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Legacy Story: Farm Women Show Their Strengths as Crisis in Agriculture Deepens (1986)

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

 

Farmers Jeanine Henneman (right) and Jean Jennissen in the Jennissens’ farm yard, near Millersville, Minnesota, on a fall Sunday afternoon. The two friends’ conversation turns, as it often does, to the farm economy and ways to improve it. Photo Anne Ostberg

The following story appeared in the November 11-24, 1986 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In tandem with our “On the Surface” print issue, our March focus is on women in agriculture and environmentalism.


At 11:30 Sunday morning, Jeanine Henneman was heading out to the barn for the second time that day. Henneman, a dairy farmer near Alexandria, was going to feed her herd of 56. She had been up since 5:30 that morning, when the cows were milked. Later that day, she would milk them again.

Sunday is an easy day —  Henneman only works six hours. Other days, she and her husband, Bob, may work 14 to 15 hours. In spite of the long hours and hard work, the Hennemans are losing money.

The economic difficulties on the farm are affecting farm women like Jeanine Henneman. And women are taking a leading role in dealing with the problems.

“We are the fighters,” Henneman said. “You have to keep the morale up if it starts going down. I think women will have to become more involved, more than they have been in the past. Maybe it’s the mother hen in us — we’re going to fight to protect our nest.”

The nest that is the family farm has been severely damaged by the high costs of farming and low profits. Prices farmers receive for their crops are the same they got in 1948. Corn now brings less than $1 a bushel, while it costs about $2 a bushel to raise it.

In 1970, corn brought farmers $3 a bushel. They could buy a car for $3,000, a three-bedroom house for $20,000 and a tractor for $9,000. Today, while receiving only a third of what they received 15 years ago for their crop, farmers pay $12,000 for a car, $70,000 for a house, and $45,000 for a tractor.

Good prices and high land values gave many farmers a false sense of security in the 1970s, causing them to expand their operations and increase their debt load. Those that didn’t manage their money well have since gone out of business. But now the crisis is so severe that it is affecting those who have been good managers.

The constant battle to survive “does something to you after a while,” Henneman said. “After you go year after year after year after year losing money, no matter how hard you work or how much better you get at your operation — you’re still losing money — that does something to a person’s self-esteem.”

Self-esteem is especially a problem for farm women, who are still struggling for equal recognition. Henneman has seen little progress. “I think that more often on the farm now, women who do participate feel themselves to be equal. Their husbands feel them to be equal. That’s about as far as it goes. I think socially, business-wise, we’re still the wife.”

She recounted stories of salesmen walking on to their farm, asking her if the boss was home. “The salesmen don’t usually sell anything on our farm if they come with that attitude,” Henneman said.

“I tell them I think that’s not a very good attitude when you walk on a farm. You’ve got to give the woman a chance. You know, maybe she won’t know what he’s talking about. But chances are she does.”

Henneman knows what she was talking about. She’s been meeting with many people lately, spreading the word about the farm crisis and educating people about women’s changing role. 

She also decided to get some more education herself. Last fall, Henneman and her friend, Jean Jennissen, signed up for a free course at the Alexandria Area Vocational-Technical Institute called, “Women Partners in Agriculture.” Both wanted to learn more about farm management, since they are in charge of the bookkeeping for their respective dairy operations. But then women got more out of the class than they bargained for.

“There’s a lot of things I’ve done in the last year that I never would have done without the support — just getting the confidence from the class,” Jennissen said. She and Henneman have spoken before groups on the farm crisis, something Jennissen said she didn’t have the nerve to do before. 

Jennissen and Henneman also learned to write resumes, run computers, understand legal terms involved in running a large business, improve their bookkeeping and realize their skills and potential.

“Give us a little training,” Jennissen said, “and we could probably manage any business you wanted to stick us into.”

***

People who work with farmers said they’ve noticed a change in farm women’s roles as a result of the farm crisis. One of those is Marilyn Grantham of the University of Minnesota. Grantham said women often take the first step in dealing with the farm crisis because they are more flexible and more practical. “It’s easier for them to come to grips with the situation,” she has found.

When the farm crisis began about three years ago, the University set up a hotline, and the farm women were the first to call for help, Grantham said. It seemed harder for men to face their problems. “It’s generally a cultural thing in rural communities — you just don’t admit that you have trouble,” she said.

Grantham added that the inability to deal with the farm crisis is only intensified for people who run farms that have been in the family for generations. If they lose the farm, not only are they failing themselves, but they are failing several generations of farmers.

Sometimes farm women come to the extension agent for help, asking that their husbands not be tools of their inquiry, said Larry Zilliox, the Douglas County extension agent.

