Jacki Johnson of Hancock County worked in the farm fields for years with her husband, and has continued to raise hogs since his death. Women have always been involved in agriculture, in a variety of roles, but more women are now identifying themselves as farmers. (Photo by Randy Roberts / The Courier)


Women have always played a “fundamentally critical role in sustaining the farm household,” said Carmen Bain, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University.

They may not have called themselves farmers. Instead, they called themselves farm wives, or talked about doing the bookkeeping. Neither was considered a serious part of the farm operation, Bain said.

But that is changing. Women are stepping out of the background.

“One of the big shifts that has taken place is women are self-identifying as farmers, which is different from what they have done in the past,” Bain said. “Women are more comfortable today being defined as farmers.”

Many women in Hancock County make substantial contributions to agriculture, past, present and future. The Courier found three who are representative:

One was blocked from Future Farmers of America 50 years ago because the Arlington ag teacher could not abide having a girl in the livestock breeding class. But on Thursday, Jacki Johnson, a lifelong farmer and 4-H adviser, was inducted into the Hancock County Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Another female farmer was not raised on a farm. But from as young as age 5, Karen Oberst cut out paper animals and barns and drew plans for farms. As an adult, she broke agriculture’s seemingly insurmountable barrier to outsiders, male and female alike, by buying a wrecked farm and seizing farming trends that fit her values and abilities.

A third woman married into the farming world. First an outsider, Heather Bryan today is a consummate ambassador for the agriculture industry. She combines experience in farming and teaching high school science to create curriculum and teach teachers how to bring agriculture into the classroom.

Bryan sees the whole agricultural landscape, both the farm and the astonishingly huge, career-rich expanse around it, and helps get youth inspired to journey for their promised land.

Jacki Johnson: Pioneering past to present

To some, Jacki Johnson’s induction into the Hancock County Agricultural Hall of Fame on Thursday was long overdue.

Her husband, Bill, was inducted posthumously in 2015.

On that day, “People caught me in the parking lot and said, ‘That’s a crime! It should have been both of you,'” Jacki, 69, recalls.

But hurt and indignation show only when Jacki — who as a tiny girl rode on her dad’s shoulders to the barn — recalls being shut out of Arlington FFA as a freshman. She had always wanted to spend her life being involved in agriculture.

The ag teacher’s rationale: “Breeding classes would be really difficult,” she said. She chuckled.

Then came the hurt and indignation.

“I was in the barn helping my dad artificially inseminate cows,” she said.

Today, many students in vocational agriculture classes are girls. That opportunity was not open to Jacki.

“I was mad because I really wanted to go into natural resources, too,” Jacki said. FFA credentials would have put her on a fast track to college for natural resources.

Instead, she went into Future Homemakers of America, and got a state homemakers degree.

She met her first husband. He was killed in an industrial accident a year and a half after they were married. About two years later, Jacki married her first husband’s younger brother, Bill, who was into farming.

It was a great fit and a great marriage.

“Bill and I loved spending time together in the barns, cleaning pens, delivering pigs,” she said.

Bill also worked off the farm as a journeyman electrician and construction coordinator for St. Rita’s Hospital in Lima. So Jacki’s role and the couple’s collaboration on the farm grew.

“He’d tell me in the evening what needed to be done. I might be plowing this field out here or working ground,” she said. “He did all of the planting and harvesting and stuff.”

She helped with the hog breeding.

“When Bill was working in town, he’d say, ‘Gilt (a young female pig who has not given birth yet) number 2-4 needs bred, put her in with the boar,'” Jacki recalls.

Jacki said she is not unique.

“Women have always been involved in agriculture. They never got any recognition back in the ’40s or ’50s,” Jacki said. “The husband made all of the decisions.”

But women were always there, contributing.

“Maybe it was only taking meals to the fields so (the men) didn’t have to stop” working, she said. “They would get off the tractor and have a sandwich.”

“It’s oftentimes the way our society has developed. Men get the recognition. They might technically or officially be bringing in more of the money, but a lot of the work, even the decision making, is shared among both the men and women and other people in the household,” said Ann Oberhauser, director of women’s and gender studies and professor of sociology at Iowa State University.

“I think it’s important that we shift the lens and recognize who has been involved in the work and decision making and even the financial parts of it,” Oberhauser said.

Jacki has helped shift the lens, contributing in additional ways and quietly breaking barriers.

For 25 years beginning in 1986, she or Bill served as secretary-treasurer of the Ohio Hampshire Swine Breeders Association.

“Always before it had been men secretaries of that association,” Jacki said.

