They are mothers, sisters and daughters with one of the toughest jobs on the planet.
There are no holidays or weekends. Workdays can stretch into nights and in spaces ranging from sweltering to freezing.
Yet the women who farm say they wouldn’t trade it for another career. For some, it’s in the blood, with the family farm being passed down through multiple generations. Others saw it as a way to take charge of their food or provide an enriching way of life.
Job lost, gained
Before working in farming, Lisa Nelson had a career in information technology. Then, like so many others during the recession, Nelson was laid off from her job.
The loss soured her desire to return to corporate life so she considered her options. Nelson remembered growing up on her family’s farm and wondered if there was any way to return and make a go of it.
In 2010, she started Roots Chocolates, a Wisconsin Dells based business. The fourth-generation farm grows fruits, vegetables and herbs for the purpose of making homemade chocolate. Nelson said she ships chocolate or cocoa beans from South American growers and makes everything by hand.
Nelson has used mint, basil, tart cherries, lemongrass, and garlic, to name a few, in her concoctions.
“I’ll try anything,” she said.
Nelson sells her creations at farmers markets in Wisconsin Dells, Madison and Monona.
Few things bring Nelson joy like working with her hands and turning nature’s abundance into sweet treats.
“It’s kind of an art to use what you grow,” she said.
The gender battle
While some women farmers have never experienced sexism, others say it has happened at least once.
Nelson remembers having an experience during a tractor showcase. She said the salesman never approached her. He looked at her several times but refused to offer assistance. The same salesman had no issue addressing male shoppers.
Nelson left without spending a dime.
Sometimes businesses don’t believe Jayne Dalton when she calls for a quote or service. Dalton grew up on her family’s farm as an only child and she plans to someday take the reins of the farm. She currently raises Angus and serves as promotion and education chair of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Columbia County chapter.
She loves what she does, although there is the occasional frustration. In the past customer service representatives have questioned her judgment or doubted her knowledge. She said it’s sad because some businesses helped her family in the past and her male relatives were treated differently.
Offenders changed their approach upon realizing her family’s identity but respect shouldn’t require a familiar name, she said.
To support other women in agriculture — and raise awareness for farming in general — Dalton started a Facebook page to share stories and pictures. She also supports Common Ground, an effort to connect women across all facets of agriculture, from production to consumption.
“What’s acceptable for a man isn’t always highly regarded in women,” said Patty Johnson, operator of Iron Horse Training Center in Portage. “It’s a common experience in many aspects of society. If a man is outspoken, strong or intelligent, he is considered respectable, but a woman who does the same is seen as cold, unfriendly and arrogant. In some circles, it’s not polite for a woman to stand up for herself.”
Johnson said she forges ahead and runs her business with tenacity, knowledge and willpower regardless of what critics may say.
Lisa Evert finds the occasional problem while parts shopping. Evert juggles feeding, milking, maintenance, cleaning and many other duties on the dairy she runs with her husband, Tim, and Rick and Ronda Lehman. The Sauk City area farmer has experience with heavy machinery, but can’t always convince some sales reps of the fact.
Evert said she’s had salesmen question her knowledge even though she knows what she wants.
Thankfully, it only happens here and there, she said.
Although she doesn’t see a lot of women in her field, Sally Turpin, who serves as the young farmer and agriculturist chair with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Juneau County chapter, has never felt intimidated. She specializes in agronomy and feed while working at Star Blends in Sparta. Gender has never seemed to make a difference.
“If you can prove your skills it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female,” she said.
Like their male counterparts, women farmers face a struggle to secure financing.
It can be tough to convince a financial institution to fund a potentially insolvent operation. It’s even more difficult for new farmers who have little experience.
Technology has made farming more accessible to women but money is still a concern. Youthful farmers especially struggle, said Turpin. It’s not unusual for startups to feature a husband-and-wife team. Collaboration between farmers has also become more common as families pool their resources and income.
Starting out on one’s own can be daunting.
“I won’t say it’s impossible but it’s not easy,” Turpin said.
An agreement with family gave Laura Mortimore the key to starting Orange Cat Community Farm. She said she wanted to launch community supported agriculture, but it was during the economic downturn and money was scarce.
She looked at numerous properties before finding her current one between Lyndon Station. Her parents, who live in Reedsburg, agreed to buy the farm and charge Mortimore rent.
Nine years later, Mortimore owns the farm.
She said she chose to stay in the area because of support from family, neighbors, friends and acquaintances. People stepped up to help a local get off the ground.
Mortimore can understand why others don’t take the plunge.
“It’s almost an insurmountable hurdle for some people,” she said.
For generations of Wisconsin families, farming has had an indelible effect on youth.
Suzie Horkan said she’s proud her children, JoEtte, Kyran and Tarek, had an agricultural upbringing, at Just-A-Hill Dairies in Reedsburg, which helped turn them into dependable, responsible adults. Kyran is in the process of an electrical apprenticeship and Tarek is studying agriculture business. JoEtte holds a degree in animal and dairy science and works alongside her siblings and parents on the farm.
JoEtte Horkan said work ethic started early when she was in 4H. She learned it’s impossible to get anywhere without working.
Farming isn’t for the faint of heart, Suzie Horkan said. Cows don’t stop giving milk because it’s a Saturday or Christmas Day.
“It’s not 9 to 5, that’s for sure,” she said.
The Jones family left city life so their children could learn the value of a rural upbringing. Kehaulani and Andrew Jones, owners of Rowley Creek Lavender Farm between Baraboo and Portage, watched other youth become spoiled from affluent city living. It was nothing for kids to have the latest gadgets or request an abundance of material things. Teens expected to receive a car when they earned their driver’s license.
At the same time, fewer children seemed interested in toiling for what they wanted. As a little girl in Hawaii, Kehaulani Jones had a very different upbringing. She said she can remember helping out, even at a young age. Andrew Jones said he can see the impact it had on his wife because she’s driven, intelligent and patient.
Agriculture comes as a shock to the unaware. Kehualani Jones said she’s had adults and young workers quit after only hours or days. Few jobs seem difficult after time in the field or barn.
“You need to learn what it means to work hard,” she said. “You learn to work hard on a farm.”
Dalton understood the business of livestock since she was a child. She started out showing pigs and moved on to beef by 13. She started with a heifer and gradually built her own herd. Now, almost 15 years later, she has 200 animals.
Raising cattle has taught her responsibility and entrepreneurship, she said. She also has a better understanding of animal welfare and the many tasks required to keep healthy animals.
Johnson said she loved going to horse shows as a child. But, like Cinderella, she always had to leave when the clock struck the appointed hour. The cows needed to be milked, so Johnson didn’t question nor complain when her father said it was time to go home.
It may not seem the fairy tale life to some but it was a dream come true for Johnson.
“It was wonderful,” she said of growing up on a farm. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Follow Heather Stanek on Twitter @HStanek1 or reach her at 608-697-6353.