After decades of undercounting women and the important role they fulfill as farmers, the USDA’s Census of Agriculture has expanded their definition of “farmer”to include them in their own right, putting a spotlight on these underappreciated but essential members of the agriculture community, nearly half of which, specialize in raising livestock.
When it comes to women who raise animals for Niman Ranch, they are gifted multi-taskers who work hard alongside their husbands and other family members, are natural problem solvers, sometimes do double duty by also having a day job that helps support their family, and they do it all while making it look easy.
In fact, Julia Groenenboom, a farmer from Southeastern Iowa, says that one of the things she enjoys most about farming is the fact that no two days are exactly the same: “I enjoy the variety that each day brings. Tasks may include grinding and unloading feed, operating and fixing machinery, breeding and farrowing. On top of that, I get to be outdoors enjoying sunsets, the changing of seasons, and all of creation up close and personal. I can experience the new life of a piglet and ensure that animal is well cared for through all stages of its life. Being part of Niman Ranch allows me to work in an environment that both the animals and I love.”
Julia adds that she is inspired to farm because of the demands farming makes on a person, and because of the challenges inherent in it. Farming encourages a lifelong commitment to learning.
Katie Geisert of Eastern Missouri, who farms with her husband, Todd, son Ben, and daughter, Lexi, says that juggling everything—wife, mother, farmer—was challenging when her children were young, but she found a way to do it all. “Our lives revolved around the farm. Meals were prepared and served between feedings, bailing and everything else that was going on. We planned family events at certain times so that livestock could be taken care of.” Such an expert at multi-tasking, Katie even found coveralls that would fit over dress clothes so she wouldn’t be late for anything!
It seems that finding appropriate work clothes for women is indeed a challenge. “My biggest gripe is finding weather-appropriate work clothing that is made for a woman,” says Kirsten Eckerman, who farms with her husband, Brad, and kids, David and Ashlynn in Southern Wisconsin, “Women’s lines of working clothing aren’t as insulated or as high quality as men’s are. Maternity work clothing is virtually non-existent, and boots—don’t get me started on boots.”
For Laura Wahl, of Wahl Grazing, LLC, which she owns with her parents, Tony and Connie Wahl in Northwestern, Oregon, what inspires her most about ranching is sharing it with the next generation, “Nothing makes ranching seem more worthwhile than when you have a niece or a nephew along to teach things to and share the blessing of working outdoors and with animals.” Something unique to women in agriculture that Laura especially appreciates is the ability to have a career while simultaneously being able to spend time with family. A third-generation farmer, Laura’s grandmothers on both sides, as well as her mother, all raised sheep before her. The legacy she inherited from them, even when covered in dirt after a long day of work, is something she truly loves.
Another thread that runs deep for each of these women farmers is the connection to nature they feel. Penny Janousek, of Northeast Nebraska, says it best when she thinks of seasonal nuances, “The smell of soil in the spring and fresh cut alfalfa in summer,” as well as seeing “a new baby calf standing for the first time.”
And while no one doubts the amount of hard work and challenges all farmers face, there are some issues specific to women farmers that their male counterparts generally don’t have to deal with. For example, Kirsten Eckerman recalls how often people, both men and women, direct questions about their farm to her husband Brad instead of to her, assuming that he is the farmer and she is only the farmers wife. “In one instance, a man stood in between Brad and me, turned his back to me and proceed to talk only to Brad about the farm. When he asked Brad a question about an area I typically tend to, Brand said ‘Well, she actually handles all of that,’ and the man literally turned my way and said, ‘Um, yeah, right.’ People in general are surprised to learn about all of my responsibilities and partnership on the farm. I am a lucky woman to have a husband who acknowledges my work, sees me as a true partner, and advocates for my equality in such situations.”
When asked about what advice Kirsten would give her daughter if farming becomes her chosen career path, the answer is as simple as it is direct: “Work hard. Be true to yourself and your values. See things from another’s point of view and keep your next move to yourself. Being a female in a man’s world requires you to work smarter and harder.” Smarter and harder is second nature to all of these women, and farming in this country is better off because of them.