, access to a discourse may not exist, which Annette’s narrative will help demonstrate. Diachronic rhetorical agency may not be possible for many unless individuals take advantage of opportune moments to access and utilize authorized discourses. As Annette’s story reveals, these moments vary in kind and situation throughout a woman’s life. Therefore, in order to build a fuller model of rhetorical agency, I propose that we add a synchronic dimension to studies of diachronic agency. In using a DS model of rhetorical agency, we particularly need to zoom in on the individual, temporal moments of rhetorical agency that occur for a rhetor when the authorization and enactment of discourse is made possible.

To consider the synchronic dimensions of rhetorical agency, I suggest that in addition to thinking of resilience and emergence in relation to agency, we also consider how rhetorical agency is kairotic, kinetic, resistant, and deliberative. In terms of kairos, I turn to Herndl and Licona, who argue that rhetorical agency is a kairotic, social, networked location into which rhetors can step temporarily: “The rhetorical performance that enacts agency is a form of kairos, that is, social subjects realizing the possibilities for action presented by the conjuncture of a network of social relations” (135). Additionally, Herndl and Licona state that these social relations are located along a continuum of authority and agency with subjects occupying “possiblities to effect change,” depending on their position within the rhetorical context (135). Kairos, then, is important as it helps us attend to how rhetors access discourse and create possibilities for change in various contexts. A rhetor who begins her narrative of rhetorical agency in a marginalized space needs a location in which to step where the potential for even small change can be possible. Thinking of rhetorical agency as being constituted by key temporal places or kairotic locations provides the starting point for identifying such key moments throughout a woman’s life.

Such studies, however, must also consider how kinetics and resistance come into play. As Carolyn Miller argues, rhetorical agency is dependent on a speaker communicating with a recognized audience: “We understand agency as an attribution made by another agent, that is, by an entity to whom we are willing to attribute agency” (150). In her analysis of hypothetical, automated computer assessment tool for grading students’ speeches, for instance, Miller demonstrates that rhetorical agency is found in the “kinetic energy” between a speaker and her audience; these two groups must recognize one another as authorized members of that discourse for the rhetor’s message to have any impact (147). For Miller, this kinetic energy is a temporal attribution shared between the agent and her audience in the moment of a rhetorical performance (147). Once that shared moment passes, rhetorical agency as energy dissipates like ether. If we want to recoup how women gain rhetorical agency throughout their lives, then, we have to zoom in those specific moments in which kinetic energy arises from their engagement with and acknowledgment by certain audiences.

We also need to pay close attention to the role that resistance plays in rhetorical agency. This is especially important in that for many women, resistance entails “disrupt[ing] the disciplinary rhetorics” that have traditionally been the cultural norm (99). This resistance might begin as simply as the occupation of a pre-existing subject position; for example, Amy Koerber’s research demonstrates how a mother breastfeeding in public occupies a familiar subject position that is antithetical to traditional public conceptions of female modesty (96). As Koerber’s research shows, the power of resistance is often unpredictable (96). But when it comes to women’s lives, such unpredictability that emerges as they resist cultural conventions is often needed to disrupt and upset those conventions that have limited women’s choices and opportunities to effect positive change.

Lastly, in order to fully account for the rhetorical agency that unfolds throughout a woman’s life, we have to pay close attention to those moments when rhetors create perturbations in their immediate situations through deliberate enactions. Returning again to Cooper’s work, “organisms create meanings through acting into the world and changing their structure in response to the perceived consequences of their actions” (426). The “perturbations” between an actor and her audience occur within deliberative discourse, as one responds to the other. Cooper emphasizes, in fact, that the democratic exchange of ideas is dependent on the responsibility of the rhetor engaged in discourse “to be open and responsive to the meanings of others” (443). When studying how rhetorical agency comes about in women’s lives, then, we need to zoom in on the specific occasions in which women respond to others in ways that open up possibilities for change (Cooper 426).

