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Published June 29, 2010, 10:37 AM

Goodridge, Minn., woman has diverse experiences

GOODRIDGE, Minn. — Linda Hanson is, by choice, an agricultural lifer.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GOODRIDGE, Minn. — Linda Hanson is, by choice, an agricultural lifer.

She’s held many roles in ag — everything from milking cows as a girl to traveling the Great Plains as a sire analyst for a dairy artificial insemination company.

For the past two decades, she’s been an integral part of a diversified small grain/dairy operation that she and her husband, Mike, run here.

“I just enjoy being part of dairy, of agriculture,” Linda says.

Her experiences reflect the increasingly diverse role of women in agriculture.

Women retain their traditional importance in family farms. And as farming becomes more complicated, the scope of their duties often grows.

More women are involved in nontraditional off-farm jobs, too.

“What we’re seeing is a trend,” says Willie Huot, a Grand Forks County, N.D., extension agent who’s been active in the effort to expand women’s roles in ag.

“Women are becoming more involved in agriculture at every level — researchers, extension agents, teachers. It’s very exciting,” he says.

Women also are playing a greater role in their family farm’s finances — for instance, assuming more responsibilities in marketing crops and livestock, he says.

Women often are better able than men to filter out their emotions when marketing, Huot says.

The following statistics give a taste of the changes taking place:

n Nationwide, there were 965,192 female farm operators in 2007, up from 822,383 five years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture.

The number of women serving as principal farm operators in 2007 rose to 306,209 from 237,819 in 2002, according to the 2007 ag census.

n In 2009, for the first time, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the nation’s largest veterinary association, had more female members than male members, according to the organization.

There were 44,802 women and 43,190 men in the group.

More women active

Women in ag say their numbers and roles definitely are growing.

“There’s no question. Women are doing things in agriculture we really haven’t done before,” Linda Hanson says.

When she first came to Goodridge, some people in the community were surprised at the extent of her involvement in the family farm, she days.

“Now, by and large, I think everybody gets it,” she says.

Chris Wilson, president of the American Agri-Women Association, says her organization has 40,000 members and 58 affiliates nationwide, with both numbers increasing in recent years.

Many women are playing a greater management role on their family farm, with others taking off-farm jobs, often to obtain health care, she says.

Women also are increasingly active in full-time professional jobs off the farm, she says.

Wilson, who has agronomy and law degrees, once worked for the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She’s now part of a family crops/livestock operation near Manhattan, Kan.

She says she and other women have been welcomed into ag.

“There’s been good acceptance,” she says.

Dairy, career and life

Hanson, 54, grew up on a small, family dairy in eastern Iowa. Family members still are active in the operation there.

She attended Iowa State University in Ames for two years before leaving to work as a herder on an Iowa dairy. She also spent three years as a loan offer at the Farm Service Agency, then known as Farmers Home Administration.

She returned to Iowa State and completed her undergraduate degree in dairy science.

Degree in hand, she spent five years as a sire analyst with a dairy artificial insemination company.

Among her duties: supporting salespeople as the bull specialist, mating cows for individual producers, arranging for special matings of genetically superior cows to produce sons for her organization and attending trade shows and dairy events.

“I traveled the entire Midwest from Minnesota to Texas and the Mississippi west to Colorado, with an occasional foray into Canada as well,” she says.

She also coached 4-H dairy judging teams and judged on the Iowa State collegiate team.

Since moving to Goodridge, she’s judged local, state and national dairy shows and also has judged Ayrshires in Australia and Sweden.

The Hansons’ Good-Vue Ayr Farms has registered Ayrshire dairy cows. The farm’s name is a play on the names of the town and breed.

The Hansons sell registered Ayrshires as well as milk them.

Reflecting Linda’s background, Good-Vue Ayr Farms doesn’t have a bull, relying instead on artificial insemination.

Linda’s job with the dairy company brought her into contact with Mike, who operated a dairy and grain farm with family members in Goodridge.

“I was working at the national Ayrhsire convention, and Mike was there, too. Cows brought us together,” she says.

She left her job to marry Mike and moved to Goodridge in 1989.

“It’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “In the long run, I’m happier doing this. I don’t have one minute of regret of either working in the industry like that nor quitting working in the industry.”

Equal partnership

The Hansons describe their farming operation as a partnership of equals.

They’re both involved in raising and selling wheat and soybeans on their 2,000-acre farm. They also raise oats and barley to feed to the cows.

Linda and Mike both are involved in the dairy side of the operation, too. They have about 50 Ayrshire cows.

But the pair divide responsibilities according to the relative strengths each has.

Economists use the term “comparative advantage” to describe how countries benefit economically by specializing in a good or service that they’re relatively better at producing.

The principle holds true on the Hansons’ farm, too.

Linda and Mike understand both grain farming and dairy. But Linda is relatively better with dairy than grain, so she focuses primarily on the milk side, leaving Mike to concentrate mainly on the grain.

