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.