To help synthesize the DS model for which I have been advocating, I offer Table 1 below. This model can be useful for studying how rhetorical agency emerges throughout the lifetime of any single person. But to showcase its potential for feminist rhetorical studies, I turn back to Annette and her life story. As you will see, applying a DS model to a participant’s narrative demonstrates how varying forms of rhetorical agency provide a useful structure to clarify the rhetor’s different opportunities to improve her circumstances, both at particular moments and over time.

Table 1: Diachronic and Synchronic Model of Rhetorical Agency: This table summarizes the combined theories of rhetorical agency that represent my model of diachronic and synchronic rhetorical agency.

Annette’s Story: Early History

Eighty-four years old during the time of our three interviews, Annette is the oldest of my WFO participants. She is charming and gentle and full of stories of her life on the farm over the past sixty years. She keeps a neat house filled with photographs and country décor. Our first two interviews occurred in Annette’s kitchen, where my initial interview questions (listed in the appendix) spawned in-depth conversations regarding marriage, in-laws, financial catastrophe, the death of a spouse, farm conservation, and general survival. At our first interview we had coffee, and at our second, Annette stood at the counter preparing lunch for us while I asked her questions. For our third interview, we met at a restaurant in Harlan, a busy little town of shopping, friends, and medical appointments for Annette.

Annette had known her husband since they were children at school.  They married in 1950 in their early twenties, and Annette moved to the family farm outside of Persia, Iowa, with her husband and his parents, who had purchased the property six years earlier. Annette discovered quickly that her husband’s parents held the authority regarding management of the farm, as they told her explicitly and repeatedly over the years that she would not be included in farming decisions. Annette states, “They told me I wasn’t having anything to do with the business of the farm. And I never did.”  When I asked her the reason, Annette did not have a logical answer:

Interviewer: Do you have any idea why? Was it because you are a woman? Or you are not a blood relative? Or…
Annette: I just think they didn’t want to share this kind of knowledge. And why, I can’t give you an answer to that. 

Annette’s father-in-law died in 1960, while her mother-in-law remained on the farm until she went into a nursing home in 1976. Annette characterized the relationship with her mother-in-law as “difficult,” explaining that her husband’s mother doted on her only child with “a selfish love.” Annette added that she and her mother-in-law experienced perpetual conflicts the entire 26 years that they lived together on the farm.

Annette: You know, you don’t really know anyone until…
Interviewer: You live with them?
Annette: 24 – 7.

Annette’s mildly sardonic sense of humor about her mother-in-law is overcast with painful memories of financial catastrophe due to her own ignorance about farm management and the family’s lack of estate planning, as she and her husband were faced with her mother-in-law’s nursing home fees. Eventually, the rising costs of the nursing home became too much for Annette and her husband to pay through farming. She states, “The nursing home and everything, it got beyond us.” Annette’s husband could not afford to spend his time working the farm, as he and Annette needed additional income to pay for his mother’s nursing home expenses. Consequently, when they were 60 years old, Annette became a teacher’s aide at a local school, and her husband became the school bus driver. Meanwhile, he decided to cash rent their farmland to a tenant farmer, who has farmed the land ever since. Cash rent is a financial agreement between the farm property owner and another farmer, who leases acres from the farmland owner for an agreed-upon amount, usually on an annual basis. The farmland owner receives a rent payment, and the leasing farmer becomes responsible for the physical labor of planting and harvesting crops on the land for potential profit.

In the mean time, Annette’s own mother had died in 1979 and left her farm to Annette and her brother. When the siblings sold the farm, Annette placed her portion of the proceeds in a bank account, at the time telling her husband, “Now, we are not going to touch this. We are going to save this ‘til we’re old.” However, the nursing home confiscated Annette’s inheritance, too. She states, “It stayed there, just in a savings account because I didn’t know anything about money. Then when we got in all this trouble, they [the nursing home] took it.” Eventually, an attorney helped Annette and her husband arrange an agreement to pay the nursing home, a debt that took another five years to settle.

