Kicking Up Dust: Women are Changing the Face of Farming

Every industry has its stereotypes. Farming is no different. Just turn on your local country music radio station and you’ll hear song after song about farmer boys wooing ladies with their trucks and tractors. 

But the demographics of the farming industry are shifting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service says the number of men operating farms is on the decline, and women are playing an increasingly active role in the management of farms and ranches across the nation.

While statistics on paper may indicate that the number of female farmers has increased over the past few decades, generations of stories about those growing the food that fuels our nation clearly describe the pivotal and often under appreciated roles that women have played in the farming industry for centuries.

 Making a Name for Annie

When Annette “Annie” (Kohlhagen) Fleck was growing up in the 1950s, she dreamed of marrying a farmer—and she did. Annie and her husband faced many challenges and made many sacrifices, but Annie was determined to make it work.

“An ex-school teacher, Annie ran that farm like she had a grade book,” explains Amy Durand, AgStar Project Manager and Coordinator for Annie’s Project in Minnesota. Annie managed deadlines. She handled tax issues. She kept the farm business running and made decisions based on the detailed records she kept. She also dealt with the criticisms that any woman running a business might face, but she stuck to her guns. Annie was married to her farmer for 50 years, and in 1997, she died a wealthy woman. 

Annie’s daughter, Ruth Hambleton, followed in her mother’s agricultural footprints but did so by working for the University of Illinois Extension Office as a farm business management and marketing educator. When Ruth retired in 2009, she wanted to continue working to educate and inform female farmers, so she started Annie’s Project. Annie’s Project is a national organization with a mission to empower women in agriculture. 

“Annie’s Project focuses on connecting women through learning and networking,” says Amy. The women who are part of the group meet one night each week for six weeks. They learn about risk management and skill building through presentations and hands-on activities. “It’s very interactive and fun,” says Amy. “The women often learn as much from one another as they do from the speakers we bring in to present.”

Monica Schafer attended the six-week Annie’s Project session last winter. “Bringing women farmers together and creating environments where they can share their struggles and successes… that’s what Annie’s Project is all about,” says Amy. 

From P.E. to Pigs

Not every woman grows up dreaming of life on the farm. When Monica Haggerty started college at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, she was majoring in physical education and working at the local YMCA. Monica didn’t grow up on a farm, but when she met and married fifth-generation farmer Brandon Schafer, she married the farm life too. 

Established in 1886 and nestled in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota, Schafer Farms is a seven-generation family farm that specializes in beef and pork production. Not long after marrying, Monica and Brandon set off to start the sixth generation of Schafer farmers, and Monica wanted to be home to raise her children. “Farming lends itself well to raising a family,” Monica says. 

Instead of entering the workforce, Monica began helping out in various capacities around the farm. From hands-on work with cattle and pigs to administrative work in the office, Monica has become more and more involved throughout her marriage. “I’ve learned as I’ve gone,” she explains. “Having five generations behind us is a big driver. There is so much pride in that.”

“New Normal” for Farmers

The Schafers’ enthusiasm for farming and the animals they raise has been evident to their four children, especially their daughter Madi. Now a sophomore at South Dakota State University (SDSU), Maddie Schafer started showing cattle and pigs in 4-H in the first grade. “I was in early elementary school when I started to farrow and care for baby piglets,” Maddie says. As she got older, her desire to learn more about the industry grew. 

In ninth grade, Maddie had the opportunity to work with the Minnesota Pork Board as part of Oink Outings, which are pop-up booths around the state that connect the community with farmers and give them a look inside Minnesota pig farms. “I fell in love with the idea of being able to promote and share our story of agriculture,” Maddie says. 

Like Maddie, an increasing number of women are pursuing agricultural-related degrees in college, advocating for agriculture and the life of the farmer and taking on leadership roles in many agricultural organizations. They are also helping the matriarchs in the field to learn about the new technologies that can help increase the industry’s efficiencies and ultimately make them more money. 

The passion that grew out of Maddie’s experiences as a child that led her to choose both communications and agricultural leadership as her majors at SDSU. “I want to be able to have conversations with the consumers,” she says. “I want to bridge the gaps that exist between the farmers and their communities.” 

Beyond the Barns and the Books

Farming is much more than a career. “It’s a lifestyle,” Monica explains. “You don’t ‘go to work’ or ‘come home from work;’ work is your life.” And it’s a life she wouldn’t trade for any other career. 

Urban or rural, large or small, farming is a 24/7 job. Dedication is a prerequisite for this line of work. “There has been someone on our farm seven days a week since 1886,” says Monica. “Regardless of whether there is a wedding or a death or a vacation, the animals still need to be cared for.”

The Schafer kids knew this growing up, and they learned from it. “On Christmas, we would get up and do chores before we opened our presents,” Maddie explains. “All of us would help out so Dad wasn’t out working all day. As a child growing up on a farm, you learn patience, responsibility, dedication and commitment. Those are qualities I can pass down to my own children someday.”

 “The mornings when 5 a.m. came around a little early, I thought about the ways my family is supporting our community,” Maddie says. Putting food—healthy, sustainably-grown food—on the table of your neighbor seems like a pretty great motivator. “Farming isn’t just a way to make a living,” she says. “It’s a way to make
a life.”

Sarah Oslund is owner of Inspire Writing & Consulting,