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Published November 05, 2007, 12:00 AM

It's a one-woman show

BUXTON, N.D. - On a dare, Marcia Hoplin scrunches onto the metal toolbox that forms a narrow side panel atop her grandpa's 1946 Case tractor.

By: By Chuck Haga, Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald

BUXTON, N.D. - On a dare, Marcia Hoplin scrunches onto the metal toolbox that forms a narrow side panel atop her grandpa's 1946 Case tractor.

“Tighter now,” she says.

It's a tighter fit now than when she was 4, when nothing appealed more than riding shotgun on the old three-wheeler, trading farm wisdom and wisecracks with her grandfather.

She now is 49 and rides in the scoop pilot seat when she fires up the venerable workhorse, still functional and right for the odd task at the farm Hoplin operates a few miles southwest of Buxton, N.D.

“Nowadays, they'd have a fit if they saw a kid sitting there,” she says of the toolbox. “Back then, it's what I loved to do.”

She was her grandfather's helper, ever present and ever eager, and she grew to be her father's farming partner, taking the lead when Paul Hoplin fell sick with cancer. When he died in 1996, she farmed on by herself.

“It was harvest time,” she says. “I had a crop to get off. And it helped to be working. It eased the pain a bit.”

Of the more than 30,600 farm operators in North Dakota counted in the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture in 2002, about 2,000 were female. Most were women older than 65 and living elsewhere who had their land in the Conservation Reserve Program, according to Earl Stabenow of the National Agriculture Statistics Service in Fargo, N.D.

The census found just 233 women under 55 who were on-farm operators.

“We're seeing more women who are sole operators, but it's still not common,” Stabenow says. “I'd say it's very unusual.”

Marcia Hoplin is a woman who farms - planting, cultivating, harvesting, marketing, repairing, borrowing, spending, deciding. She acknowledges the rarity of it.

But never does it enter her head that she is a “woman farmer,” more special or less than the men who farm all around her. “I know other women who are farming - widows and women with sons,” she says. “But another woman, never married, farming on her own - I don't know any.

“I don't expect anything more from anyone than a man does. I don't go into the hardware store and say. ‘I'm a woman. Can you do this for me?'

“I'm a farmer.”

A shop for tinkering

It's a small farm by Red River Valley standards, about 1,000 acres planted to wheat and beans. But the farmstead sprawls like a small, nicely landscaped rural subdivision, lush with ash and birch trees and beds of geraniums, still flashing red in mid-October.

Emmanuel Olson, Hoplin's great-grandfather, bought the land from the railroad, put up the barn in 1910 and built a house two years later. Her parents added a second house in 1958, designing it to accommodate Hoplin's mother, Muriel, 78, who was stricken with polio as a young woman.

Today, using a golf cart modified by her daughter, Muriel Hoplin tends the garden and the flower beds. With a specially designed riding mower, she cuts the grass.

“I couldn't do what I do without her help,” Marcia Hoplin says.

She is lean, farm fit and weathered by harvest wind and sun. A pair of pliers hangs from a leather holster slung from her jeans, and she moves with the deliberate manner of someone who has just completed a difficult task but is eager to get to the next.

Next on her list this day is outfitting her cavernous new machine shop. With its 18.5-foot sidewalls and 28-foot door, it's big enough to handle all her machinery.

“It's been a dream since I was a little kid,” she says. “I always liked to tinker, but I got tired of lying on cardboard in the snow and cold, tinkering.”

Her father had 5,400 laying hens. When he quit the egg business, that building was converted to a shop, “and with the heat, I thought I was on Cloud 9,” Hoplin says. “But I couldn't get anything in there - the ceiling too low - except a pickup or car.

“Now that I'm about to turn 50, I decided it was time to get it done. I wanted some time to enjoy it.”

Darrell Larson, Fertile, Minn., helped build the shop. He was struck by Hoplin's devotion to the farm. So was his wife, Carole.

“I had to bring a vehicle to drop off for my husband, and I was impressed by the beauty of her farm, her energy and the dream of having her own ‘warm shop' to tinker with her machinery year-round,” Carole Larson says. “I was impressed how a woman farmed with no man around.”

The shop will be a place to work on her tractors and other farm equipment and to tinker with some restorations: her grandfather's 1926 International truck and 1929 Model A and a bullet-nose Studebaker that had belonged to a neighbor woman.

“She'd drive by every day, and I'd watch and say, ‘I'm going to have that car someday.' I really liked the look of it,” Hoplin says.

Living the farm life

She supplements her farm income by working over the winter in the plant sciences department at North Dakota State University, on a project looking for new varieties of durum.

“She works hard, she reads and she studies, and the Lord blessed her with a mechanical mind,” her mother says. “From the time she was young, anything that went wrong, she could fix.

“She's totally engrossed in the farm and never cared much for the house or anything that pertained to little girls. She was her dad's sidekick and followed him morning to night.”

Marcia sums it up more succinctly. “I was with Dad. We were a team.”

She took the lead in 1992, with her father stepping into the role of right-hand man. They continued to work the farm together until the winter of 1995 to '96, when doctors diagnosed Paul Hoplin's brain cancer.

“I had to go through spring without him,” Marcia says, and she hired a man to help with the combining. Her father died July 28.

“I'm not going to say it never crossed my mind, the idea of quitting and doing something else,” she says. “But the thought never stayed long.”

Both of her parents had encouraged her to at least try something besides farming. “Dad kept saying, ‘You can't do it alone.' But I ignored him,” she says. “I think it was the only piece of advice from him I ever ignored.”

It wasn't that her father doubted her capability. But he wondered whether the people she'd have to deal with would give her the respect she deserved.

They have, she says.

In a welding class she took years ago, in discussions at NDSU and in working visits to such places as the Buxton Oil Station and Oppegard's John Deere in Hillsboro, N.D., “the men treat me like anybody else,” Hoplin says.

“They respect me, and if there's something I don't know about, they'll walk me through it. I can't say enough about those guys.”

With a sigh and a smile, she admits that many people feel compelled to ask about her personal life.

“They always ask,” she says. “Every guy who comes out here, it seems. Just the other day, one of the guys who came to spray sealant on a grain bin looked around and asked, ‘Why aren't you married?'

“I just say I don't have time. I'm very independent, and I enjoy my own company. If I don't get to town in a month, it doesn't bother me.”

She is no hermit. She plays on softball and broomball teams and joins friends nearly every year for skiing in Colorado or Montana.

Skiing was something else Hoplin did with her father, who started her out by fitting her with kids' skis and holding her between his knees as they came down a slope. She graduated to small ski jumps by the Goose River between Buxton and Mayville, N.D.

Her favorite season is harvest time, though it can be a tense time, too, her mother says, when “so much can be lost in a few hours.”

Her favorite time of day is early morning. “It's the time you can get the most done,” she says.

She would like to rent more land, take advantage of today's good crop prices, but “it doesn't pencil out for me, the rent some of the megafarms are willing to pay.”

And while she agrees these are relatively good times in farm country, she wonders what the countryside will look like in a few years.

“Most of the farmers around here are my age, and a lot of them, there's nobody coming behind them,” she says. “Who's going to work all this land?”