“A man works from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done.”
These women’s stories mirror those of thousands across North Dakota who are the “glue” that hold their family farm operations together.
Ron Jensen stands in the shade of his 1978 Brigadier tandem-axle grain truck and watches a combine working at the other end of an 80-acre patch of field peas.
“You know,” he says, “she really is a lot better at that than I am.”
“She” in this case is Marla Jensen, Ron’s wife and partner in their 2,000-acre Renville County farming operation. In the cab with Marla this afternoon is Marissa, the couple’s 9-year-old daughter. Other harvest days would see their 13-year-old daughter, McKinzie, operating the grain cart with the nonchalance of long-time veteran machinery operator.
These are very capable people who, like their counterparts in the rest of North Dakota, learn the ins and outs of machinery at a very young age. Do not try to tell them, or any other North Dakota farm women, that they can’t do something simply because they are female.
Women in the county and in the state in general, have a long history of involvement in the farming business. From the early days of sod houses and homesteading to the age of giant machinery and mega-acreage farms, woman have been the glue that held together the family and, in some cases, kept the farm afloat in hard times.
Back then, it was the egg money and the cream check usually provided by farm wives that made the difference. These days, it’s more likely to be an off-the-farm job and its accompanying salary and benefits that help keep a farming operation solvent. In either case, their participation comes down to hard work and long hours.
Hedvig “Hedy” Overton, 89, who farmed in Renville County for 41 years with her late husband Paul, recalls a typical day during harvest.
The day, she says, started well before sunrise and could easily last until 2 o’clock the next morning, depending on the weather conditions. “I always took a bath every morning,” she says, “even when I was going to the field.” Then she would prepare breakfast for her family while simultaneously putting together the evening meal. By 11 a.m., she had to have all of her housework done so that she could join the men in the field.
In 1959, when her boys – Jerry and Dennis – had both left home, Hedy volunteered to start running the combine during harvest, an offer her husband regarded with some skepticism. “Paul said there was no way I could do it, but I told him, ‘You put me out there and leave me alone, and I’ll figure it out.’” And she did…for the next 23 years.
Of course, she still did all of the housework, cooking, and cleaning. “I did feel sorry for myself a little bit, but I shouldn’t have. I had all the conveniences…a washing machine and dryer, things like that.”
Farm women seem to accept with grace a work role that many might see as unfairly stacked against them.
Marla Jensen, for example, teaches third grade at Kenmare Public School, does the books for the farm, drives her daughters to various sporting and school events, maintains the household, and works the harvest.
“I don’t mind helping out,” she says, “because I know it’s our major income.” Her father-in-law, Donovan Jensen, a long-time Renville County farmer, taught her how to run the combine the first year she and Ron were married. The combine was brand-new back then. “I was probably the first one to run it,” she says. “I had my ups and downs.” One of the “downs” was running the combine into a slough, a misstep she remembers vividly. “I called and told Ron that the combine was sinking. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought.” The combine was rescued from the slough the next day. Apparently, it did not suffer from the experience; it’s the same machine she handles so expertly today 15 years later.
Sometimes, a farm wife’s participation is brought about by sheer necessity. A few hundred yards South of Ron and Marla Jensen’s operation, sits the very prosperous-looking farmstead of David and Candy Jensen, (Dave is Ron’s second cousin). They’ve been farming the property for 34 years after an initially difficult year introduced Candy, who grew up a Kenmare town girl, to the realities of life as a farm wife.
That first year, the couple took some well-meaning advice from a veteran farmer and declined the expense of crop insurance.
“At that point,” Candy remembers, “we had a hail storm. Then the next day it came back and totally wiped us out. So we had nothing.”
To survive and maintain the farm, David went to work in Montana’s oil fields, coming home on weekends to do what he could on the farm. The rest of the farm duties fell to Candy, who also had to raise two children and maintain a household.
“I did the cultivating, the rock picking…a lot of the maintenance stuff. I could do quite a lot of it,” she says. “We’d talk on the telephone, so Dave could tell me how to do some of the things.”
That situation continued until 1982 when David decided that he was missing too much of his kids’ lives and quit the oil field. Candy, however, continues to drive the triple axle grain truck, run the combine, and enjoy her family, which now includes four grandchildren. She also works at the Kenmare Hospital as a transcriptionist, coder, and sometime receptionist.
Although she had originally planned to be a nurse, Candy says she is content with farm life. “I just like the outdoors, I always have.”
Long hours outdoors and multiple duties are not uncommon for successful farm women. Karen Brekhus, who farms with her husband, Palmer, northwest of Tolley, was voted Farm and Ranch Guide magazine’s Country Woman of the Year in 2003. The energy and knowledge that won her the award back then prompted one neighbor to describe Karen as “the hardest working woman in the state.”
Palmer and their son, Julius, are crop dusters and farmers. Karen manages the crop dusting business, fielding calls from farmers and putting together the maps and schedules that are vital to the very complicated business of spraying crops. She mixes the chemicals, loads the spraying tanks, and makes sure the planes are gassed and ready to go. She’s been doing it for 22 years, in addition to running the farm’s books, keeping house, and helping with harvest. During spraying season, she says, it’s not unusual for her husband and son to require 25 to 30 refills of chemical and fuel. “Sometimes,” she says, “they don’t even get to shut off the planes.”