Rhetorical agency requires at least a modicum of access to the discourse within a particular set of circumstances. At this point in her narrative, however, Annette lacked knowledge of and, therefore, access to the discourse of financial planning to improve her economic plight. Annette’s attempt to protect her mother’s inheritance through a savings account at her local bank was naïve. Rhetorical agency lay completely with the legal and banking regulations of corporate debt collection that can ruin families with ailing parents. Annette had very little control over these events because she had virtually no education about asset protection and had never been afforded participation in the discourse surrounding the farm’s financial management. Additionally, while Annette’s family managed and worked the farm for several decades, they were also uninformed about financial planning. Between the mother-in-law’s strong opinions about Annette’s role on the farm, the life-long acquiescence of Annette’s husband, her own meek personality, and her ideological ties of loyalty to her husband and his family, Annette had little opportunity to make decisions about the farm or her financial welfare. At this stage she thoroughly exemplified Sachs’s “invisible farmer” designation, a farmer’s wife, constrained by her lack of training and information (114).

As a result of these circumstances, moments of rhetorical agency are scarce in this section of Annette’s story. Synchronic agential moments in the form of kairotic opportunities for action, rhetorical performance, resistance, or perturbations between rhetors to impact change largely do not exist yet for Annette. On the other hand, diachronic rhetorical agency is present, as Annette demonstrates resilience. “I have always had strong faith, and it has kept me strong. I’ve overcome my obstacles,” Annette states through some tears. In her own mind she has made sense of the adversity in her life, insisting that it has given her life meaning and purpose. Again, Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady state, “Resilience is rhetorical action within pernicious circumstances” (8). Annette’s primary goal has always been to protect the farm and keep her family intact. Her actions of long-suffering patience with her mother-in-law and perseverance in paying off the nursing home debt, a financial hardship that lasted five years after her mother-in-law’s death, illustrate diachronic rhetorical agency in the form of resilience.

Then, without warning, Annette suddenly inherited the farm. In 1994, six months after the nursing home debt was paid off, Annette’s husband was killed in a tractor accident while filling an eroding hole in a hilly field after a rainstorm. At 66 years old, Annette had gained legal access to the discourse of the farm and yet was wholly unprepared to step into her husband’s role as the decision maker. She was emotionally paralyzed and frightened to be on her own:

Annette: You can be, like our situation, you can be here in one minute and be gone the next. And then you know you’ve got a lot of things to go through.
Interviewer: I just can’t even imagine the shock.
Annette:  Yeah, it’s a shock. I remember how scared I was. Golly, I pulled the shades and locked all the doors. I was so scared, you know.
Interviewer:  You mean, being alone?
Annette:  Um hmm, at first. Then I finally said, “Well, Annette, you can’t live like this.”

Not only had Annette unexpectedly become a widow, but also she was faced with a tidal wave of responsibilities and an enormous knowledge deficit about farm management, financial planning, conservation practices, and even the discourse to begin making those kinds of decisions as the new property owner. So, here Annette stood poised at this newly opened door as the legal, authorized heir to the farm, even while she lacked the knowledge, rhetorical capacity, confidence, and identity to step into this ownership role.

Moments of Rhetorical Agency

At this moment in Annette’s narrative, rhetorical agency more evidently enters the scene. Previously, Annette’s parents-in-law, husband, and financial constraints determined most of her decisions. Now that everyone else had died, eventually Annette made a choice to unlock her door and begin learning how to manage her farm. This small step provides a window for the model of diachronic and synchronic rhetorical agency to intersect with Annette’s story. Diachronically, Annette had always shown resilience through difficult relationships and trying financial circumstances. However, now she would face an unknown future alone and unsure what to do next. Annette needed access to begin participating in the farming discourse, which is how the synchronic part of the DS model becomes useful: specifically, rhetorical agency as kairotic location. We may normally think of kairos in relation with positive timely events, not tragic ones. Yet widowhood did represent a kairotic moment for Annette because it propelled her into the location of farm ownership, with an accompanying network of farming professionals in her community to whom Annette now had access and who would help her learn the business. This was a tentative step at first—Annette had gained legal authority through inheritance to govern her farm but very little agency to make educated decisions. This is also why using a model containing various forms of rhetorical agency provides an apt framework to illustrate the emergent and unfolding particular form of agency at work.

