Women in farming

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, May 9th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington.

Next up: women in agriculture.

Women have always been involved in agriculture, although they traditionally worked in support roles. Women stayed busy taking care of children and the home and physically couldn’t do some of the back-breaking work farming required.

REICHARD: But in recent years, many of those physical barriers have been taken away by modern technology and equipment. Today, there are almost a million women farming in the United States. They account for 30 percent of all U.S. farmers. That’s triple the number from three decades ago.

COVINGTON: A third of these women are in charge of a farm’s day-to-day operations. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited one such farmer in Minnesota.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: It’s a brisk, blue sky April morning in West Central Minnesota. Sarah Leshuk  jumps in the pickup truck she calls “Old Blue” and heads out to check one of her fields. She wants to see if the soil is dry and warm enough to plant corn.

Leshuk says this particular field used to be a lake making for unusual soil.

LESHUK: So it has what we call peat ground. And um, it’s very interesting because the ground—and we can go walk out to it. There’s actually little shells in it yet.

Because the soil is made up of dense, organic-heavy material, Leshuk says she’ll need to plant a special corn variety here.

LESHUK: You probably want to get maybe an earlier corn on it because peat ground is gonna take longer for that plant to reach full maturity, dry down, all of those things. I love to be able to just walk the field. I love to be able to go out and smell the dirt. There’s just nothing better. Nothing better.

Leshuk wasn’t always so passionate or knowledgable about things like soil. She grew up here on the family farm with her grandparents, parents, and four siblings, but she never actually liked farming.

LESHUK: For me, being the second oldest, having younger siblings and being a female, uh, I did the cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids. I had to go pick rock, and I had to pull weeds. And so as I continued to grow up, I, I looked at farming and thought there is no way I’m going to farm.

Leshuk’s oldest brother, Matt, was always the one who was going to take over the farm. Sarah married and was pursuing a successful corporate retail career when her brother suddenly died in an accident.

LESHUK: At that point it still didn’t really change my look on farming, but it made me realize that family is important. I want to be close to my family.

With Matt gone and Sarah’s father suffering from poor health, she decided to take a leave of absence from work to help out with the fall harvest. After that she started coming home on weekends to help.

LESHUK: So I did that for about two years and I decided after long conversations with both my husband and my parents that the farm was where I really wanted to go. I wanted to come home and farm.

So in 2013, Sarah and her husband Mike moved back to the farm with Sarah as the lead farmer.

That means she makes all the major business decisions—what varieties of seeds to plant in what fields, when to sell seed, and what equipment to buy.

AUDIO: Sound of corn hopper

Today, Leshuk’s husband Mike is busy trucking corn to a nearby ethanol plant. He pulls the 18-wheeler under an overhead bin connecting four giant silos. Sarah pushes a button and golden corn pours out of the bin’s hopper, filling the truck.

The couple say they still get surprised reactions when other farmers find out Sarah leads the operation.

SARAH: If it’s people that don’t know us, absolutely, they’ll look at him and they’ll ask him. And he’ll say, no, she’s the boss. MIKE: You’ve had people stop on the road and stare because there’s a woman in the combine.

Sarah Leshuk says modern equipment and technology help her avoid some of the physical limitations women used to encounter. Like instead of having to load 50-pound bags of seed by hand into a truck, Leshuk picks up a pallet of seed bags with a forklift.

AUDIO: Sound of forklift

But despite better equipment, some of the work can still be difficult for her.

LESHUK: I’m five, three and on a good day, and everything is so much taller, and so it’s figuring out all right, how do I do this or fix that, and figuring out leverage, and how that can work with you.

The Leshuks don’t have children. Sarah says that’s also given her a greater ability to pursue farming.

Despite more women entering agriculture, Leshuk says it was intimidating to join a male-dominated industry. She learned the best way to earn a place was by having something to offer.

LESHUK: I went to any class I could go to. In the winter they have so many different  grower classes, and I would just educate, educate, educate. I started working at our co-op as just an intern and through that I was able to meet growers and from there it just kind of had that domino effect where it was you build these relationships, you become part of the community.

Today, Leshuk still works part time at the local co-op. Farmers consult her about what seed varieties go best with their particular soils. She also sits on the local Corn and Soybean Growers board.

Leshuk says in the uncertain and often risky world of farming, women can bring something different to the agricultural table.

LESHUK: The biggest change I would say that I bring to the table is looking at things differently from my dad, and that’s where it’s been great because my dad has his way of doing things, and he has been teaching me those things, and I get to challenge the why.

Inside the farmhouse her parents built, Leshuk points to four aerial photos of the farm showing how it’s changed from generation to generation. Different shops, bins, and tractors. She hopes the photo she’ll someday hang on the wall will show how she changed her family’s farm for the better.

LESHUK: You know what, our family farm has to go on to the next generation, and it’s just fortunate that I have the passion to be able to do that.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Seva, Minnesota.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Women in farming

  1. Kurt says:

    Really interesting story! I enjoyed it. It was neat to hear this story about Leshuk taking over her family’s farm and how she came to that decision.

    It was interesting however that Leshuk mentions being childless as something that’s enabled her to pursue farming, but then she mentions at the end of the story that the “family farm has to go on to the next generation…” I was left wondering who this next generation would be if she doesn’t have children…

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