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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Vickie Hadley, director of the Allen County Purdue Extension office, has been farming all her life.

  • Terri Richardson | The Journal Gazette While waiting for warmer weather to grow produce, Ellen Coplin sells wooden items made from trees cut down at her farm at Fort Wayne’s Farmers Market. Coplin and Hilary Armstrong run Hontz Farm Produce in Cromwell.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette A freezer beef steer at Hadley Farms, 5505 Bull Rapids Rd, Woodburn on Thursday April 25, 2019.

Sunday, May 19, 2019 1:00 am

Women enjoy life on farm

In a minority, but becoming more common

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Ellen Coplin and Hilary Armstrong are not your typical farmers.

Not only did they have to research and learn how to grow their produce farm, but they are also younger than most farmers – and they're women.

While most farmers are primarily male, growing up in a farm family, most likely learning the business from their fathers, the two Fort Wayne women have had to take a different path to make their dream a reality.

Coplin, who operates Hontz Farm Produce in Cromwell with Armstrong, says many people don't take her seriously as a farmer. She believes had she been a son of a farmer, it would've been a lot different.

Because she didn't grow up in a farming family, the 29-year-old has had to learn most of her techniques from research and talking to others who have been doing it for a while.

“Being an entrepreneur is a strange thing because you write your own rules,” Coplin says.

She says it's been different to be a woman farmer at times. “You're kind of a minority.” 

There are 5,745 female principal farmers in Indiana, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's 2018 National Agriculture Statistics Service, compared with 52,950 male principal farmers. A principal farmer is the person who runs the farm and makes the day-to-day management decisions.

However, according to the USDA's 2017 census on farms, the number of female producers in the U.S. has increased nearly 27% from 2012.

Much of that growth has come as the average U.S. farmer ages, more women have stepped up to run the operation, becoming primary decision makers or starting their own niche crops or organic produce. 

And while there aren't many female farmers in northeast Indiana, Vickie Hadley, director of Purdue Extension in Allen County, has been seeing an increase in women getting involved in produce and urban agriculture – a sign that women are finding their place in today's farming.

Teaching others

Hadley has seen many sides of being a female farmer.

She doesn't hesitate to say that it's hard to be a farmer, especially a farmer's wife.

She and her husband, who live in Woodburn, farm about 1,000 acres. And because farming is so unpredictable when it comes to weather, the economy and whether crops will grow, Hadley has maintained a full-time job off the farm to make sure the family has a steady income.

Having a full-time job also allows her to carry the family insurance.

Hadley has been with the Purdue Extension in Allen County 25 years. Before that, she taught home economics in East Allen County Schools.

She is one of the few women who do both – work off and on the farm. Hadley says many women choose to work off the farm and leave the farming duties to their husbands.

And those that do work on the farm are getting older. The average age of female operators in Indiana is 55. And as more women age and decide to retire, fewer women are taking their place.

Hadley, 63, grew up on a farm and married a farmer. Her son is also a farmer.

Hadley does the bookkeeping and taxes for the family operation. In the spring and fall, she helps with the harvest, as well as taking the grain to the elevator. In addition she has a full garden she maintains and freezes the vegetables she grows.

“I live what I teach,” Hadley says.

She tries to use her experience to educate others about the ins and outs of farming.

Her advice to women is to stay current on farming legislation, educate themselves on the operation of a farm and “don't be afraid to ask for help.”

Through the extension office she teaches workshops on such topics as home preservation, money management, investment and how to run a farming household.

Another program the extension office offers is Annie's Project, which has been offered in 33 states and helps farm women with problem-solving, record keeping and decision-making.

Hadley says such programs help farm women, especially spouses, understand what happens on the farm, including the ups and downs and the long days.

Spring and fall is tough for a farmer and their spouse, Hadley says. “I'll admit, working spring and fall, I don't get a lot of sleep,” Hadley says.

Farming can be frustrating, she says. “It has to be your passion,” she says. “(You) don't have a lot of control.”

The lack of control is why Cindy Berning also decided to get a job working away from the farm.

Her time over the years has been spent milking cows, taking care of the calves and raising seven kids. Off the farm, she has worked different jobs, including 18 years in a high school cafeteria and currently part time in guest services at Memorial Coliseum.

She says working another job gives the family extra spending money, as well as health insurance. “Primarily why farmers' wives go and work somewhere (else) is to have insurance,” Berning says.

Age is a factor when it comes to women farmers, she says. “I have seen women, if their spouse has passed away, that they have continued on,” Berning says. Some of them pass on the farm to their son to carry on the legacy, she says.

Berning plans to continue farming until she passes away, she says. After all, it's been her life for 63 years. 

Berning was born and raised on a dairy farm and has been married 42 years to a dairy farmer. Their farm is along U.S. 27, between Fort Wayne and Decatur.

She is an advocate for farming and is involved in the Allen County Farm Bureau.

Although the work is tough and she says farmers are underpaid for the hours that they put in, “I enjoy it,” Berning says.

“We can have a great year one year, and a lousy one the next year,” Berning says.

“It's a gamble. I don't need a casino, ... because it's a gamble every year.”

Getting inventive

On a Saturday in April, Coplin is manning a spot at Fort Wayne's Farmers Market inside the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

She is selling wooden items, including carved animals, signs and cutting boards that came from wood cleared for her and Armstrong's produce farm. The women don't have greenhouses and have to wait for warmer weather to grow their summer produce, which includes squash, tomatoes, okra and blueberries. It's the blueberries that are the impetus for the wooden creations.

When the women decided to start a produce farm, part of the work was reviving a blueberry patch on Armstrong's family farm that had overgrown and been left unattended for a while. They had to cut down several trees, which had grown in the middle of the patch. The women had to buy a chainsaw to do the job, so afterward they thought why not use the wood for artistic purposes.

This is their fifth year gardening and tending to the produce.

Coplin says it took them a couple years thinking about the farm “before we were brave enough to try it.” But both women love to be outdoors, so they decided to go for it.

The farm is 100% organic, which means Coplin has had to squish a few bugs and stuff, she says, as she tends to the produce.

She also has learned to fix a tractor and other machines, as well as spending quite a bit of time walking the aisles of home improvement stores looking for the right tool to complete her work.

However, farming is not their only job.

Coplin teaches part-time music (her main instrument is piano) at Purdue University Fort Wayne and Sweetwater Academy, while Armstrong teaches English at PFW. They also are in a band together called elle/the Remnant. Coplin plays cello and Armstrong is the singer and lead guitarist.

“This is really what we want to do,” Coplin says. However, she doesn't believe their farm will ever become a full-time business. “We do scheme about how to do more farming and less with our other jobs,” she says.

But being a farmer, especially a woman, is not an easy job, Coplin says. “(You) have to have a lot of humility and self-confidence.”