While we begin with rhetorical agency as kairotic location, as the story proceeds, diachronic rhetorical agency will become more visible, especially as we zoom in on the synchronic dimensions of Annette’s changing circumstances. Rhetorical agency as kinetic energy is more helpful to weave into the next scene of Annette’s narrative, when she becomes an authorized contributor to the farming discourse. Rhetorical agency as resistance to normalizing discourse will become more useful in subsequent scenes as Annette learns more about farming and develops opinions about conservation practices to protect her soil. Rhetorical agency as deliberative discourse will help conclude Annette’s narrative, when we see her firmly in charge as she makes democratic decisions with her family about the farm’s future. Diachronically, resilience is woven through all of these forms of rhetorical agency. Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady develop the concept of resilience as “communal, relational, and social” (5), which Annette exemplifies as she builds positive relationships within the community to improve the farm. The rhetorical action to forge ahead despite her beginning fears and ignorance about farm management eventually alters Annette’s identity and shapes her own farming legacy.

For Annette as a new WFO, the beginning of rhetorical agency was deciding she couldn’t “live like this.” Instead of isolating herself in her house, Annette began seeking counsel as she learned to manage her farm. She stepped into the network of discourse with farming professionals, people with whom her husband had worked previously, and took their advice. She started with an attorney: “I knew a man that I thought was trustworthy, a lawyer. So, then I went to him.” Annette slowly began collecting a network of advisers to help her with her first objective: shoring up the farm as a protected asset and investment. As a result, in 1995, for the first time in the fifty-five years that the farm had been in the family, Annette worked with an attorney, a banker, the conservation office, her daughters, and her tenant to protect the farm financially. The farm was placed into a trust with Annette and her daughters as beneficiaries in order to safeguard the property as an asset that would not be confiscated so easily by potential creditors such as nursing homes, should Annette ever find herself in one. Using any kind of legal agreement was new to Annette: “After [my husband] died, and then I began to learn about investments, and we have a trust. I didn’t know what a trust was. So, we’ve got everything up to snuff. For the girls.” That legal document remains Annette’s most important consideration as property owner. Listening to Annette’s explanation of trust documents, I couldn’t help but comment:

Interviewer: Okay. So, knowledge is power, right?
Annette: Right.
Interviewer: Yeah. What an education.
Annette: Yeah. I tell myself, I’m like Virginia Slim Cigarettes. Their slogan used to be, “I’ve come a long ways, baby.”

In analyzing Annette’s authorization and transition into farming discourse, synchronic moments of rhetorical agency become more visible as we pay close attention to how agency emerges for Annette throughout the next days and months of her life. Kairotic location became even more important for Annette as she became firmly entrenched in the network of farm management. As Annette began to form strong networks, she began to better understand legal documents and gain knowledge and stronger control over the future of her farm; the kinetic energy involved in such transactions also is apparent. When Annette became the legal heir to her family farm, she instantly became a recognized participant by the attorney, banker, and other advisers with whom she communicated. As she articulated her need for the farm’s financial protection, Annette’s audience responded, and the temporal energy of these rhetorical performances produced important education, decisions, and relief for Annette as she created legal protection for her farm and her daughters’ financial future. Overall, these varying, temporal opportunities for rhetorical action represent synchronic moments of rhetorical agency in the form of kairotic location and the kinetic energy of discourse.

