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Published August 10, 2010, 10:09 AM

Male owner of farm business has five employees, all women

SHARON, N.D. — Allen Phelps once heard this comment about his company: “He thinks he can do it with just a bunch of girls.”

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

SHARON, N.D. — Allen Phelps once heard this comment about his company: “He thinks he can do it with just a bunch of girls.”

Phelps smiles at the memory and says, “Well, we’re doing just fine.”

Phelps owns and operates Ag Warehouse in Sharon, an eastern North Dakota farm town of 100. The business, which provides custom application of seed, chemical and fertilizer, has five employees, all women.

Their jobs range from business manager, a position that women frequently hold, to roles that are relatively new to women such as sprayer and water truck drivers.

The five women, who generally say they were looking for a new challenge, had little prior connection to agriculture. But all five say they enjoy what they’re doing.

“I’m learning something new every day,” says Rachel Monson, a commercial applicator.

Phelps isn’t trying to blaze new trails for women in agriculture. He’s had a few male employees in the past. But he’s always looking for people in the Sharon area who he thinks will do a good job for the company and its customers. His search led to people who just happened to be female, he says.

“I was looking for people willing to learn, and that’s what’s I got,” he says.

That willingness helped the women earn the licenses and certifications needed for their respective positions, he says.

Job Service North Dakota doesn’t have statistics on whether businesses find it easier to hire women than men in rural areas such as Sharon.

But women in North Dakota are more likely to be working than women nationwide, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

From 2006 to 2008, 64.7 percent of women in North Dakota 16 and older were in the labor force. Nationally, the rate was 59.2 percent.

Keep those numbers in perspective though. In the same three-year period, 69.9 percent of all North Dakota 16 and older were in the labor force, compared with 65.3 percent nationally.

In other words, the rates of both men and women in North Dakota’s labor force exceeded the national average.

Across both the region and nation, women’s role in agriculture is expanding. The five female employees of the Ag Warehouse illustrate that change.

Here’s a look at each of the five women.

No desk job

Rachel Monson didn’t have a farm background growing up in nearby Cooperstown, N.D.

But this self-described “not-sit-behind-a-desk kind of girl” jumped at the chance when Phelps asked her four years ago to join Ag Warehouse.

“I’ve known Allen for many years, and he asked if I wanted to start working in the warehouse. And it’s led to learning all sorts of new stuff,” she says.

Monson, 27, managed the warehouse and went on to learn to drive the sprayer.

Over time, male farmers in the Sharon area have come to realize she knows what she’s doing, she says.

“It’s taken me a few years but, yes, now they do call me sometimes and ask for my advice,” she says.

Monson credits Phelps with helping her grow professionally.

“I learned from a great teacher,” she says.

Personal trainer

to sprayer

Katrina Phelps once helped area residents improve their physical conditioning. Now, she helps farmers improve their crops.

Phelps, 28, Allen’s wife and a farmer’s niece. grew up in Aneta, N.D., and Grand Forks, N.D.

She served as a personal trainer and fitness coordinator at the YMCA in Grand Forks. She still works as a personal trainer.

She began helping out at Ag Warehouse 1½ years ago and now serves as a commercial applicator.

Katrina says the best part of her job is watching crops develop.

She’s occasionally hears a male customer express surprise that she sprays crops.

Her response?

“I just ask him why it’s any different” for a woman to be doing the job, she says. “Once they see you can do it just as good as anyone else, it’s fine. They’re just not used to it.”

Taking on a challenge

Jasmine Strand started what she calls “an intimidating” job this spring. But she’s happy now that she made the effort.

Strand, 33, had been working five different part-time jobs before Allen Phelps persuaded her to join Ag Warehouse as a water truck driver. She’s passed all the necessary tests, including ones for her chemical license and commercial driver’s license.

Initially, though, “driving truck was a very intimidating thought. I really wasn’t very sure of myself. But it’s gotten easier with time,” she says.

“I was always intimidated by big machines. I wouldn’t want to admit it now, though because I’ve conquered it,” she says.

Strand, a single mother, says having just one job will give her more time to attend her son’s high school games during the winter.

“That will be great,” she says.

Learning new things on the job is a lot of fun, she says.

“Seeing how farmers do different things to the same crop is fascinating,” she says.

At home in the warehouse

Becky Schoepflin says she grew up an “Army brat.”

Later, as an adult, family ties took her to Grand Forks Air Force Base. She eventually moved to Sharon, attracted by its rural lifestycle.

Schoepflin, the 39-year-old warehouse technician, began working for Ag Warehouse two years ago.

The job has been challenging and satisfying, she says.

“There’s always something new to learn. That’s good. And I get to meet a lot of nice people,” she says.

Schoepflin, whose boyfriend is a farmer, talks easily about rainfall, temperatures and crops conditions — a good sign that she fits in with Ag Warehouse’s customers.

“From planting to harvest, there’s a lot of variety in what farmers are dealing with. That makes it more interesting,” she says.

“This is just a good place to work,” she says.

‘Never touched a computer’

Dawn Richards has been at Ag Warehouse since the business began five years ago.

The Finley, N.D., resident is the company’s business manager.

“I pretty much take care of everything except going out into the field to spray. I’m basically second in command behind Allen, I suppose you could say. I’m in charge when he’s not around,” she says.

Richards, 45, previously ran a day care.

But Phelps, her nephew, “conned me into shutting that down and into taking on this job,” she says with a smile. “He told me I don’t get to retire until I’m 90.”

Phelps didn’t have too difficult a task in persuading Richards to make the switch, though.

“I’d been doing that (child care) for about 10 years. I was ready to talk to adults for a while,” she says.

Richards has had a lot to learn in her new job.

“I never touched a computer until this job. I never even turned one on,” she says. “The first year, there were many times I threatened to throw it through the window.”

A growing business

Phelps, a native of nearby Finley, launched Ag Warehouse in 2005.

He worked for a farmer when he was in high school and later managed a seed plant for ADM.

Sharon seemed a good place to start his business, in part because real estate in town was cheap.

Phelps, 34, says Ag Warehouse does business in a 25-mile circle of Sharon.

Business has been growing and will continue to grow as Ag Warehouse adds a variable rate fertilizer applicator this fall.

Typically, work starts in the spring and goes well into fall. In last year’s fluky fall weather, he says, “we were chasing deer hunters around the fields.”

Applying chemicals to crops requires cooperative weather — and employees who will work flexible hours.

“We’ve come in as early as 4:30 a.m., and we’ve stayed all night,” Phelps says. “To have employees willing to be so flexible is just great.”