A Growing Profession
By Trish Amundson
Area women are part of an expanding demographic in agriculture, proving it’s possible to succeed in a male-dominated field when you have hard-working stamina and a can-do attitude.
The U.S. has more female producers than ever, accounting for approximately 36% of all producers in the nation. Women are becoming more active and better recognized for their contributions in agriculture throughout the country. Here, four Southeastern Minnesota women share information about their unique journeys. Together, they play an integral role in changing the culture of farming for generations to come.
A FAMILY TRADITION
“I was raised and work on our family’s pig farm, and we also have beef cattle,” says Emily Beougher of rural Zumbrota, who began farming full-time at age 31. “After getting a business degree in college, I realized I would never be happy sitting in an office every day.”
Beougher has separate living quarters on her family’s multi-generation farm. “I’ve been farming with my dad for the past five years,” she says. “The ultimate goal is to take over the farm myself—I would love to keep it in the family.”
“My son inspires me to keep the farm going. It’s such a privilege to raise him here and a joy to watch him learn where his food comes from and see him want to help out with chores,” she says. Beougher takes satisfaction in raising a good product to help feed communities, staying physically active and working outside.
A LIFESTYLE CHANGE
Kelly Davidson didn’t grow up on a farm but was ready to “take the leap” at age 41. She and her husband, Don, moved to the Wykoff countryside 17 years ago. Her background comprised a few horticulture classes, a degree in office administration and a love for growing perennials. Davidson became a farmer, grower and owner of Prosper Valley Farm, which specializes in eggs, beef, perennials, baked and canned goods, birdhouse gourds, produce, fruit, herbs and cut flowers.
Each day, she takes care of chickens and eggs and then works in the vegetable and perennial gardens. Time is spent on paperwork, ordering supplies, baking, canning and shopping too. “There’s never a dull moment,” she says. “My customers keep me going.”
“I love growing big, beautiful flowers and delicious, healthy food,” continues Davidson. “And I love being outdoors with my animals every day and being my own boss. We eat well and never go hungry here on the farm.”
A DREAM AND DETERMINATION
Cindy Wolf is co-owner of O’Neill Family Farm in Rushford. Her career path could easily have changed on her first day of college, when an advisor told her that girls don’t go to vet school and that she should decide on a back-up plan. However, those words and lack of support drove her to work even harder to become a large animal veterinarian.
She and her husband have a grass-based farm, where they prioritize soil health and raise sheep and Angus cattle. “We lamb multiple times a year in order to have lambs ready to harvest throughout the year, and we calve in May,” she says. “Our motivation is to preserve our finite resources by being responsible, proactive resource stewards; we center our work around soil health and regeneration, as well as animal welfare and quality of life.”
Wolf enjoys watching her farm animals change as they grow, and she is humbled to play a part in ecosystem healing through improved water cycling and reduced water runoff and soil erosion. “I hope that setting a good example can help other women producers and future generations tackle the challenges that women face in agriculture and meat production,” she says, while expressing excitement about the passionate engagement of younger consumers and producers, as well as engagement with customers—one of the most gratifying aspects of her work.
A GENERATION THING
Pa Xiong was born in Michigan to parents from Laos who had farmed extensively before coming to the U.S. When the family arrived in Rochester, they could not afford farmland, but they were able to rent a plot to garden. Xiong gardens now with her parents, siblings and her own children and says that there is a special bond that her family shares through their common work. She says, “It is very soulful, therapeutic, peaceful and mindful.” She laughs about how happy her children are when working with her and enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
She explains that gardening is part of the legacy of her family. Now that her parents are aging, they are slowing down their work and reflecting back on their lives. She says, “My parents mean so much to me.”
OVERCOMING CHALLENGES, FORGING CONNECTIONS
Minnesota winters are a clear challenge in farming, in addition to long and unpredictable work hours. Davidson and Wolf agree it can be difficult to keep up as the years go by. “Food production and land stewardship are hard work,” says Wolf. “The smaller moments, like children’s delight at bottling lambs, collaborating with other producers and the memories we have created over the years motivate us on the coldest, darkest and busiest days.”
Beougher connects with others through ag groups on social media and attends pork trade shows. “I volunteer for Common Ground MN and help to promote women in ag and showcase how different farms operate,” she says. “As a single mother, I hope to inspire other women farmers by showing them it’s possible to run operations on your own.”
Davidson shares her knowledge by quizzing the grandkids on plants, vegetables, bugs and weeds. She is a board member of the Rochester Farmers Markets and member of Minnesota Grown and takes part in online webinars and networking. She is recognized with the Nursery Stock Grower Certificate and as a Cottage Food Producer. Davidson encourages others to never give up on their gardens and to “learn by doing.”
Through speaking engagements and leadership roles, Wolf meets with women in agriculture and the veterinary profession. “I am motivated to improve representation of women in agriculture so that younger generations have support and resource networks to lean on as they continue the work we will eventually leave behind,” she says. “I hope to continue contributing to these relationships and spaces to sustain and increase gender diversity and equity in agriculture.”
Xiong loves to share what she grows, especially with other moms, and she loves to help teach others how to use and enjoy what she gives them. She says, “I love building that relationship and connection, especially with the lower-income community and the immigrant community.” She loves to listen to their stories about food and gardening in their native countries. She gives food to Channel One and Community Food Response. Sharing food with others humbles her, and she hopes she’s setting a good example for her kids.
All four women bring renewed spirit to the field of agriculture as they generate food to help feed millions of people. Their voices are being heard, and their work is valued. With a tremendous sense of strength and gratitude, women in farming are not only growing—they are flourishing.
“There can be a lot of long, stressful days,” says Beougher. “But in the end, it’s worth it to make an honest living feeding the world.”
Highlights: Female Producers
• Of the nation’s 3.4 million producers, 1.2 million are female.
• Female producers are slightly younger and more likely to be a beginning farmer than are male producers.
• At least 56% of farms in the country have at least one female producer; 38% have a female primary producer, who makes primary farming decisions.
• Female producers account for $148 billion in agriculture sales, with $73 billion in crop sales and $75 billion in sales of livestock and livestock products.
• The number of female producers increased 27% from 2012 to 2017; the total number of U.S. producers increased 7%.
• Of all farms, 9% are run entirely by women.