After creating a trust to preserve the farm’s financial assets, Annette’s second objective was to protect the soil from further erosion on her 160 hilly acres. In the previous five decades of the family’s ownership, no one had ever undertaken conservation measures for the farm. Western Iowa is located in the steep Loess Hills, and a standard conservation practice is to install terraces, or large “earth embankments” across fields that stair-step up the hills of farmland to hold the soil in place (“Building a Culture of Conservation,” 2). Annette worked with the local Natural Resources Conservation office (NRCS) to help with the funding to build terraces on her farm. She explained that the NRCS program would pay for half of the installation cost if Annette paid the rest. “You don’t have to stand the whole thing,” Annette states knowledgeably. Over the first few years after her husband died, Annette installed as many terraces on her land as she could afford, which turned out to be five or six, she recalls: “I put in the really important ones. And R. [the conservation officer] wanted me to go a little bit more, and I said, “’R., I’ve got to live, too. I can’t put all my money in terraces.’” Resilience becomes an increasingly dominant part of Annette’s narrative, as she grows into a wiser and more opinionated farm owner who can confidently say “no” to the conservation officer. Feminist rhetorical resilience is based on cultivating relationships and is also “a process of rhetorically engaging with material circumstances and situational exigencies” (Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady 8). Annette is still constantly concerned about her farm’s financial condition and knows how many terraces she can afford to build without damaging this exigency.

Synchronic rhetorical agency in the form of resistance also becomes clear in Annette’s conservation decisions for her farm. By installing even a modest number of terraces on her farmland, Annette occupied a resistant subject position to her family and their legacy of eschewing conservational practices. From the NRCS office perspective, Annette had finally brought her farm into modern conservational compliance, but for Annette, her actions had undone decades of the family’s decisions against involving the local government to participate in their farming decisions. The effects of Annette’s commitment to install terraces were unknown to her at the time; she just knew they were an expensive investment. She states that during rainstorms sometimes, she can still see soil washing down the slopes, but she is satisfied with the completed terrace work and is grateful to the community of advisers, who helped her step out of that old disciplinary grid of her predecessors: “I have to say, these past sixteen years I have been put with…people to my knowledge have been very honest and very trustworthy and led me in the right direction.”

As time has passed, Annette has changed substantially from the identity of an “invisible farm wife” to a confident and educated farm owner and manager. Part of this confidence not only stems from here resilience and resistance, as already discussed, but also through her deliberate actions taken in response to others. This final excerpt of Annette’s narrative exemplifies synchronic rhetorical agency as deliberative discourse. During our last conversation, Annette stated firmly that every farming decision she makes is based on talking out the issues with her most trusted advisers, her two daughters and long-time tenant farmer who works the farm. Annette’s daughters both live in the Council Bluffs area, only about twenty-five minutes away from their mother. When important issues arise regarding the farm, such as decisions about conservation practices, Annette schedules a meeting with her daughters and the tenant farmer, to discuss the issue and come to a decision that each of them has contributed to making. Sometimes they all go together to talk to the NRCS representative, for example. These meetings and spirit of democracy are vital to Annette:

Annette: I won’t have any other way. I mean, and that’s the same way with the girls. They never really say anything, but if I have a question, or if I have to go to the lawyer, or the conservation office, or wherever I go, they sit there, and they listen to my conversation with the person I’m getting advice from. They don’t say, “Mom, you’ve got to do this or that,” or, “No, you can’t do this or that.” But I just want them to know what I’m doing and why. And then I tell them, “When you go home, you make sure you tell your husbands what we’ve discussed.” I say, “I want them to know.”
Interviewer: Okay. Why is that so important?
Annette: Because I never knew nothing.