“I do whatever needs to be done around here. But I feel more comfortable with the dairy,” Linda says.

Howard Person, extension agent in Minnesota’s Pennington County, in which Goodridge is located, has known the Hanson family for many years.

“Linda is an excellent dairy person. Mike is very good, too, but Linda might be even a little better,” he says.

Mike says there’s no question that his wife is better with the milk cows.

“I found someone who knows more about dairy than I do, and I married her,” he says with a smile.

Mike and Linda regularly discuss farm operations and often reach decisions together. Sometimes, when circumstances require fast action, they make decisions individually.

“Mike trusts that I’m going to make the right decision, just like I trust him to do it,” Linda says. “We’re independent, but very much in tune with each other.”

A dairy survivor

Mike grew up on a family farm about 5 miles north of where he and Linda farm. Mike’s parents, Lynn and Norma, continue to live on that farmstead.

Sixteen years ago, Linda and Mike and their family — they have four children — bought and moved on to the farmstead where they live now.

“We expanded to 50 cows, which is kind of a chuckle. We had been milking only 25 ourselves,” she says.

Minnesota dairy farms on average had 100 cows in 2009, according to USDA.

The state ranks sixth in U.S. milk production.

But the small family dairies across Minnesota and the Upper Midwest are disappearing because of changing lifestyles and pressure from the bigger-is-better-and-more-efficient trend throughout agriculture.

These statistics reflect what’s happened:

n Pennington County had 120 dairy farms in 1985. Today, it has only five, says Person, the extension agent.

n In 1995, 36 percent of Minnesota dairies had 49 or fewer cows. The percentage had fallen to only 12 percent in 2007, according to USDA.

“Dairy is getting bigger. But that’s true in the rest of ag, too,” Linda says.

She and Mike say they love dairy and always have wanted to remain in it.

Challenging times

The Hanson dairy operation, like other dairies, is struggling because of low milk prices.

Linda says current conditions are “challenging” and that the family dairy is just breaking even.

“We’ve been established for a long time. We’re probably weathering things better than some individuals who are younger, just getting started and carry higher debt loads,” she says.

The Hansons are helped because they receive high-quality premiums for their milk, which goes to Dean Foods plant in Thief River Falls, Minn., and is bottled for sale, mainly in northwestern Minnesota.

“It’s really important to keep the quality up,” Linda says.

Holding down costs helps, too. The Hansons’ milking operation is functional and well maintained, but doesn’t have much expensive, state-of-the-art technology.

“We try to keep things upgraded here, but not (with) a lot of new, high-cost renovations,” she says. “We still have a good facility, but it’s not ultra modern by any means.”

Because the farm is diversified, the Hansons don’t depend only on selling milk for their livelihood.

“The diversity of not becoming dependent on just one thing helps us,” Linda says.

But breaking even on the milk won’t be good enough forever. At some point, “you need profitability again,” she says.

Enjoyable routine

At least one of the Hansons goes to the barn at 5 a.m. each morning and then again about 4:30 p.m.

Big dairy farms often milk three times a day to increase the amount of milk they get, but smaller farms usually stick with twice-daily milkings.

Linda and Mike generally milk together in the morning.

“It’s a great time to chat with each other and see what’s going to happen the rest of the day,” Linda says.

She says she and Mike have been active in their community despite the milkings.

“We haven’t done too badly getting to the things we need to,” she says.

Linda is a supervisor for the Pennington Soil and Water Conservation District. She serves on the National Ayrshire Breeders Association’s board of directors and on the advisory committee of the Northland Community and Technical College’s farm business management program

Northland has five locations in northwestern Minnesota, including one in Thief River Falls.

But Linda has had to give up a few things because of the daily milkings.

One is attending the Minnesota State Fair when her 18-year-old son, David, shows cattle there.

“I haven’t been there since he was 12, and he’s 18 now. Those all-day trips are hard to manage,” she says.

But she and Mike take care to have off-farm hobbies and activities, including snowmobiling and riding motorcycles, that still allow them time to milk.

When to ease back?

David, who just finished his freshman year studying dairy at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, wants to return to the farm when he’s done with college.

“I just enjoy every part of dairy,” he says.

The couple have two other sons — 16-year old Matthew and 13-year-old Steven — and a grown daughter, Sara, who is married to a farmer and lives near Thief River Falls.

Matthew also is interested in farming some day.

Linda says she and husband plan to stay involved in the farm, although not to the same extent as they are now, when they get older.

Linda says having interests and hobbies outside agriculture will help her and Mike transition out of working full time on the farm.

But after a lifetime in dairy, her enthusiasm for it remains undimmed.

“Why does anybody get a passion? For me, I found this passion for dairy as a 10-year-old 4-H kid who got my first heifer to show,” she says.

“I just love this business. The work is compensated for by the enjoyment we get.”

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