A Young Woman’s Quest to Turn Her Love of Farming Into a Successful Business
On a farm named 7 Hills in a nook near Blooming Prairie live 30 cows, a donkey, a flock of laying hens, a man named Mike, a girl named Mariah and a woman named Michelle Miller. As a teenager, Michelle had dreamed of becoming a farmer. In 1998—the year Michelle turned 18—her grandmother helped her transform that aspiration into a reality.
Michelle had grown up on her family’s crop farm during the recession of the 1980s. From the time she was 11, Michelle picked rocks, drove the tractor and did chores alongside her twin sister, another sister and a brother.
The desire to farm began somewhat as a joke (since it was assumed that the farm would be saved for her brother). But in high school, Michelle found herself quitting sports and getting out of school early to help with field work. A crucial question began to surface: Why couldn’t a woman be a farmer?
“I always believed that women should be allowed to do what they want to do,” says Michelle’s grandmother, Barbara O’Connor, who has been deeply involved with WIFE (Women Involved in Farm Economics) for many years. “Back in 1986, WIFE sued the USDA for women’s rights to farm on their own, obtain loans and be in government programs,” adds Barbara. “We won. Michelle and her daughter, Mariah, are benefitting from our actions now.”
With that determined philosophy, Barbara loaned 18-year-old Michelle her first 40 acres to farm on her own. Michelle had the support of her family as she enrolled in an online distance learning program through Iowa State University, earned a degree in Professional Agriculture and joined the traditionally male-dominated farming industry.
“Michelle was determined,” recalls Barbara. “She was thoroughly capable of driving the big tractors.”
A FIRST CROP
The manual portion of Michelle’s first year farming on her own was similar to work she had done previously, but the business end of farming 40 acres—the paperwork and planning and selling of her crops—was now 18-year-old Michelle’s responsibility.
“All the manual work was the same but the paperwork was added,” she recalls. “I spent spring and fall in the tractor tilling the land. During the winter I completed paperwork such as income taxes, government paperwork and financial statements. I do all the planning for my fields, and I have always sold my crops myself.”
This meant long hours and financial risks uncommon for most young adults: “Our days in the field were planned around the rain and frost, and we usually worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m or later in the fall. It isn’t uncommon to work 80 hours a week during harvest. I try to sell a good portion [of her crops] on a forward contract though a local elevator or ethanol plant when the prices are profitable. I hold back some projected production just in case the crop is short. Sometimes we just plant and hope for good prices.”
A year after she began farming the 40 acres she rented from her grandmother, Michelle married Mike—an electrician by trade who grew up a mile north of Michelle’s grandparents’ farm.
“Mike didn’t do much on the farm for several years,” says Michelle, who stayed at the reins of farm management and in the seat of the tractor. “I was out in the field all hours. I did a lot; most farmers do.”
Women have always played an integral role in keeping a farm running, but they weren’t necessarily the owners. Society has typically viewed women as housewives or assistants to their husbands. Michelle broke that mold by assuming all the responsibilities of running the farm even after marriage.
It was a busy but adaptable role until Michelle became pregnant in her fifth year of farming at age 22, and time management became more complicated.
“You have this duty to your child, but you’re supposed to be farming,” explains Michelle. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job.”
As a result of their growing family, Michelle found herself spending less time on the tractor as Mike took over more of the manual labor so she could spend more time with her daughter, Mariah. She continued doing “the dirty work: bookkeeping” for her farm and took over bookkeeping for her father and brother who also farm their own land.
“It’s the same for any married farmer,” says Michelle. “If their family isn’t helping them, it doesn’t work. It’s not just your grandfather who farmed. Your grandmother farmed, too.”
Mariah is now 10 years old, active in 4H, picks rock, bales hay and owns her own Red Angus heifer with the assistance of a USDA Rural Youth Loan (a loan of up to $5,000 at 1.5% interest for youth farming projects).
“She just loves cattle,” says Michelle. “A few years ago I asked if she wanted to see the horse show, but she wanted to go to three local county fair beef shows instead.”
Each year, for the next five years, Mariah will breed her heifer, Miss Foxxy Valentine, and sell the calves to pay her loan payment. After five years, she will own the cow herself. In the meantime, Mariah is busy washing, blow drying and brushing Miss Foxxy Valentine in preparation for the Freeborn County Fair.
“She’s feisty,” says Mariah, who says cattle are just like big pets. “It’s scary to show cows at the fair, but I have a lot of fun.”
Mariah hopes to be a nurse or veterinarian when she grows up, but is quick to add that she also wants to farm and have a family.
HOLDING HER OWN
Over the last 15 years, Michelle has expanded the original 40 rented acres to 550 acres of soybeans and corn (95% of which goes to making ethanol), along with registered Charolais, Black Angus and some commercial cattle. She also raises and sells broiler chickens and Thanksgiving turkeys.
A lot has changed in farming over the last few decades—from the price of land and selling price of crops to the new technology available.
“We started using GPS Variable Rate Technology,” says Michelle. “It spreads fertilizer only where we need it so that we don’t waste resources. Everything is more computer-based now. We’ve had tractors that won’t move and we have to call someone from the John Deere dealership to have someone work on the computers in order to fix them.”
This past year has been difficult for farmers because of the extremely wet planting season. Insurance will provide for the acres unable to be planted at 7 Hills.
“It will cover rent and some expenses,” says Michelle, “but by no means do we make any money from it. Everything will be late and yields will be lower. We’re hoping for a late freeze.”
In spite of the challenges, Michelle loves the variability of farming, has no regrets and is thankful for her family’s assistance.
“I hope that other young farmers have family to help them. It’s nearly impossible otherwise,” says Michelle, who paid no attention to naysayers when she entered the field as a young, single woman. “Once I make a decision, I’m onboard for the duration. Some people call it stubbornness.”
HISTORY OF FEMALE FARMERS
Although the Agricultural Census (a federal census) has been taken in America since 1850, there was no option to include women as farm owners until 1978. Today, the census shows that women run 121 farms in Olmsted County as principal operators and owners.
Miss Ada M. Schultz (born September 29, 1894) is one of the only documented women to manage a farm in Olmsted County before the census began recording females. On weekdays, Miss Ada was governess to Charles W. Mayo’s children. She managed her family’s farm on weekends.
Typically, women farmers have greater variety than their male counterparts. While men tend to farm grain, oilseed and cattle, women are more likely to run an “other livestock” or “other crop” farm, such as a horse or hay farm.