Wisconsin women, like women nationwide, play greater role in running farms than in past
By: By JOHN HARTZELL Associated Press Writer
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Diane Grezenski grew up a city girl, but now she and her husband run a dairy farm where she has taken on more and more of the work over the years.
“I do almost all the milking, feed the animals and handle the book work and much of nearly everything else that needs to be done,” she said.
The public face of women in agriculture in Wisconsin for 60 years has been Alice in Dairyland, a young woman selected annually to promote the state’s farm products. But because of old barriers coming down, men doing other jobs and mechanical advances, women like Grezenski are more actively involved.
Grezenski’s husband does the field work and pitches in on milking when he can, while working full time at a nearby paper mill. The two are increasing the size of their operation from 47 cows to about twice that number, Grezenski said.
“But somebody has to work elsewhere to get health insurance, and often it is the man because they usually can find better paying jobs,” she said.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s most recent agricultural census, done in 2002, showed women were the principal operators of 7,353 Wisconsin farms, up about 27 percent from 1997. There was about a 13 percent increase nationally during the same period.
The percentage of Wisconsin’s female principal farm operators increased from 6.7 percent in 1997 to 9.5 percent in 2002.
Wisconsin had the ninth-highest number of women who were the principal operators of farms, a category led by Texas and California.
“Around the world, women do most of the agricultural work. But there has been more of a male culture around farming in the United States,” said Michael Bell, a rural sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “However, that is changing in the same way that women have moved into many other professions.”
Mary Kay Van Der Geest, who runs one of Wisconsin’s largest milking operations, got into farming after she married a livestock dealer who decided to start a dairy farm near Merrill, in northcentral Wisconsin, with 17 cows in 1969. It’s grown to 3,000 cows, and she has headed it since he died in 2000.
“The farming operation is becoming so mechanized that the physical aspect is becoming a lot easier for women to manage,” said Van Der Geest.
Although she fed and milked the cows during the early years of the operation, she handles administrative chores now, employing several women who do more traditional farm work.
Younger women also are entering the profession more than they did 30 years ago. The University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences said there were 1,311 women enrolled last fall and 1,005 men, compared with 796 men and only 353 women during the 1977-1978 school year.
The third National Women in Agriculture Educators Conference, scheduled for next spring in Oklahoma City, is expected to draw twice as many participants as the first one in 2004, said conference chairwoman Laurie Wolinski, a University of Delaware Extension associate.
Many women raise vegetables and smaller animals, Bell said.
Anne Topham, who began raising dairy goats at Ridgeway in 1980 and making goat cheese a few years later, said she has seen more women raising smaller goats and sheep.
“They are so much easier to handle, and there is more of a market now for their milk and cheese,” she said.
Published in The Messenger 1.1.08