Women Take Over the Family Farm

As men in agriculture grow older and die without male successors, their wives and daughters are learning to run the business.

Wikimedia / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

WOODSTOCK, Ill.—The face of the American farmer today may look a little bit like Diane Henry Freutel’s. She is wearing pearl earrings, a blue hard hat, a denim shirt, jeans, and running shoes as she saws down a small tree on the farmland she inherited from her parents. Later she will drag the tree, along with other scraps and weeds, into a pile, and burn it. It’s all part of managing the 100 acres of farmland that unexpectedly became hers when her father and brother died in rapid succession two years ago.

“I like it too much to sell it,” says Freutel, 62, who worked in television in Chicago for most of her career. “But all of the things you don’t think about that are normal day-to-day operations on a farm are overwhelming for people like me.” These are things like maintaining the cluster of buildings on the farm, which includes a chicken coop, a house, a barn, and dealing with broken pipes, collapsed barn roofs, jammed lawnmowers, dilapidated doors, dead coyotes in the bushes, and fields of overgrown weeds. Freutel remembers days of crying in frustration when she first inherited the farm, because she didn’t know how to fix anything that broke.

But Freutel and women like her are increasingly learning to handle the responsibilities that come with owning a farm. That’s because as men, who traditionally ran American farms, age and die, they often pass on their farms to spouses or children (Freutel’s husband is 27 years older than she is and much prefers watching the Cubs game to hauling things around the farm). Decades ago, farmers had enough children that one of them would want to continue to work on the farm and would have been trained to run it. Now, fewer children of farmers go into the profession, and so the responsibility falls to people who know little about farming, like the wives or daughters.

Many who inherit farms, like Freutel, aren’t ready to give them up. By 2030, older women may own 75 percent of transferred farmland, according to the American Farmland Trust.

Diane Freutel adjusts an old door on her barn (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Women operated 14 percent of all U.S. farms in 2012, up from 5 percent in 1978, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).“Women live longer than men, so we’re seeing a lot of farming widows,” said Jennifer Filipiak, a natural-resource conservationist with the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that promotes conservation practices on farms.

The average age of principal farm operators in 2012 was 58.3 years, up from 50.5 years three decade ago, according to the agricultural census. More than 600,000 principal operators of farms are between 55 and 64 years old; more than 250,000 principal operators are over 75. And less than one-third of farms have a designated successor in the family.

Women who suddenly find themselves the principal operators of farms realize they have to negotiate with banks or insurance companies or fertilizer dealers or property-tax assessors. Some of them decide to continue to farm the land themselves, others rent out the land to tenants. Women represent 37 percent of all principal landlords of farmland, according to the American Farmland Trust. (Nearly 40 percent of all farmland is rented or leased, according to the USDA. )

Freutel leases out her land to Ryan Gieseke, who farms it alongside his brothers. But she’s still responsible for mowing the lawn; maintaining the buildings, which include a sprawling white barn with lofty ceilings and a few big white equipment sheds; and keeping weeds off of the property. Gieseke, for his part, says he is dealing with more and more female landlords who are new to the business. It can be a challenge.

“Maybe the grandma and grandpa are fine to get along with, but all of a sudden you’re dealing with the grandkids and all they want is their money,” he told me. Freutel is a good landlord, he said, though she recently raised the rent, which Freutel says was difficult to do.

Ryan Gieseke now farms corn on Diane Freutel’s land (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Being a female owner of farmland sometimes means dealing with blatant sexism and discrimination, the owners told me. Susan Sink learned that soon after her husband Henry died in an accident in 2007, leaving her responsible for their 125-acre Virginia farm. For nearly three decades he’d handled all of the farm operations himself. As she scrambled to keep the farm going, she noticed that almost everything in agriculture was run by men: The boards of the banks she was going to for money, the stud services for beef and dairy farms, the processing facilities. And they didn’t much like dealing with a woman, especially a woman whose previous job on the farm had been raising the children.

A few experiences left her enraged: the banker who insinuated something lewd about the relationship she had with her farm manager; the insurance salesman who convinced her to buy a new policy, neglecting to tell her she wouldn’t be covered if her barn collapsed from the weight of ice and snow (which it did); the bankers who gave her a runaround when she needed a loan to cover the $200,000 it would cost to build a new barn.“It’s really tough for women, and particularly for widows,” she told me.

It was hard for her to keep track of everything she was expected to do. When she got home from the hospital after her husband died, she remembered that he had mentioned he needed to buy pumpkin seeds, so she sorted through his files until she found out where he’d bought them and how much he’d purchased in the past. But for other tasks, there weren’t clues:She didn’t know that she was supposed to be taking a soil sample every year to test it, or that she was supposed to work with her soil in different ways every year, for example.

Diane Freutel must maintain this cluster of buildings on her farm. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Sink isn’t the only one who struggled to get up to speed. Now, the American Farmland Trust is holding “learning circles” across the country to educate women who are new farm owners about how to handle things like soil sampling and conservation practices. It is also trying to help women who decide to lease out land understand how to negotiate rates and write leases. There are certain clauses owners can put in their leases to govern how their land is farmed, requiring farms to use practices that conserve the soil or are better for the environment, for instance, and sometimes tenants push back, Filipiak said.“I’ve met women who have terrific relationships with their farmers, I’ve met women who are being completely ripped off by their farmers,” she said.

Karla Thieman, the chief of staff of Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsac, also runs a Women in Ag mentoring network. The department also has the ability to provide specific Farm Service Agency loans for women in agriculture, because women are considered “underserved and socially-disadvantaged” members, according to spokesman Matthew Herrick. Annual lending to underserved producers increased to $827.3 million in 2015, from $379.4 million in 2008.

Susan Sink is now transitioning her farm from a beef farm to an agri-tourism business, a change that requires a lot less work in the fields. Her farm holds an annual harvest festival, pick-your-own-pumpkin patches, horseback-riding tours, and weddings. Schools come to the farms and people hold music festivals there. Still, friends ask her why she doesn’t get out, especially since none of her three children want to take over the farm. She doesn’t want them to, either. She wants them to have a better life. Farming, as Sink well knows, is never easy. “Some people come up to me and say, ‘Why are you doing all this work, why don’t you sell the farm and retire?’” she said. “It’s because my blood, sweat, and tears are on this land, it is my husband’s legacy, my children’s legacy, and truly, it’s my legacy, too.”

That dedication to keeping the farm is something that many of these women share.

Another female farmer, Sharon Perry, inherited her parents’ farm in Illinois in 2007, and has a cropshare lease with her tenant, sharing expenses with him and selling her part of the crop. She sees the farm as a second career after decades spent working in corporate America.

“It’s a family legacy since the 1940s, and I feel called to bring that legacy home,” she said.

For Diane Freutel, working around the farm is a new challenge, one that she says she enjoys for now, despite the hardships. When I visited, she showed me a deep purple bruise on her arm, earned from a misstep while installing fencing. She has a lot of pursuits in retirement—last year she ran her first marathon, and she’s also a competitive stair climber. But the farm is special, a legacy from her father, along with the red ’85 Chevy pickup he left her. She isn’t ready to let it go.

“Right now, I can’t part with it,” she said. “But it’s really a never-ending job.”

Diane Freutel with her father’s pick-up truck (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)