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Female Farmers On Why They Farm

Katie Bremmy, left to right, Angela Guentzel and Bekah Gustafson shared the mic and stories about what being a farmer meant to them.

Small square bales may be passé in light of today’s more economical round bales, but let’s hope there will always be some squares hanging around for hayrides. Otherwise, guests at CommonGround MN’s Field to Fork event in mid-August would not have had the bumpy adventure of being delivered sitting on bales of hay to the “dining room” on the highest hill of Brenny Farms.

There’s something magical at a Field to Fork farm dinner. Picture an extra-long table covered with crisp white linens topped with mason jars of wild flowers, surrounded by lush green countryside and photogenic cows “mob grazing” nearby. Add in No Tent, a musical duo playing mellow background music, and cooks from Crave Catering under a big tent preparing a feast, and you have the perfect setting for learning about women in farming.

CommonGround is a national organization of farm women who volunteer to share information about farming and food. These are not the stereotypical farm wives whose most notable contribution was to ring the dinner bell mid-day to call in field hands for a hearty home-cooked meal. These are women who get their hands dirty, as well as get involved in the business side of farming.

“The best part of stereotypes is crushing them,” said panel member Angela Guentzel, who grew up on a farm, left to find something better and then came home when she realized farming was that something better.

No Tent, Reina del Cid and Toni Lingren provided the music. 

She’s crushed a number of stereotypes, such as learning to drive semi-trailer trucks. Every time she pulled up to a grain elevator, all the men stopped to watch her back up with the expectation that she’d screw up. Rather than be intimated, she said, she’d tell herself, “I’m doing this for all women.”

Women make up about 26 percent of Minnesota farmers, according to CommonGround. While their number is increasing, the stereotype of men as farmers is still prevalent. 

Guentzel said when she and her husband are together, people talk to him as if he’s the farmer. “He married into a farm family,” she said, shaking her head in frustration. “I answer the questions, but they still ask him.”

It’s a little different for Katie Brenny, who along with her husband, Ted, hosted the event. Both are fifth generation farmers, but they bought their current farm themselves. Unlike the farm women of past generations, Brenny doesn’t cook or clean—she and her husband divide up both the household and farm-related chores equally. The one thing that has changed from growing up on a farm to now is “I can hire the neighbor kids to do the grunt work,” she said.

Bekah Gustafson, the third farmer on the panel, also grew up on a farm, and she, too, left and came back. One of the goals is to get more young women involved in agriculture, and to show them that there is more to farming than 4-H and raising animals to show at the fair. “To get girls involved, they just need to do it, experience it,” she said. 

Brenny agreed. “There’s so much to agriculture,” she  said, and career paths include technology, genetics, nutrition for people and animals and beekeeping to name a few. “When I came back to farm, I was surprised at how much I didn’t know,” she said. While her grandfather tracked everything on paper, she uses a computer. There are self-driving tractors now, and farmers can utilize imaging that monitors crop health from above.

Guests were seated at a long formal table for the steak dinner catered by Crave Catering. 

Nationwide, women account for 30 percent of farm operators, almost tripling the number in the past three decades, according to a new book, "The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture." But the increase may also be because the way census data was collected prior to 2002 only allowed one principal operator to be counted, the book’s authors said in an interview on Civil Eats website. 

Another census note is that since women typically have less land to farm than their male counterparts, they more often run organic or specialty businesses.

Women also tend to add an educational component or side business. They also like to share information and network, which is why CommonGround has attracted around 200 busy female farmers to volunteer.

Signs with statistics—such as Minnesota ranks eighth nationally in barley production, but is No. 1 in turkey, sugar beets, sweet corn and green peas—were placed around the food and beverage stations to educate the guests. 

While the trend today in restaurants is farm to table, not all farming stays local. “It’s a global industry,” Guentzel said. “One Twitter post can affect us.” And they do have to pay attention to government policies such as NAFTA. “We can’t choose the price,” she pointed out. “We’re the bottom strings of the puppet.”

It’s not a thankless job, they all agreed, but considering 2 percent raises the food for the rest of the 98 percent, “We don’t get thanked enough,” Guentzel added. 

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