How Franny Fritz beat the odds in farming
Franny Fritz came home from college 42 years ago armed with a fresh degree in animal science and a minor in dairy. Right then and there she was in business. Her father had died when she was in high school, so her mom and sister, still on that farm, agreed that the natural thing to do was for Franny to put her new degree right to work running the farm. She did just that.
Today, the dairy is gone and Fritz is raising beef. And lots of grass. She drives out to check on her heifers, parks her pickup, and quietly saunters over to a barbed-wire fence. She calls and the heifers came running. They like their Franny.
The Fritz farm sits 14 miles from Iroquois, 13 from Cavour, and 17 from Artesian, South Dakota. “So…kind of out in the middle of nowhere,” says Fritz.
Being a woman farm owner and operator has had its challenges over the years, she notes. At South Dakota State University, women ag students were rare. “In my animal-science class, I’d walk into a room and if there were more than five women in the room, I’d quickly back out and check the room number to make sure I was in the right room.”
Coming home to farm, there were bets in the community she wouldn’t last a year, she says, but she made it through the tough times in the 1980s and is still going strong.
“It’s a good life, but it’s a stressful life,” she said. “I’m so blessed in this community that my neighbors have all accepted me and they will come and help.”
She found ways to work around the physical limitations of being a woman running a ranch. “Say for instance, there’s a bull in the south pasture. I can’t physically push that bull where I need him to go, but I can con him into going where I need him to go because of his belly,” says Fritz. “I can’t use brute force. I have to stop and think a while.”
She’s converting all the acres on the ranch that used to be in row crops to permanent grass. One field is in sainfoin, a non-bloat-causing legume that can be used as hay, grazed in pastures, or in a grass-legume mix.
Investing in grass means her input costs are lower. “I don’t want a $500,000 combine sitting around here. I’ve got a baler, a hydro-swing, a tractor, and a Cat.”
She started getting serious about raising grass in the 1990s. It took six years to get it well established. “When my father farmed here he had a few cows, but really he was a grain farmer,” says Fritz. “What you grew, you fed. The average corn yield was 35 bushels to the acre. Today, if guys aren’t getting 150 to 175 bushel, they’re just crying.”
It took her 40 years, but today every pasture has a well and fresh water. “Fresh well water is the cheapest, easiest nutrient you can give cattle,” says Fritz. “It’s expensive sometimes to get it where you need it to be, but it’s worth it.”
During dry years, the pheasants in the area didn’t survive because they couldn’t get any water, says Fritz. She also didn’t have ducks, either. “They have to have feed, water, and cover.” With all the additional grass and water today, the ranch is full of pheasants. “When I was out finishing a field of alfalfa, I found baby pheasants that flushed in the last windrow – that last swath through the field.”
Fritz has participated in the USDA EQIP program to build fences and water pipelines. She has also worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They helped lay the last pipeline and aided me with a small dam near a dugout,” she says.
She is active in the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, serving one year as president. She has also been a national director for the National Association of Conservation Districts. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting all the people. I have learned so much from the Conservation Districts. If I have a question, I know who to call.”
Walking back toward her old farmhouse, she sums it up. “If somebody tells you, ‘I do everything right,’ best turn around and walk away,” she says. “Nobody does everything right. You can’t. You’re dealing with Mother Nature, human imperfection, and cattle imperfection. Sometimes you just can’t fix it. This life can be rough at times, but it’s a good life.”