Iowa Public Television


More Women in Charge on Wisconsin Farms

posted on December 19, 2008

MILWAUKEE (AP)--Lois Federman grew up on a 580-acre farm her great-grandparents settled southwest of Mineral Point, but she didn't think about running one until about 10 years ago.

"When I was little, my job was to pick the eggs, and I hated it because the chickens would peck my hand," she said.

But after 23 years as a product development manager for Lands' End, Federman decided to put her business skills to work back home. She and her brother now co-own the family farm, where they raise 120 head of cattle. Some are sold through direct marketing.

Women have always worked on farms, but more of them are taking on bigger and more powerful roles with the growth in direct selling, agritourism and community-supported agriculture, said Jane Eckert, chief executive of Eckert AgriMarketing in St. Louis.

Eckert was one of the speakers at Wisconsin's first conference for female farmers, held Dec. 5 and 6 in Wisconsin Dells. About 100 women from around the state were expected to attend.

Wisconsin had more than 7,300 female farmers in 2002, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. In comparison, it has nearly 70,000 men listed as principal farm operators, said Kathy Schmitt of the Wisconsin Farm Center. The state has more than 77,000 farms overall.

Some women inherit farms or are partners with spouses or others, but a growing number are entrepreneurs, Schmitt said.

New ventures are being helped by growing interest in eating locally, agricultural tourism and buying directly from farms, said Eckert, who grew up on an apple orchard in Belleville, Ill.

She worked in corporate marketing before developing a successful agri-tourist farm in Belleville that features fruit, pumpkins and cut-your-own Christmas trees.

Many women have skills developed while working in nonagricultural jobs that allow them to create farm-based businesses, Eckert said. Their skills have become increasingly important as farming involves more than just growing crops or raising animals.

Deb Reinhart and her husband, David Geiser, have long divided the work on their farm near New Holstein.

"Dave's the cow man, and I take care of the calves and young stock, balance rations and manage the business, which means human resources, finances and strategic planning along with studying policy-oriented farm issues," said Reinhart, who studied marketing in college.

Tricia Bross grows organic vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos and tat soi, a dark green spinach mustard, on her farm in Rio. She has a master's degree in accounting, but said she's had difficulty getting acceptance as the head of the business.

"I think it's taken a while for us to get respect as farmers and actual decision-makers and not just as farm wives," Bross said.

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