On a recent trip to the sprawling Medicine Creek Farm in Finlayson, Minn., a farmer revved up a four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle to deliver water to thirsty sheep grazing nearby.
The farmer is a 37-year-old woman named Hannah Bernhardt. Every day or so, she makes sure her 50 sheep and some cattle rotate to fresh grass.
A small herd of pigs is fed organic grains.
Her uniform is a baseball cap, jeans and a long-sleeved plaid shirt. Tall with a slight frame, Bernhardt expertly opens the gates and leads her livestock to a new grazing spot.
Her husband, Jason, works in design a hundred miles away. Yet Bernhardt says people still think he’s the farmer.
“I don’t want to talk badly about the farm services agency, but they have historically served commodity farmers, and in that arena I’ve gotten the assumption that my husband is the farmer,” she said.
For example, his name will get put down on forms, instead of hers. Or when the pair are out shopping for used farm equipment, sellers will often try to talk about farming with him.
“He will tell people, Hannah is the farmer,” she said.
It’s an assumption that women in farming have endured for generations. Women have often worked alongside their husbands in farm operations. They’ve also helped secure health insurance and a second source of income to help keep farms in the black. Stories of women starting their work day by milking cows, then leaving for an off-farm job only to come home to more farm work, are common.
But those contributions rarely earned recognition.
“There were times that women couldn’t get loans from their banker. Or somebody wouldn’t sell them the seed. Or they go to an implement dealer and someone wouldn’t give it to them. And you still see that,” said Andrea Vaubel, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
But in 2017 – when the most recent data was collected – the United Stated Department of Agriculture started counting more than one name for the principal operator of a farm.
This change in how farmers are being counted has provided new and more accurate insight.
“The last ag census just came out, and there are 18,000 farms with primary female operators, or at least one female operator. That’s about 26 percent of all farms in Minnesota,” Vaubel said.
While still low comparatively, the change reflects a 65-percent increase in the number of women listed as a primary producer in Minnesota over the last five years. And advocates say numbers are starting to move the needle towards recognition.
That trend also extends to younger farmers. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, 3,437 women aged 35 or under were farming in 2017. That’s roughly 30 percent of all young farmers.
And that’s gotten the attention of farm advocates.
The Minnesota Farmer’s Union has started holding annual conferences just for women. This year, it was held at L’Etoile du Nord farm winery with lakeside views. A food truck offering farm-to-table food from local restaurant La Ferm was on-site, while the program included topics such as mediation, markets and sustainability. The event also provided ample opportunity for women farmers to connect with one another.
That’s what prompted Anne Schwagerl, 33, to make the two-hour drive from the organic grains and livestock farm that she and her husband operate in Beardsley, Minn.
“You get to talk shop, and for me as a woman farmer, it’s not always super easy to talk shop with men. I always want to talk shop with anyone – it’s nice to talk shop with other women. It’s more personal and more open,” she said.
Still, generational differences did surface during the conference. One attendee made a comment that “millennials don’t know how to fall.”
Schwagerl immediately raised her hand to speak.
On the contrary, she replied, young people have graduated with crushing debt, are risk-averse and have struggled at an early age.
“I actually wear the term millennial with a badge of pride. I know there’s some angst about millennials and how they’re different from previous generations. I tend to think every generation is different than the one that came before it,” she said.
Farming can also be an isolated lifestyle. But young farmers are used to connecting online, where they can find an instant community to talk to about topics such as depression and fears of failing, or soil health and climate change. Farmer Hannah Bernhardt emphasized that her generation is not afraid to ask for health advice.
“There are definitely hard parts to farming, and that’s where I think it’s most important to share and know you are not alone,” Bernhardt said.
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