Proud 'farm son' looks at farm wives' varied, essential roles

No two "farm wives" are the same, Jonathan Knutson writes. But their contributions to an operation's success can be many.

The role of "farm wives" has changed over the years and is as varied and diverse as the women who marry farmers, Jonathan Knutson says.
Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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Nearly 40 years ago, when I covered agriculture for the Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, I received an angry letter from an area farm wife. Yes, people really did write letters back in the day.

She wasn't mad at me in particular. She was upset that, in her view, farm wives didn't receive credit for all they do. I telephoned her to say that I was a farm kid who understood the importance of farm wives. I also asked if she might be interested in a feature story that profiled her own contributions. The terrified woman probably said "No!" 50 or 60 times in less than a minute.

Now, 40 years later, the role of farm wives has become more complicated and diverse as women play a broader role in society overall. Increased off-farm job options for farm women is just one example. Choice is a good thing, but much of it can be confusing.

Many people think of farm wives solely as women who help their spouses or grown children farm or ranch. I prefer a broader definition, though I'm not sure what it should be. One example: I once did a story involving an agronomy manager who sometimes worked until nearly midnight during the heart of planting. When he did, his wife brought their young children to his office so they could say goodnight to their dad. Was she a farm wife? Well, I'd argue that at the least she was an honorary one.

Don't assume that farm wives join a noble sisterhood who spend their limited free time singing "Kumbaya" together. No, farm wives, like the rest of us, face feuds, rivalries and jealousies. Sometimes the dark side wins, and things can get nasty. More often, however, shared lifestyles and beliefs lead to mutual respect.


So who's a good farm wife and who isn't? The answer is difficult. Outsiders never can see fully into the inner workings of a marriage, family or farm. And because farm wives usually play many roles, we may see how they perform only in the roles to which they're best- or worst- suited.

This may be of limited value coming from an aging Norwegian Lutheran bachelor ag journalist, but I really believe the following is true: Farm wives should evaluate the needs of their family and farm, then their own skills and personalities, to come up with a plan that best serves their farms, families and themselves. The plans can vary greatly, of course, from farm wife to farm wife.

Two fine examples

I know many farm wives, but let's wrap up with the two I know best.

They're sisters, daughters of a Lutheran minister, who became small-town farm wives after marrying hard-working young farmers.

The first is my aunt, Mary Thompson of Page, North Dakota. She has held many roles as a farm wife, including helping on the farm, being active in her community and raising her children, among other things. And she's done them all well.

The other, as you might expect, is my mother, Helen Knutson of McVille, N.D. Mom didn't work on or off the farm -- the work didn't fit her skills or personality -- but she was active in the church and did a wonderful job with her children. And she always gave her best.

Whatever their differences, good farm wives always have that in common.

Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at

Opinion by Jonathan Knutson
Plain Living
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