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Farmers First, Women Second

These groundbreaking female farmers are Big-Time Operators.

Female primary farm operators on large-scale operations are incredibly rare in agriculture. Women are mainstream at farm shows these days in a slew of different roles at agriculture companies, but finding a female farmer who is confidently making management decisions on a farm is a rarity. We want to introduce you to four of these farmers.

April Hemmes, a self-proclaimed big-time operator (BTO) of corn and soybeans in Hampton, Iowa, snagged a degree in animal science. She worked at a bank, for a professor, at the Iowa Swine Test Station, and then followed her instincts to Washington, D.C., to work for a member of Congress. 

“I always wanted to get involved in international agriculture, but the farm kept calling me back, and that’s what I always wanted to do with my life,” Hemmes says. “So here I am, back on the farm since 1985.”

Cameo Van Horn farms 863 acres of corn and soybeans near Danube, Minnesota. She went to community college and then took a job as a seamstress in a bridal shop near Minneapolis. After that, she worked for a cryogenic tank manufacturer and developed her machining and welding skills.

“I never planned on coming back to the farm,” says Van Horn. “Shortly before my daughter was born, my mom and dad asked me if I’d like to come back to the farm. At that time, it seemed like a good thing to do, and it still does.”

Debbie Lyons-Blythe who heads up a 500-head Angus cattle ranch in White City, Kansas, always wanted cows, but she earned her degree in journalism and took her personality to radio before she called a ranch home once again.

“I really do enjoy cows,” says Lyons-Blythe. “You cannot do this job and not enjoy cows. You know, there are a lot of easier ways to make a living.”

Paula Karlock, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer in Momence, Illinois, left home for an out-of-state college to get her degree in agriculture. After school, she took her knowledge to the local grain elevator and then the Farm Service Agency (FSA) for eight years.  

“Knowing that my family has been in the farming business since 1896 and farming in this area, it just carries through – you want to make an impact on the next generation,” Karlock says.

April Hemmes
Just like any other farmers, these women talk about the struggles of commodity prices, express their great love for the land and concern about regulation, and rave about the generations that farmed and ranched the same ground before them – all from behind the wheel of their pickups. 

What makes them different than some male farmers? They never assumed they’d be the ones inheriting the farm. Whether it was hard times in agriculture, other siblings, or interests in different occupations or facets of agriculture, these farmers weren’t guaranteed that they’d run the family operation someday.

Few and Far Between

The USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture says 30% of U.S. farmers are women, but that doesn’t hold as much clout with what Hemmes calls BTOs. 

Regardless of what the report says, Hemmes is certain there aren’t that many female BTOs out in the country with her. 

How does she know for sure? She helped out with the last census and knows that people who sell at least $1,000 of farm goods a year are counted as farmers. In her opinion, selling produce at a farmers market is impressive, but it’s not the same thing as what she is doing on her Iowa century farm. 

“As far as female owner-operators like me, I wish I could say there were a lot more of me out there,” says Hemmes. “But really, in over 31 years now, I haven’t found a lot more.”

She’s not wrong. According to that same report, women make up only 14% of principal farm operators in the U.S.

The thing is, women are out there in the country, they just work in different capacities than Karlock, Van Horn, Hemmes, and Lyons-Blythe. Most – 82% – of the 288,264 female principal farm operators counted in that census were running operations smaller than 180 acres in size, and 76% of those farmers sold less than $10,000 in farm goods in 2012.

“Because of technology advancements,
a lot of tasks are mechanized,
which makes it easier for women
to be involved in agriculture.” – Paula Karlock

Van Horn only knows of one other female farmer anywhere near her area, and she raises chickens. “Raising chickens vs. crop farming is different. Even livestock, any other livestock, is different,” she says. 

It’s true that women are a lot more likely to run livestock operations rather than traditional corn, soybean, and wheat farms. To be specific, 23% of women principal operators are in charge of beef cattle operations and only 6% of that same group are running grain and oilseed operations. That’s a big difference in percentage, but both require intense labor and decision-making.

Being the Farmer AND the Wife

“My husband and I are very much a team, but I’m the one who’s here all day and in charge of the day-to-day operations,” says Lyons-Blythe, who has raised five children and runs a cattle operation with her husband, Duane. “My husband works at a bank, so in the fall he leaves in the dark and comes home in the dark.”

Lyons-Blythe is one of two daughters who grew up on her family’s Angus cattle operation in Kansas. Her mother was the cattle rancher and her father worked in town as a doctor, so it was all hands on deck when it came to chores – gender had nothing to do with it. 