It’s an astonishingly busy life, but she also finds time to run a sewing business out of her home. During this past summer, she was driving grain trucks during harvest, filling the planes when necessary, and sewing a wedding gown for a bride planning to be married on Labor Day.
The sometimes frantic pace of farm life doesn’t bother her a bit, she says. “I enjoy being on the farm, just being free. The worst part, though, is the long hours. But when you are your own boss, you put in that kind of hours. You wouldn’t work that hard for somebody else.”
Now in her early 60s, Karen is philosophical about her future. “I’m getting close to retirement age,” she says. “I think it will be hard to quit, because what are you going to do with your time?”
She is optimistic about the direction of farming. “I think technology is just going to keep getting better and better. I remember when they said you’d be able to sit in your house and drive your tractor. I thought that would never happen, but we’re not that far from it right now with GPS and everything.”
Nevertheless, she says, there will always be an important role for women in the farming operation, no matter how sophisticated the technology becomes. “Somebody’s still got to do the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry.”
Karen experienced the farming life early, growing up on a farm not far from Devil’s Lake. For some farm wives, however, the transition from city life to country life can represent a significant lifestyle changes.
Shari Mau, who farms and ranches with her husband Ernie southeast of Tolley, was actually born on a farm, but spent her early years as a city girl.
“When we first got married,” she says, “we lived in Tolley. Then we bought this place in 1970 and I got to learn about farming.”
And it’s been quite a learning experience for the whole family. The Mau’s operation, which started out in grain and beef cattle, has evolved into a remarkably diverse business with customers as far away as Norway and parts of Asia.
At first, Shari did what a lot of farm wives do…she ran the combine, cultivated, and kept the house. Then in 1988, Ernie decided to buy some elk, mainly because he liked elk meat and didn’t really have the time to go hunting.
“We started out with four,” Shari says. “Now we have about 500.” They also have a small group of buffalo, about 50 mule deer and a burgeoning herd of fallow deer (small shovel-antlered Eurasian cousins of the indigenous white tails) that are prized for their trophy racks.
The Maus regularly arrange hunts on their property, which includes some land adjacent to the Mouse River, for hunters interested in both trophies and meat. “We can make it as difficult a hunt or as easy as they want,” says Shari. “We even have it handicapped accessible. We’ve had people from all over the U.S. and even farther.” One hunter came from Norway. There’s no specific season or licenses necessary for private hunts, but most of the hunters come in the fall, she says. The hunters indicate what size of animal they want and the Maus arrange the successful hunt. This is not to say that it’s easy. The 1,200-acre range where the elk live is rugged and the animals can be quite elusive, Shari says.
Hunters can also take buffalo and fallow deer if they wish, with the fee depending on the quality and size of the animal.
They also sell the federally inspected meat, often to regional restaurants and people in the area. They derive another revenue stream from selling the “velvet” antlers of the elk. The Asian market prizes the processed antlers for medicinal purposes and sales, according to Shari, just about equal the income from meat and hunting.
Ernie and Shari start removing the velvet horns toward the end of May. The process involves putting the bulls into a squeeze chute and cutting the horns off with an electric saw. It takes about a month to harvest all of the horns.
“In the squeeze chute,” Shari says, “we put a blindfold on them and put a tourniquet around the base of the horns. Some of them get pretty nasty, but some are quite calm. Some of them bleed quite heavily depending on how worked up they get.”
The blood within the horns must be preserved, she explains, if the antlers are to be sold for medicinal purposes. Then they freeze the velvet antlers in a special locker on the farm and sell them once a year. Buyers come to the farm to arrange the purchase.
Early women homesteaders set the standard
If wrangling elk, filling spray planes, and running combines don’t seem like typical feminine career paths, consider the thousands of women who actually homesteaded in North Dakota in the early 1900s. These were often women who left teaching jobs, families, and relatively easy lives to claim 160-acre plots of virgin prairie. They lived in sod huts, milked cows, hunted, endured bitter cold, and raised their hardy families. In her 1996 book, Land in Her Own Name, North Dakota State University professor H. Elaine Lindgren explains that there is a myth “that homesteading was a man’s opportunity.” The reality is that in North Dakota thousands of widows, single women, and women who had been deserted filed claims on homestead land, “proved it up,” and worked their claims just as successfully as did their male counterparts. Perhaps it is this legacy that fosters the energy and tenacity displayed by the farm women working and living in Renville County and the rest of the state.
Kenmare native John Clausen left North Dakota in the late-1960s, and has lived in Hendersonville, North Carolina, since 1990. In his career, he has taught college writing classes and written for national publications like Rolling Stone and the New York Daily News. He has spent the past two summers in North Dakota on his family farm, where, in addition to enjoying the fresh air and sunsets, this year he has grappled with a bumper crop of pumpkins, and watched a tornado pass over his farmhouse. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clausen thanks Allen Jacobson of Tolley, North Dakota, for his help in researching this story.
Philadelphia-based Vid Mednis is a widely traveled professional who has photographed events in Latvia during the post-Soviet transition period and worked among the monasteries of Thailand where he studied the art of Thai massage at the Wat Po Temple. He has photographed Lava Beds National Park in Northern California and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina, as well as several other sites and well-known museums. He is an associate of Philadelphia’s Interpretive Solutions firm. In addition to a week-long visit to North Dakota this summer, Mednis recently spoke to the annual conference of the National Park Service Interpretive Planners in Washington, D.C.