Bridging the Gap: Women in Agriculture
By Cristina DC Pastor
Lori Feltis said the biggest "challenge" she faced as a woman farmer was the tractor: buying one and driving it.
The first time she purchased a John Deere, the salesperson was reluctant to put it in her name until he got to know her better. When it came time to operate it, she found it was a little too much machinery for her 5'2" frame. But once she learned to handle it, Feltis knew she was well on her way to living a happy and productive life in agriculture.
Feltis owns and operates Feltis Farms in Stewartville, Minnesota, where she grows corn,soybeans, oats, wheat, and alfalfa and raises beef, sheep and chickens. Herduties involve everything from planting and harvesting, spraying, marketing, maintenance and repair on the machinery and equipment, as well as bookkeeping and tax preparation.
But she doesn't do it alone.
"[This is] a family farm," Feltis said. "I could not possibly take on this responsibly without the help of my family."
Feltis' leadership extends far beyond the farm's vast acreage. She sits on the board of several industry groups—the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Olmsted County Farm Bureau, Olmsted/South Wabasha Corn & Soybean Growers Association and Stakeholder Advisory Group for the Root River Watershed among them. On a national scale, she is a director of the U.S. Grains Council Agribusiness Association.
Feltis is aware of the issues some women farmers face—from securing a line of credit to owning land. But she also acknowledges that agriculture has transformed in the last decade, and that women have become a dynamic presence. There are many areas where they can excel, and women have shown enormous interest in issues such as farm policy, air and water quality issues, food safety, and animal welfare. Agriculture, she said, has become "exciting."
"In the 1980s there were only two females in my local FFA chapter," Feltis said. "Today, 43 percent of the FFA members are women, and women hold 50 percent of the state leadership positions." Citing data from a Minnesota agri-women organization, she said women operate 70 percent of niche farming; men, according to the same study, are more likely to practice traditional farming.
Women, she continued, "bridge the gap" between growers and consumers and prevent the widening disconnect between the two sectors.
"Consumers are more likely to trust the voice of a farm woman who produces food, not only for her family, but for the world," said Feltis. "Farm women share the same values and concerns as urban consumers when it comes to food price, food safety, organic vs. traditional food, etc."
Although born and raised on a family farm, Feltis went to college to get a degree in the medical field "so I could someday be rich," she says.
"I landed a great job at the Mayo Clinic, made pretty good money and had excellent medical benefits." But after 10 years, she decided to take a more active role in expanding her family's operation and left the medical research group. It's been 20 years since she became a full-time farmer.
Growing up in Stewartville, Feltis got to know many women who may not be full-fledged farmers but support their husbands in their own unique ways. Some are stay-at-home moms and tractor drivers for their husbands when the need arises. A lot of these women make meals, care for the children, run errands for spare parts. Even the full-time Mayo Clinic employees help out by providing a more stable income stream and medical benefits for the family. No role is too small. The women help make the farming operation successful in her community, she stressed.
"Many farms across America are jointly operated by both the husband and wife. I see therole of women increasing in the future, both in production and in business," she said.
Feltis is married to Clifton Feltis, a representative for Pioneer Seed. "He does a lot of agronomy work for area farmers. He also calibrates planter seed units in the winter months," Feltis said of her husband's work.
They have two sons and a daughter. Nathan, the oldest, farmswith Feltis and runs his own custom harvesting business. Nick works with his dad selling seed. Natalie, a graduate of the culinary arts, is farming with her boyfriend and his family.
"There are days when I don't have two nickels in my pocket, but there is always richness in my heart and soul. I have given our children a life no money can buy," said Feltis.