Nicole DeVito, co-owner of Aravaipa Creekside Growers in Dudleyville, Arizona, says she has had a hard time finding work pants and boots that fit her well. “I do have a pair of women’s Carhartts, but I only wear them if I’m going to crawl around in the mud after a monsoon,” says DeVito. “The crotch is so low that I walk like I’m wearing a diaper, and they pinch my stomach when I bend.” Instead of Carhartts, DeVito often wears worn-out jeans or hiking pants. In place of kneepads, she drags a piece of cardboard along the vegetable rows for kneeling.
Sarah Calhoun, founder of Red Ants Pants, is all too familiar with these circumstances. When she was growing up on a farm in Connecticut, Calhoun also struggled to find the right workwear. She often wore her dad’s hand-me-downs, made alterations, and resorted to fixing holes in her pants with duct tape. After college, she worked for Outward Bound and on trail crews in the backcountry, and realized that other women shared her frustration with the lack of workwear designed for women’s bodies. In fact, the trail crews were filled with women wearing men’s pants or fashioning their own work clothes just to be able to do their jobs.
Calhoun approached several clothing companies, urging them to develop a women’s workwear line, but to no avail. Eventually, she began dreaming of her own company. “I was 25 and super naive,” she recalls, laughing. “I thought: ‘how hard can that be?’”
After developing a business plan for a women’s workwear company, she approached a banker for a business loan. But after reading Calhoun’s business plan, he questioned the need for the product. “There are already men’s Carhartts,” he told her.
Trying to sell her idea to funding sources was one thing, but Calhoun says the harder part of creating a line of women’s workwear was her lack of experience in business and the apparel industry. She admits to a steep learning curve in areas such as website development, brand marketing, textile importing, and pattern making.
Despite these challenges, Red Ants Pants was born in 2006. Based in the tiny Montana town of White Sulphur Springs, it is one of only a handful of companies in the business—including Carhartts, Duluth Trading Company, and Rosies Workwear for Women. With only eight employees, Calhoun says Red Ants Pants is still a small business. “We have been growing steadily and are focusing on being better, not bigger,” she explains.
Calhoun says her product stands out, in part because the very same women who rely on Red Ants Pants on farms and trail crews have a hand in their design. The pants are designed with a focus on functionality and fit, and Calhoun says they naturally end up being flattering for women’s bodies.
A pair of Red Ants Pants retails for $139, a price point that some farmers might not be able to meet. But the cost reflects a product made entirely in the U.S. and designed for heavy use. Each pair of pants is made with a 12 oz. cotton canvas fabric, double knees, double seat, and gusseted crotch. “Depending on the work being done, the pants can easily last up to three years,” says Calhoun.
As the number of women working in agriculture has surged—more than doubling between 1982 and 2007—Calhoun’s products are becoming even more essential. Today there are over a million women farming around the country—approximately 30 percent of the nation’s farmers. In 2012, women principal farm operators sold $12.9 billion in agricultural products and operated 62.7 million acres of farmland.
“Women are drawn to this work for a number of reasons,” says Audra Mulkern, the founder and photographer behind Female Farmer Project. “Many love the independence and autonomy the work provides. But they’re also drawn to the nurturing aspect of feeding their families and their communities.”
While documenting the rise of these growers Mulkern, has heard women farmers describe big challenges, including the balancing of farm and family, the isolation of rural life, and the necessity of off-farm jobs to provide a sustainable income stream. But the women she meets also often talk about their daily challenges—such as a lack of maternity workwear and work pants that fit the curves of a woman’s body. All of these challenges translate to daily frustrations and extra hurdles. And can also be seen as representing greater inequities between men and women in the agriculture sector.
For Calhoun, Red Ants Pants has become a vehicle for building community, leadership opportunities, and education for women working in nontraditional industries. The Red Ants Pants Foundation—Calhoun’s nonprofit arm—supports women’s leadership, working family farms and ranches, and rural communities. They host women’s roping competitions, multi-day chainsaw workshops, and various women’s leadership events.
Calhoun hopes that her pants can symbolizes self-reliance, work ethic, body confidence, and strength. “Women tell stories like, ‘I wore your pants into surgery because I felt stronger wearing them,” she says, “And that’s amazing that emotionally-charged empowerment can come through a product.”