When farm women aren’t involved in the process, the extension service makes an effort to get them involved. “The family farm is always portrayed as a way of life, but it’s a business,” Zilliox said. If the farm woman’s name is on the contract, she should be just as involved as her husband, Zilliox believes.

The farms that survive are the ones in which both husband and wife get involved, he said.

***

Both Kay and Philip Baudoin are involved in their soybean operation near Rochester, and they are surviving. But the Baudoins would like to do more than just survive.

“What makes it tough is once you’ve had it, and then you don’t have it. And you haven’t caused it yourself,” Kay Baudoin said. “I resent not being able to do the things that I feel entitled to” after 30 years on the farm. 

Baudoin has spent two-thirds of her life working and living on a farm, since she married at the age of 15. The Baudoin’s home reflects that they have seen better times, and now they are working for a return to those days.

When the price of soybeans dropped below the cost of growing them, the couple decided to try a new way to sell their crop. For the past year, they have been working to develop a soybean snack called “Crunchies.”

At the dining room table of their Dodge Center farm, Kay and Philip Baudoin talk with a visitor about marketing plans for their new soybean snack. Photo by Paula Keller

Philip Baudoin came up with the idea to deep fry the beans and season them with a little sugar and salt. Since his initial idea, Kay Baudoin has worked to find a way to mass produce the beans and create a package for them.

Kay Baudoin, who has no education in advertising or design and who had never done anything like this before, researched packaging of other snack products to come up with the packaging for Crunchies.

Baudoin also had to learn about trademarks, label printing, purchasing bags, locating a commercial kitchen and obtaining liability insurance. So far, insurance is the sticking point in getting the Crunchies venture off the ground.

Because they haven’t sold food before, the Baudoins have been quoted insurance rates as much as five times higher than local food vendors. Kay Baudoin has begun contacting her legislators and other state officials to inform them of the difficulties small businesses face in obtaining reasonable insurance. She is a strong believer in bringing about change through the government. 

“The only way you can change the wrong that’s being done in our country is to go through the government channel, and it starts with your Representative,” she said. “We live in a democratic society and we should speak out and not feel that our one little voice isn’t heard. That’s what makes things change — when people aren’t going to take it anymore.

Baudoin wants changes in more than the insurance industry. She wants to see new laws and programs that will improve the farm economy and make life better for her and other farmers. As a member of Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE), Baudoin hopes to make a difference.

WIFE, a national organization that started a Minnesota chapter last April, is working for change in the farm economy — change brought about by education and involvement in the political system. The state chapter now has 47 members, who lobby for both local and national farm issues.

“The farmer is a very important person,” Kay Baudoin said. I think people are still looking at farmers like they’re standing there in bibs with a pitchfork in their hand, and that is not the case. Today’s farm women are intelligent human beings. They’re capable, and they do many jobs. You have to be very versatile to be a farm woman.”

***

That versatility has led farm women to be able to pick up the pieces and move on, said Mervin Freeman, a Rochester area farm management agent. “When a farm business fails, women are accepting that reality a lot sooner,” partly because they are most likely to be closer to the problem. The farm women often keep the books, so they see the figures first. Also, they often are the ones at home, taking the phone calls from bill collectors, Freeman said.

When it comes to getting a job off the farm, farm women tend to be more employable, he said. They can market themselves better and can take traditional pink collar jobs in town that might not be acceptable to men, such as store clerks, nursing home assistants or waitresses. 

Another strength women bring to the farm crisis is their ability to grieve, believes Nan Satterlee, statewide organizer of the Minnesota Women’s Fund.

Despite regular 14- to 15-hour days, farmers Jeanine Henneman and her husband Bob still are losing money on their 56-cow dairy farm near Evansville, Minnesota. Photo Anne Ostberg

Farm women dealt with the pain of the farm crisis several years ago when it first began, and now they are able to cope with it, Satterlee has found. But the men are immobilized because they are just starting to grieve, she said.

***

As she fed the cattle, Jeanine Henneman talked about how she worked to be more optimistic about the farm crisis and her family’s difficulties. She talked about all the details of good farm management — all the elements that go into making a farm as successful as is possible during the economic crunch.

Something about her voice, her sure movements as she did her chores said that Henneman loves being involved in farming as she is, in spite of the difficulties. She was asked if she ever considered working off the farm. The answer was quick, adamant.

“I’m worth too much. I know how to do too much on this farm. We couldn’t afford to hire someone to replace me.”

These are the women who are becoming more than just the farm wife. These are the women who are reading the newspapers, learning about farm policy, writing their representatives; and they are the ones determined to change things to make life on the farm better for everyone. 

— November 1986