One of my pet peeves is when I hear someone refer to “farmers and their wives.”
To be quite honest, it doesn’t bother me for my own sake. While I help with farm and ranch tasks and the paperwork that goes with it, I have my own career and have never considered myself to be a farmer, even though my signature’s appearance on various bank paperwork might indicate otherwise.
However, there are many “wives” I know who are every bit as much the farmer as their husbands, though they might not get the same credit for the work.
I had the honor of serving alongside several such women a few weeks ago at the funeral of another such woman. That day, I heard stories about the women working in the fields, sometimes even with a newborn baby strapped to them. I heard about preparing meals for crews (and picked up some neat tips), about getting up hours before the sun to butcher chickens. Some of them, I know, balanced those responsibilities with working off-farm jobs to provide for their families.
It made me think of my mom, who was raised a city girl but learned to drive tractor and took on the task of keeping immaculate farm books while I was a toddler and continues that task now while working a demanding job. I thought of my grandma making meals for everyone. I thought of my mother-in-law, who handles pretty much all the yard work and maintenance around the farm, on top of her own full-time job and a long list of volunteer duties.
A few months ago, Agweek Publisher Katie Pinke came across a report detailing how women contribute to the income of the farm by both on-farm and off-farm work. The report, “Farm Women Blend Farm and Off-Farm Work,” appears to have been published in 1994 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
The report detailed how women’s contributions unquestionably were vital during the pioneer days, when domestic tasks were done manually and most, if not all, food had to be grown or raised. Mechanization slowly changed that throughout the 20th century, and sometimes it seems like people forget that women didn’t just stop paying attention to the farm. Many were still feeding everyone, caring for children, cleaning their homes, managing farm finances or working off the farm to counteract the tumultuous nature of making a living on the land, even if they never climbed in a tractor or gave a calf a shot. And don’t forget that many of them continued to do the traditional farm work in addition to everything else.
One point from the report stood out to me especially: “When women have managerial responsibilities on the farm, or when they work in off-farm employment, the household has a higher average income.”
That was, of course, from 1994, not 2020, but I don’t think women’s contributions to agriculture have in any way lessened in the past quarter century. Businesses that incorporate diverse viewpoints tend to do better, so it stands to reason that farms that appreciate the contributions of women would do better, too.
So maybe it’s time that everyone rethinks who a farmer is. There’s a reason for the term “family farm.” Often, there’s a team to make everything work. And that team might include a contributor who never touches a tractor but makes sure everyone’s clothes are washed and that everyone is fed, makes the parts runs and takes care of the bookkeeping. And that person should be considered a vital part of the farm, too.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.