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What is it like to be a female farmer?

In part 4 (and final) of our common questions series – I will attempt to answer a question that is unique to female farmers. “What is it like to be a female farmer?” It is an interesting question and one that I find to be difficult to answer. Mostly because it is the only type of farmer I know how to be, it is the only type of farmer I will ever be, and to me – it is simply life. I grew up in this life, I have wanted to be a farmer since I was six years old. Life as a female farmer, is just that: life. But there is not denying it, it is certainly a different lifestyle and career choice than many are accustomed to.

One does not have to look any further than the U.S.D.A. National Agricultural Statistics Services 2012 Census of Agriculture to see that women in agriculture are in the minority.

Women Farm Operators: 969,672 (30% of the total farm operators in the U.S.) 

Women Principle Operators: 288,264 (14% of the total principle farm operators in the U.S.) 

What is the difference between the two? It is actually hard to tell what the difference is one the ground and in the fields – however on paper, it means there are 288,264 women checked a box on their census that indicated they were the principle operator of the operation. If they did not check the box that indicated they are the principle operator or senior partner then they are tallied as women farm operators. Or at least that is my understanding of the difference between the two categories. I check the box that indicates I am the principle operator or senior partner. It is my profession, it is my job, it is my life. What makes me different from the other category? Likely nothing, it is simply how they filled out the survey. Either way you look at it, we are a minority. Especially when you consider farmers in general makeup roughly 1% of the U.S. population. Female farmers make up 0.3% of the U.S. population. Wow. It is no wonder people often ask “what is it like to be a female farmer?”.

Growing up I did not know anyone who was a female farmer – or at least anyone who identified as one. Growing up (and still to this day) my aunt spent considerable amount of time in the fields with us, however she also was a teacher and identified as such. I learned how to drive a tractor when I was 12 years old and have been doing it ever since. Prior to that we spent our days pulling wild rye and oats, picking rocks, hoeing in our shelter belt, and other odd jobs around the farm. Working on the farm during the summer and weekends was simply expected. Despite not knowing a single female farmer no one ever told me that I could not be a farmer, at least not because I was female. I consider myself lucky in that regard. Throughout both my careers (in corporate America and on the farm) no one has ever told me I could not accomplish my goals and/or ambitions.

Active discrimination of female farmers is however a real problem and has been actively addressed over the past several years by the USDA. I have never researched all of the details of the different cases but the fact that they occurred is incredibly discouraging and disappointing. I will provide the link to an NPR article and the USDA settlement period announcement. Unfortunately the discrimination did not simply end with women, it also extended to other minority farmers as well. My experience coming into farming in 2012 has been considerably different than the difficulties faced by female farmers in the 1980s and 90s. I have taken advantage of several Farm Service Agency Beginning and Minority Farmer loan opportunities. While I have the great benefit of taking over a long standing family farm, these loans provided the financial launching pad necessary to start my farming operation.

I have also been lucky to be fully embraced by the Montana Grain Growers Association and the National Association of Wheat Growers. While I have become the first Montana Grain Growers Association female President, the National Association of Wheat Growers has not had a female President since 1994 when Judy Olson of Washington became the first. That fact has not stopped several of my mentors from encouraging myself and several other females involved in the organization from pursuing the opportunity if we are able to. Even if I am not able to fit that opportunity into our family’s development and farming operations I will also be grateful for the encouragement to do so. I also had the benefit of watching Pam Johnson several years ago become the first female president of the National Corn Growers Association and was lucky enough to meet her at Commodity Classic in 2015.

I also have had the benefit of beginning my farming career as others created outlets to showcase female farmers. After Ram Trucks launched their epic Super Bowl Commercial Marji Guyler-Alaniz was inspired by the lack of female farmers represented. ** I will note that the one female farmer featured is a farmer from Montana. ** She created FarmHer to show the world the impact female farmers were having on the industry. I have been lucky enough to have Marji come visit our farm. I was her first pregnant female farmer when she visited in September of 2015. I have also been lucky enough to craft a relationship with another photographer and writer who has created the Female Farmer Project, Audra Gaines Mulkern. Audra also visited in 2015 during harvest. Both do an incredible job showcasing female farmers across the country. They have developed photo exhibits, articles, podcasts, and television shows about female farmers of all sizes and commodities scattered across the country.

For myself, all of these factors have combined to give me an incredibly positive experience and a unique time frame to establish myself as a successful female farmer.

For me, the greatest struggle I have as a female farmer has developed as my life and my roles have evolved. Being a mother is my greatest joy however it does not come without its struggles. I never planned to be a stay at home mom, not at any point in my life. I still do not consider myself a stay at home mom, however when you live in rural America and have two little boys who are 17 months a part and are under the age of 2 1/2, you do just that often. I still consider myself a farmer but because of limited childcare options I do spend more time raising our boys than I do in the field. We are lucky to have Grandparents near by and Travis’ mom will often watch the boys however that is not a full time option. Last summer we were also lucky enough to have one of our niece’s serve as our oldest’s baby sitter during the summer months. This allowed me to spend more time in the field while the baby spent time with my mother-in-law. I know this time will pass quickly and before we know it they will be in school or able to spend most of their days in the field with us but it is still a struggle. I struggle with accepting this temporary role a lot because despite the joys these two little boys bring me, I long to spend my days in the fields. The time in the house does allow to me expand my blog and write more so that has been a positive.

** This photo will always make me laugh. **

There are also always minor and isolated instances where individuals assume I am something different than I am. Often in Washington D.C. and even at leadership programs designed for producer leaders people assume that I am staff at a commodity organization, rarely does anyone automatically assume I am a farmer. It is an interesting assumption to me, since never would anyone assume a male was staff for an organization and not a producer in these settings. Hopefully over time those assumption will change. (To be clear there is nothing wrong with being staff for these organizations, some of the people I most admire are staff. It merely is an interesting dynamic I find myself in.)

In all honesty, despite the number of times I have been asked “what does it feel like to be a female farmer?” I still do not have a profound answer. It is simply life. It is my life. And for me, it is more than just the life I have created for myself and my family, it is a dream come true. I am one of the lucky few that gets to live their childhood dream, every single day. Despite the struggles, despite the obstacles because both are part of life no matter what you do, I consider myself lucky. Lucky to get to farm, lucky to have this opportunity that has been built by generations before me, and lucky to get to raise my family in the same place I was raised. I am also eternally grateful for everyone who has encouraged me along the way and for the opportunity to show my boys that even though your dreams might seem impossible, even though you may be a small minority, you can still achieve them.

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