Cameo Van Horn
“The fact that my mom was so involved in the operation really made a difference in my life. That’s because I realized it didn’t matter how much strength I had or how much knowledge I had as a woman. The cows just need fed,” she says. Lyons-Blythe and her sister both grew up to run cattle operations with their spouses.

Hemmes’ husband works in town as a salesman for a pump and meter company. You won’t find him driving his wife’s equipment, regardless of how busy she is. Hemmes makes every decision, every day of the year, to make her 1,000 or so row-crop acres profitable. 

“I don’t want to take away from those women who work side by side with their husbands,” says Hemmes. “They’re doing the same work and helping make the decisions. They’re just as much a part of that operation as the man is, but the men always get the credit, it seems like.”

Her dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather spent their lives nurturing the same soil that Hemmes works so hard to keep in place and fertile. 

Van Horn lets her husband, Craig, hop in the cab, but she’s still making the decisions for the Minnesota farmland that has been in her family since 1914. 

“People are always surprised when I correct them saying, ‘No, I’m the farmer, and my husband helps out,’” says Van Horn. The first year that Van Horn made all of the decisions without her father’s input was 2016. He claimed retirement and handed her the reins.

Karlock and her cousin work together as primary operators on the farm with the guidance of their fathers, who founded the farming partnership together in the 1950s. Her husband helps out when he’s needed, but he works for the local township full time. 

“With GPS technology, I am the keeper of the data, and I work with the data over the wintertime to make prescriptions for our planting season,” says Karlock. She also works directly with the farm’s agronomist, does all the record and bookkeeping, and pretty much runs the show when planting season rolls around.

What’s Changed?

Paula Karlock
In the past, one of the biggest barriers for women was the natural lack of physical strength. Depending on the task, that barrier is still a challenge, but every new piece of machinery or technology advancement is leveling the playing field.

“There’s so much that’s mechanized in farming and ranching that it’s not a brute strength kind of thing anymore,” says Lyons-Blythe. “As far as being a woman, I just feel like there are no roadblocks for me today.”
What about those tasks that are a little more challenging? These farmers get creative and use a little human ingenuity.

“One of the challenging things is just not having some of the body strength to move something or to get things loosened up from a tractor,” says Van Horn. “I have to have a little bit of ingenuity to figure out a different way to do things so I can get them to work.”

As much as things have changed for women in agriculture, these farmers – no matter how educated, involved, or experienced – still get some funny reactions. 

“One of the misconceptions would be when someone comes out to visit the farm and says, ‘You can drive that big machine?’ Well, yes. It’s just like learning to drive a car or anything else,” says Karlock, who feels trusted and respected by other farmers in her area because of her work with the FSA.
“Every once in a while you run into someone who really isn’t comfortable,” says Lyons-Blythe. “Once they get to know me, they realize I’m informed and not just hanging out here because it’s cute. I’m working. I know this stuff.”

Lyons-Blythe sells private treaty bulls, so many cattle ranchers come and work with her face-to-face, buying bulls. “They come to my place, we talk about cattle for an hour or so, and they always load up a bull,” she says confidently. 

Hemmes uses her boisterous sense of humor if any comments are made in her direction at one of the many meetings she attends as a board member for a handful of different associations. These days, Hemmes still calls agriculture “a guy’s world,” but she considers her experiences working with other farmers, bankers, and sales reps to be pleasant overall.

“Even though I farm just like the guys do out here, I think differently than they do. It’s just inherent for a mom or a woman,” says Hemmes. “I think that point of view is so important on a lot of our commodity boards and local boards.” 

Debbie Lyons-Blythe
When it comes to leadership, these farmers don’t shy away from opportunities to lead others or to ensure that trade and legislation hear the voices of the growers and ranchers affected by policy decisions.

Women like Lyons-Blythe’s mother attended meetings years ago and were making policy and connecting with legislators, which broke through the glass ceiling for other female farmers. “Now, it’s just accepted and understood that if I want to do that, that’s OK,” Lyons-Blythe says.

Passing It On

At the end of the day, these farmers dream of passing on their land and operations someday to the next generation – just like other growers or ranchers.

“We want to be able to pass it on to our kids, and then have them pass it on to our grandkids,” says Lyons-Blythe. “The only way to do that is to really give them responsibility and teach them what happens on the farm.”

Whether their own children take over the land or someone else, these farmers are proud to enhance and preserve the land the same way their ancestors did years before them. 

“Caring for the land, making the soil healthier than my grandfather and father had it, and making sure everything is ready to go for the next generation is truly the most rewarding thing in my life – to be able to pass it on,” Hemmes says.

Are you a female BTO? We’d love to hear from you.


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