That last statement, tinged with suppressed anger, is the only moment I encountered a flash of resentment from Annette about her family from the past. However, now that she easily inhabits the identity of farmland owner with its responsibilities and decisions, she realizes how much she hated being excluded from conversations about the farm for most of her life. Annette states, “I’ve had to learn that…you’ve got to stand up for yourself, what you want and what you don’t want. And you’ve got to talk about it. And each party has got to understand how you feel, and I’ve got to understand how they feel.” Here again, as Annette realizes how important listening and responding to others is through deliberative discourse, resilience through relationships remains evident in Annette’s personality and character as well as in her vitality and vehemence about decision making for her farm.


In this brief case study, I have attempted to demonstrate the various roles that emergence, resilience, kairotic location, kinetic energy, resistance, and deliberative discourse have played in the transformation of Annette’s life. Resilience especially played an important factor.  Annette first inherited the farm as a frightened widow and locked herself in her house. After her husband’s death, Annette could have decided simply to sell the farm and move to town, closer to her friends and weekly appointments. She chose instead to continue the family’s farming legacy and improve on it along the way. Over time Annette’s resilience led to substantial changes in her identity and her farm, especially due to her resistance in some cases as well as her willingness to participate in strong networks and take advantage of the kinetic energy and democratic engagement that those networks afforded. Such resilience and emergence of agency in Annette’s life is emblematic in many farming narratives. In farming communities, for example, news agencies report regularly of neighbors rallying together to bring in the harvest when a neighbor has been injured, is ill, or has passed away (e.g., Chen; Mills; Morrice; and Swearingen). Farming communities are known for their resilience in their risky profession, where so much depends not only on weather and resources but also relationships among farmers built over long years of helping one another bring in the crops.

In this article, I have tried offered a diachronic-synchronic model of rhetorical agency that can help identify how such agency emerges in the life of rural farmers. In Annette’s case, this DS model helps us see how much Annette’s identity changed since she first inherited the farm in 1994 and gained experiences throughout her life to run that farm more responsibly and effectively than her predecessors. At the beginning Annette would have never been able to articulate her management strategy for the farm; she needed a kairotic location in which to simply begin her journey as farm owner. Focusing on resilience helped us understand how Annette continually pushed forward to learn the farming business instead of just selling the property. Focusing on kinetic energy helped clarify Annette’s becoming a recognized participant in the farming discourse. Focusing on resistance showed how Annette reversed the family’s decades-long neglect of conservation by installing terraces to help protect the farm’s soil from erosion. Finally, focusing on deliberative discourse demonstrated how Annette’s leadership as the farm’s owner and manager emerged through her discussions with various stakeholders and advisers.

My objective in building this DS model of rhetorical agency and applying it to Annette's case study is to provide a more compelling, multi-faceted analysis of rhetorical agency than any one model could provide. Annette’s story of transformation demonstrates that one’s life-long identity and agency is malleable and multiple. We need models of rhetorical agency to reflect that multiplicity of identities and agencies that alter with circumstances and time. Taken separately, theories of rhetorical agency can be limiting as analysis tools in qualitative research. However, taken together, the woven threads of these different theories into one model illustrate and even celebrate the in-flux, encompassing surround of rhetorical agency.

Appendix: Initial Interview Questions for WFOs

1. How long have you owned your farmland?  Tell me about your history with this property.

2. What kinds of crops do you grow?  What have you grown in the past?

3. Who conducts the day-to-day farming operations?  What is your relationship like with this person?  Can you give me an example?

4. What changes or improvements would you like to make to your land?  What factors affect your ability to make these improvements?

5. What sources of information do you use to help you make decisions about your farming?  In other words, where do you go for help?

6. To what extent do you make farming decisions based on how farming was done in the past by family members or other predecessors?

7. Ideally, what types of resources would help you to make the changes you envision to your farmland?

8. Are there ever conflicts between how you want to farm your land and how your tenant/family member conducts farming?  If so, would you describe the conflict?

9. If you could do anything with your land, what would it be?  Why?

10. What does your farm look like five years in the future? Ten? Twenty?  What would you like your legacy to be regarding your farm? 

Image Credit: Greg Wilson

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