“Bill was elected first, and then they found out I did all of the paperwork. I did the advertising. I printed the catalogs. I did all that,” she said. “I did all the stuff. Bill was away from home.”

“When it came to the shows, he ran the shows. I divided up the classes,” Jacki said. “We did the state fair. I ran the Hampshire Association down there. The Yorkshire (producers) liked the way I did it, and so I did the Hampshires and Yorkshire sales, too.”

“Then I’d bring all the money home. I would bring home all of the registration papers from all those hogs … I’d transfer all those, make out the receipts, write the checks,” she said. “Some days I walked out of there with $200,000 that I had to disburse to whoever sold the livestock.”

Jacki now raises hogs with one of her sons. She rents out her land to someone else, who farms it. She illustrates another trend.

Many women outlive their husbands, “thus inheriting and taking charge of more and more farms, farmland,” Oberhauser said.

Many choose to rent the land to tenants who then farm it, Iowa State’s Bain said.

Jacki said friends in her quilting club are going through the same life changes she has seen.

“A lot of the girls are widows. A couple weeks ago we lost husbands of two of the girls in our club. The guys were 61 (years old), and last week we lost another one, and he was 57,” she said.

“So, you know, it ends up that you have a lot of gals who inherit a farm. Now, what do you do with it?”

“There’s lots of women involved in agriculture. Some of them aren’t physically involved in it,” Jacki said. “They own the farm. They rent it.”

Karen Oberst of Hancock County raises grass, which is feed for her cattle. Thats really what I raise is grass, and then I sell the grass from the farm in the form of beef cattle, Oberst said. (Photo provided)

Karen Oberst: Niche farmer

Growing, storing and selling crops — commodity crop agriculture — is a hugely expensive operation, hard for anyone to get into today, said Bain of Iowa State University.

“It’s almost impossible to buy your way in,” she said.

“You see very few women. It’s still predominant that in commodity agriculture that land tends to be passed down to men and sons,” she said.

“There’s still some of those norms and assumptions around gender roles that it should be the male son who takes over the farm,” Bain said. “And if the daughter wants to get into it, she should marry into it.”

Karen Oberst, 56, of Jackson Township, did not marry into it. But she had a supportive husband, an entrepreneurial spirit and a dream.

She raises grass, which is feed for her cattle.

“That’s really what I raise is grass, and then I sell the grass from the farm in the form of beef cattle,” Oberst said. “It’s just kind of a different kind of way to think about it. The easiest thing for me to say to you is, ‘I’m a cattle farmer … But it’s more than that for me because I’m selling grass-fed products.”

Oberst knows the territory of being different.

“When other little girls were playing with paper dolls, I was creating farm scapes. That was always my plan,” she said. “I would cut the animals and barns out of paper and draw out plans.”

She was steeped in farm stories from her dad, who was raised on a dairy farm in New England, and from her grandmother.

Still, Oberst’s calling to farm life came from within.

“I’ve always felt a strong connection to the earth and the soil and animals that inhabit it, whether they be wild or domesticated,” Oberst said.

She earned a degree in agriculture and environmental studies in the early 1980s. She first worked for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and then stayed home with her children for a few years.

It was then that she began to get into farming in a “small way.”

“You could call it an incubator way, raising our own meat, milk, vegetables, that kind of thing,” she said.

“Then it eventually expanded to more of a commercial operation,” she said.

She dabbled in the farmer’s market.

“From there it kind of grew to more of a full-time occupation,” Karen said.

She resigned from her off-farm job to devote herself to farming full time.

Oberst was part of a trend.

“The important trend I think a lot of folks have been excited about is the opportunities that have developed for women that are related to alternative food systems,” Bain said. “So, the growing consumer desire to consume from local food systems, local foods, niche products, organic or cage-free; the whole buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the farmer’s market and so forth.”

“The development and the growth of these alternative food systems have provided opportunities for women — again not just women, but in particular women — because you can engage in these systems without a lot of land,” Bain said. “So it actually is more viable to purchase land and they’re typically more labor-intensive than capital-intensive and so women will try to manage the labor on these operations.”

Oberst was ready to take her farm enterprise to the next level. She and her husband, Tim, had been saving money for a long time for a down payment. They bought their current farm property at auction in 2005.

“This farm was highly discounted because it was a wreck,” she said. “I mean, it was so neglected,” Oberst said. “Other people walked away from it because it just needed too much work.”

“I nearly passed out when I thought about the magnitude of what we had done,” she said.

