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Expanding her agricultural career: Part-time ND farmer, agronomist has a varied, growing life in ag

Off-farm jobs common for ag producers

It's an attractive image: Hard-working, self-employed farmers and ranchers supporting themselves and their families with the profit from their agricultural operation.

Reality often falls short of the image, especially in recent years. Poor crop prices and limited farm income means many ag producers need additional, off-farm income — and employer-provided health insurance — to make ends meet.

On top of that, farmers of small operations face major challenges, including high land prices, in expanding their farm to the point it could generate sufficient income to allow them to give up their off-farm job.

A few statistics help to make the point:

Nearly two of three U.S. farmers have off-farm jobs and 40% of all farmers work at least 200 days annually off the farm, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Other statistics show that 60% of U.S. farmers rely on off-farm jobs to provide health insurance.

This week's issue of Agweek concludes a three-part series that profiles three Upper Midwest farmers with off-farm jobs. The three share a passion for agriculture, the desire to expand their operations and, at least for now, the need for off-farm jobs.

This issue looks at a young North Dakota woman who, in addition to beginning her own farming career, is a full-time agronomist.

The series began Aug. 12 with a look at a Minnesota farmer who commutes 120 miles, five days a week, to his full-time job at an electronics distributor.

Week two, in the Aug. 19 issue, profiled a farmer who's also a full-time ag banker.

A varied, growing life in ag

Emma, her father, Blaine (center) and farmer Kevin Lee examine a beet field.ST. THOMAS, N.D. — Kevin Lee has known Emma Papenfuss all her life and has seen her working on his farm countless times over many years. Asked about her connection to agriculture, the St. Thomas farmer smiled and said that Papenfuss "drove herself home on a tractor from the hospital when she was born."

Now, Papenfuss, who turned 22 the day before she interviewed for this article, is putting her love for agriculture to multiple uses. She's a full-time agronomist in Grafton, N.D., she works on Lee's farm, and this year, for the first time, she's planted crops of her own on rented land.

And she's marrying Andrew Torkelson, a Grafton farmer, on Nov. 16. He and his family raise potatoes, while Papenfuss raises sugar beets — crops which Emma describes as "two different (agricultural) worlds" and which require the couple's relationship to be especially flexible and mutually supportive.

"I just have a passion for agriculture," Papenfuss said of her diverse roles.

Blaine Papenfuss, a St. Thomas, N.D., farmer, is proud of his daughter, Emma, and her love of ag.Her ultimate goal — one she knows won't be easily or quickly achieved — is getting enough land to become a full-time farmer. But she's excited about making a start, planting 142.5 acres of sugar beets and dry edible beans of her own this spring, and is committed to success in her multiple duties.

Papenfuss grew up on her family farm near St. Thomas, a mile from the Lee farm. Her father, Blaine, has worked for Lee for decades and Emma has helped out Lee since she was a teen.

Her commitment to agriculture was especially obvious in 2016, when Lee's sugar beet harvest was hampered by extremely wet conditions. Emma Papenfuss, then a student at North Dakota State University, repeatedly drove back to help with the harvest, while continuing her studies.

That dedication and extra effort "showed even more how important farming is to her," Lee said.

Many Upper Midwest farmers have difficulty finding enough good help, and Lee emphasized that he's fortunate to have both Blaine and Emma working on his farm.

'Balancing act'

Emma Papenfuss visits with location manager Brian Sieben.Papenfuss, who graduated in three years with a degree in ag economics, originally thought about being an ag banker. But she eventually realized she wanted to be more "hands-on in farming."

After graduation, she worked as an agronomist for J.R. Simplot, an agricultural supplier specializing in potato products, in Crystal, N.D. She interned with the company when she was in college.

Early this year, she joined the new Hefty Seed Co. location in Grafton, which is closer to her St. Thomas roots.

A few older, "traditional" farmers seem to have had reservations about her age and gender, but by and large clients have accepted her, she said.

"This is 2019. I hope we're past that (concerns about women in ag)," she said.

Papenfuss emphasized that she learns as much from clients as they learn from her. "I'm not afraid to ask questions. I think that's one of my strengths," she said.

"She's very hard-working, very willing to learn. Not afraid to call on customers, learning more about the agronomics," said Brian Sieben, Hefty branch manager. "Hopefully she'll be with us a long time."

Papenfuss' agronomy career and her own farming is "a balancing act. We talked about that when I hired her. She said that her priority is the job here," Sieben said.

But starting her own farm this spring is obviously important to her, too. Papenfuss rents land from her father and Dean Scharmer, a neighboring farmer and her dad's cousin. She thanks Scharmer for giving up some of the land he farmed so that she could plant more acres.

"It was a very selfless move from him and something not everyone would do in order to get the next generation farming," Papenfuss said.

She hopes to take on more land, over time, when and if it becomes available.

Nature hasn't cooperated with her first year of farming herself.

"The beet crop is still hanging on pretty good, but the edible bean crop is definitely struggling and in some places starting to go backwards with the lack of rain we've had all summer," Papenfuss said. "(I'm) still optimistic about the beet crop, but I'm afraid there might not be much out there for the pintos and navys (the two kinds of edible beans she's raising)."

But Papenfuss' ag experience and training tell her that agriculture is cyclical. Prices and yields vary, often greatly, from year to year, and occasionally difficult crop seasons are an inevitable part of farming.

"I still think the long-term outlook for farming is good," she said.

Sugar beets, potatoes

People outside agriculture may not always realize it, but different crops can require different priorities and ways of doing things.

That's the case with sugar beets, which Papenfuss raises, and potatoes, which her fiancé Torkelson raises, she said.

For example, the sugar beet harvest goes around the clock, while the potato harvest does not. As a result, Torkelson has delivered many meals to Papenfuss at night in the field when she was harvesting sugar beets.

"Quite the opposite of the stereotype of a woman delivering a meal to the field to a man," she said.

"I'm very blessed to have Andrew as (my) fiance as he completely understands my passion for agriculture and supports me 100 percent even if that means our relationship has to take a backseat during certain times of the year. His support is second to none which is essential to me accomplishing my dreams," Papenfuss said.

Her multiple roles in agriculture might cause some people to wonder if Papenfuss has taken on too much. Asked about that, she smiled and said, "When you love what you're doing, it isn't work."