The face of farming is changing. Women are now the fastest growing demographic in farming in the United States. 51% of all U.S. farms have at least one female operator, according to the 2019 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS).
In honor of Women’s History Month, we talked with Sadie Frericks, a Central Minnesota dairy farmer and Land O’Lakes member-owner, about the critical role women play in the future of farming. She also shares first-hand experience of the challenges she has faced as a female farmer and the big lessons she’s learned in her nearly 15 years of farming.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into farming?
A: I grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Minnesota, in a town halfway between Brainerd and Duluth. I was out in the barn at a very young age, helping my parents. I grew up in that ‘lifestyle,’ as we call it. We say it’s not just a job, it’s a way of life. Later, I pursued a degree in ag marketing and communications from the University of Minnesota, originally thinking I would go into some sort of position that’s an extension of the farming community.
I didn’t really spend an extended amount of time back home until the summer after my junior year of college. I couldn’t believe how much I missed the cows and working outside. That summer really rekindled that connection to the land and the animals, as well as the connection to self-direction. When I went back to college for my senior year, I spent a lot of time soul-searching asking myself, “do I actually want to be a farmer?” My senior year I also got married. My husband, Glen, also grew up on a dairy farm, so we had a lot of conversations about farming but ended up taking other jobs when we graduated. I started working for the Farm Service Agency and my husband Glen got a job with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
A few years later, we had an opportunity to try out farming on my dad’s farm with limited investment. I was convinced this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We decided to give it a shot, leaving behind our consistent, good-paying jobs, weekends off, paid benefits, all of that. We worked on my dad’s farm for a year and a half, but realized buying his farm wasn’t our best move since the area’s dairy infrastructure was dwindling. Instead, we moved to Glen’s hometown, Melrose, Minnesota, and started a farm in 2007. We’re still here nearly 15 years later.
Q: What kind of farm do you operate?
A: Our farm is called Blue Diamond Dairy. We milk 100 cows. We operate under a hybrid farm system. I grew up with one style of farming and Glen grew up farming a different way. So, we were able to marry those two styles. During the wintertime, our cows live in traditional housing inside barns. In the summertime, our cows all graze on 100 acres of rented pasture. We also grow corn, alfalfa and cover crops to feed our herd. Right now, it’s my husband and me, our three kids and one full-time employee working together.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of being a farmer?
A: It’s so hard to pick. I love working with my family and being my own boss. I also love that connection with the land and animals. No two days are the same, so I never get bored.
Q: Women are the fastest growing demographic in farming, and according to the 2019 ARMS Survey, they are now listed as operators on 51% of U.S. farms. What do you think is behind the growth?
A: Some of it might just be recognition, giving credit where credit is due. For example, both my grandma and my mom milked the cows on the farm. But back then, I don’t think they would necessarily call themselves farmers. But now women who have worked on the farm alongside their family members are speaking up and receiving the credit they deserve. I also believe women used to be steered to non-farm jobs. So even if you grew up on the farm and love agriculture, you’d be told you’d be great at working for an agricultural company or as a veterinarian. That is changing. It’s become clear we need talented, intelligent people to run our farms. Today, it’s not always the son who’s expected to take over. Sometimes, it’s the daughter who is the best fit to come home. Conversations with young women are changing.
Q: Have you ever faced any challenges specific to being a female farmer?
A: There’s one story that sticks out to me. In 2009, the milk price was really bad – catastrophically low. We were behind on our feed bill. I remember the feed mill owner calling and I answered the phone; he asked to speak to my husband. I told him Glen was out and asked if he was calling about our feed bill. The mill owner then said, “Yes, but I don’t like to talk to wives about that.” I then responded, “I know the situation and I’m not just the wife. We are full partners in this farm.” This was 12 years ago, but I do think there’s still some stigma in the ag community about women operating farms. Thankfully, over the years we have been treated more as equals.
Q: Do you see more women taking ownership or increased responsibilities on farms in the future?
A: I do think the future of farming and ag is women. I think educational opportunities have equalized and the lending community and allied industries are recognizing the role of women more and more. If you look at enrollment in ag programs in two- and four-year colleges, there’s a growing percentage of women in those programs. That’s happening even in dairy management programs, which used to be traditionally filled by young men. I think the trend will continue, but there will continue to be challenges.
One of the challenges I faced, along with many other female farmers, is childcare. We work crazy hours that don’t align with daycare hours so balancing family and farm becomes a big challenge. Glen is outside all day. I am outside part of the day and take on most of the inside jobs, like record keeping and financial management, because I can do those while helping the kids. I am the chauffeur, chef, nanny, all of that. That’s how we’ve decided to divide out our time, but unfortunately that pulls me out of some of the outside chores. We are adopting as much technology as we can, such as automation, so we can be more efficient with our time, which has helped.
Q: What’s your message to women who are interested in farming but are hesitant to make the career change?
A: Follow your dreams and go with your gut. If deep down you know that farming is what you’re going to be happy doing, you owe it to yourself to try. Maybe it doesn’t work out or you realize it’s not what you thought it was going to be. I think it can be common for kids who grew up on farms because you may have had jobs on the farm, but you probably didn’t get involved in the business management. Starting or taking over a farm has a steep learning curve, but if that little spark is inside of you, I think you need to give it some kindling and see what happens. Don’t snuff it out until you’ve tried.
Congratulations to Sadie on her recent election to the Land O’Lakes, Inc. Corporate Board of Directors!