After a few years of an “incredible amount of work,” she and her husband got the place cleaned up and rehabbed.

Oberst’s operation, like many others in the trend cited by Bain, is less equipment-intensive and more labor-intensive.

That’s a fit for Oberst, who describes herself as “mechanically inept.” She chose this style of farming.

“I can’t look at a piece of equipment and tell you what’s wrong with it or how to fix it,” she said. “I do the management with the cows that doesn’t require much equipment — very little equipment. I’m moving cows on foot, by hand.”

The cows far outweigh her and sometimes they don’t want to go where she is leading them. But Oberst brings a different kind of strength to the task.

“I try to always foster a sense of calm. I want the cow to go on her own and to feel comfortable going on her own,” she said. “So maybe the nurturing ability compensates for my lack of strength, if I can get them to do what I want without having to use strength.”

That also means she uses less fossil fuel, which saves expense and protects the environment.

The cows harvest their own feed, instead of having it delivered to them, and they spread their own manure.

“We’re not certified organic, but we use organic practices,” she said. “Our fertilizer is in the form of manure.”

Heather Bryan holds a 2-week-old Nubian goat. Bryan is a McComb farmer and a former high school science teacher, who writes curriculum for incorporating agriculture in the classroom, and teaches teachers how to present it to students. (Photo by Randy Roberts / The Courier)

Heather Bryan: Consummate ambassador

One percent of those in an agriculture-related career are farmers.

Yet one in eight Ohioans holds a job connected with agriculture. Nationally, about one in nine jobs is in agriculture, food and related industries, according to the federal government.

And opportunities in agriculture are forecast to grow.

Heather Bryan, farmer and former high school science teacher, bears witness to the abundant opportunities. She writes curriculum for incorporating agriculture in the classroom, and teaches teachers how to present it to students.

She first was an ag outsider whose interests led her to meet and marry Mark Bryan, a McComb farmer.

“Growing up, any time I could get on a farm, talk to somebody or whatever it was, I was there,” said Heather Bryan, 43. “For me there was always this natural inquiry into the process.”

While growing up, she worked at Conine’s Country Market, Fostoria. She rode horses any time she could.

Those interests and predilections led her to meet and marry a farmer. Yet entering the world of grain farming still came as a “bit of a shock.”

“I was more of a livestock person,” Heather said.

“It was hard to get into it, not from a knowledge perspective — because as a science teacher, it was natural for me,” she said. “But it was hard, because not everybody wanted to listen to you or answer your questions.”

Yet asking questions and probing to improve a system is in Bryan’s DNA as a science teacher.

“I naturally look at the whole picture and start to look for ways to change and make things better,” Bryan said. “That’s not always easy when you don’t have that (grain farming) background.”

“I thought one way, and he (Mark, her husband) thought one way, and then over our time together, we’ve come together to create a better way,” Bryan said.

She sometimes got little response when taking her questions and ideas to others in the industry.

“It was definitely some challenge as far as that goes, trying to integrate it and talking to the Ohio corn and wheat boards or Ohio soybean boards,” she said.

What did she do when she faced cool or deaf ears?

“You put a smile on your face and you keep thinking and you keep moving forward and you find a different way to ask the same question that might be better received,” she said.

Patience and persistence pays off.

“The longer you are in those communities, the more accepted you are,” she said. “I have been in those communities for 10 years and so I never really receive any negative results now.”

“It’s really changed dramatically,” she said.

Likewise, women in general are being accepted in more prominent roles in agriculture, Bryan said.

“Women in agriculture have slowly been coming into those positions,” she said. “You’re seeing less reluctance for that integration as well as participation. I think that with changing farming systems you’re seeing everybody embracing anyone in agriculture.”

“So, more female farmers either farming for themselves or farming with their husbands, taking more prominent roles, whereas before I would say they weren’t as prominent,” Bryan said.

Bryan said the future looks even better for women, and men, in agriculture.

“Agriculture is bursting at the seams with opportunity,” she said.

Opportunities in technology are growing around the creation of genetically modified organisms and around agronomy, she said. Transportation of materials, marketing and ag business will continue to be growing areas.

She cited engineering and smart or precision farming, ensuring the farmer is putting the right material in the right place at the right time, not overusing nutrients, herbicides or pesticides.

Equipment engineering, environmental science and data management are more areas of projected job growth.

“Farmers are actually receiving more data now than they ever have before and they are hiring people to sort through the data so it makes sense to them,” Bryan said. “They need help with that.”

“This is the premier time for women to come onto the scene,” she said.

Wilin: 419-427-8413
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