Beyond farm wives: Women carve out new roles in agriculture

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Jim Dayton
Sunday, September 10, 2017

JANESVILLE—Few works of modern art have achieved such iconic status as Grant Wood's “American Gothic.”

The man, the woman, the farmhouse, the pitchfork. They are recognizable enough for parody while still serving as a dated portrait of rural life.

The man's face looks weary from hard labor. He wears denim overalls and holds the pitchfork. He's ready to work.

The woman—some claim she's the man's daughter, others his wife—stands behind him. Her apron, brooch and carefully combed hair suggest her responsibilities might be indoors.

The simple, traditional portrayal of farm roles has helped the painting endure for nearly 90 years.

But its authenticity is beginning to change.

Farm technology has progressed beyond a pitchfork, of course.

More subtly, women's roles in agriculture have evolved. They're starting their own farms, continuing family operations when no one else steps up or taking leadership positions in industry organizations.

Nearly 800 Rock County women were listed as farm operators in the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, giving them some involvement in farm decision-making. More than 200 women were considered primary operators.

Operations managed by women were about 80 acres on average. That's half the size of the average Rock County farm, indicating some of those places might be smaller and produce-oriented.

But farms with women operators still accounted for about 40 percent of the county's 350,000-plus farmland acres.

That statistical disparity hints at the point Margaret Hazeltine of Janesville wants to make: You can't group all women in agriculture into a single entity.

“I'm seeing more and more where women in agriculture, so to speak, center around organic gardening and farmers markets and things like that,” she said. “That's a growing thing, there's no doubt about that.

“But I'm a little more old school. I'm not looking at the booth at the farmers market and 5 acres of gardening, supplementing your income.”

Hazeltine is far removed from Saturday vendors on Main Street. She's a dairy farmer milking 120 cows and overseeing 300 acres of crops.

She farms with her son Robert now. But 20 years ago, when her husband died unexpectedly and her son was still a teenager, she had to decide whether to keep the farm or move on.

“Pretty much everybody says, 'Well, you're never going to be able to do this alone. You're going to have to sell it because you're not going to be able to do it,'” Hazeltine said.

“I sit back, and I think of the things I really liked about being here, and I just decided to give it a shot.”

Hazeltine was thrust into making decisions without having anyone to consult. Neighbors, family and hired employees helped her with farm labor, but those first few years after her husband's death were difficult, she said.

Hazeltine might be more independent than most female farm operators. She emphasized that doesn't make her any better than women who farm with their husbands or women who hold other jobs and occasionally help with farm tasks.

Women's levels of farm involvement differ just like the kinds of agriculture they're involved in, she said.

Julie Funk, president of the Rock County Dairy Promotion Council, agreed, saying women's roles vary because every farm is different.

“We're all similar in our values and that we believe in agriculture as an industry, and we believe in the humane treatment of animals and the big picture of feeding people,” Funk said.

“Even though everyone's role is different, it's all the same," she said. "We all come from the same background and same ideology, but it's just how we fit into the mix.”

Funk is proud to work closely with her husband, David, on their dairy farm outside Janesville. She feeds calves and manages paperwork while he milks cows and oversees the crops grown for feed.

Funk believes men and women have equal representation in local agriculture, even though more men are farmers.

Women can get involved in farming organizations or take jobs in related industries, such as selling crop insurance or working at a feed mill. They shouldn't feel forced into farming just to balance those numbers, Funk said.

Sandy Larson has been on both sides.

When she graduated from college, she took an agriculture-related job at a bank and never planned to return to her family's dairy farm near Evansville.

But when she had kids, she decided to go back. Raising her children on the farm instills a good work ethic and gives them an idea of future career possibilities, she said.

“I can't imagine doing anything else,” Larson said. “When you've grown up on a farm, or you're in dairy, it's in you. If I were to look for a different job, it would still be in agriculture.”

She oversees public relations, milk parlors and legal regulations for the family's large dairy operation. Over 20 years, Larson Acres has grown from a midsize facility to one that milks nearly 3,000 cows.

The farm's large size has put Larson “at the table” in local agriculture leadership. She works with the dairy promotion council and the Rock County Agriculture Ambassador Program, which brings agriculture lessons into area classrooms.

Erin Daluge has been the face of that program since it began in 2012. It's a part-time gig, but the program's recent expansion makes it feel like another full-time job for Daluge, who also works in dairy farming.

Daluge likes to emphasize to girls in her fourth-grade classrooms that there are agricultural careers that don't involve farming. Passing on her knowledge to young girls creates a cycle of female empowerment that makes her feel strong and independent, she said.

That sense of empowerment also helps Daluge deal with the casual sexism that plagues countless women in American workplaces.

Farm outsiders don't always take her seriously, or they avoid asking her questions, she said.

“This actually happens a lot to me. So let's say a salesman, if I'm milking and I'm in the barn, they'll come in and ask for the owner,” Daluge said. “I'm one of the owners. Or they'll say, 'Is your dad or brother around?' But I could easily answer their question.

"If it's just my brother, they won't second-guess it,” she said. “But they assume I won't know what they're talking about.”

Daluge is 28, and her age and appearance sometimes make others question her authority.

“Before you even tell them what you do, 'I'm a dairy farmer,' they're so shocked by that. They're like, 'Oh really? You are?'” she said.

“I know they're not trying to be rude about it, but it comes off kind of that way. Everyone always says, 'Well, you don't look like a dairy farmer.' Well, what does that mean?”

Larson and Funk could not recall dealing with sexism.

Hazeltine could. Salesmen might ask for the “man of the house,” and she has to explain it's her. But it doesn't bother her, she said.

Hazeltine is realistic about women's future in agriculture. They aren't going to take over the industry, and some physical tasks must be handled by men because of basic biological differences, she said.

She once told a veterinary company to stop sending a female animal doctor, even though the woman was knowledgeable. The doctor struggled to move cows into position for surgeries or other procedures, and Hazeltine had to call male neighbors to assist.

Farming isn't a glamorous profession, and Hazeltine doesn't see any glory in being a woman in agriculture.

But it's what she grew up with and later married into.

During an interview, she stood on her porch step, looking toward cow barns and cornstalks on her farm southwest of Janesville. She explained she wouldn't trade the hard work for any other job.

“I don't really spend my days analyzing whether I'm having a fulfilling nature of my life. I spend my days doing the same thing over and over again. At the end of the day, I just have the responsibility to my livestock,” she said. “These are what provide me my income, so I have to take care of them for them to provide for me.

“That's how I believe it. They have provided me with a satisfactory life. I don't dream of wishing I would have been anywhere else or done anything else.”

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