Women bring new voice to agriculture
WILLMAR — Amanda Freund knows she has a "crappy" job.
She grins good-naturedly, recalling every junior-high joke ever uttered about the sturdy containers made from manure generated by her family's dairy cows that she markets as nutrient-rich, biodegradable seed-starting pots.
"I'm literally selling crap," Freund said during a Women in Ag Network conference last week in Willmar.
Freund was one of about a dozen speakers at the conference, which drew about 60 women from around the state who sought risk-management education that could enhance their work on the farm.
The all-day event was also a way to broaden the network of support for women who are playing an increasing role in Minnesota agriculture.
The goal was to present information on topics the women are facing in their farm operations and "empower them to be the best producers they can be," said Pauline Van Nurden, an ag management education instructor with the University of Minnesota Extension program and co-coordinator of the event.
According to current Ag Census data, about 25 percent of the state's farmers are women, operating more than 7 million acres of land with a $400 million economic impact.
Nationwide, female farmers generate $13 billion in gross sales, said Lila McFarland, coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's New and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program in Washington, D.C., who was the keynote speaker.
"Those are really impressive numbers," said McFarland, who encouraged the women to investigate existing programs offered through local Farm Service Agency offices that can provide financial assistance to farmers.
She said the USDA has resources to help farmers manage adversity such as low prices, the hurdles of getting started in farming and recruiting and supporting the next generation of agriculture.
McFarland also said a blog sponsored by the USDA is capturing stories of "really amazing women in agriculture."
The USDA is "excited by what we see here and this rising enthusiasm and passion for women in ag," she said.
Those stories can help change "how the world sees agriculture," McFarland said, adding that women's voices also need to be heard by people who make ag policies. She encouraged the women to get involved in groups, such as national and local commodity organizations and USDA committees.
"We need your voice to make sure USDA fits your needs," she said. "Somebody needs to be at the table and I hope it's you."
Betty Berning, an Extension educator in ag business management and co-coordinator of the conference, said there are "great things going on in agriculture" and the number of women in ag is growing.
"We want to help you make better decisions on your farm and help you get more confident," Berning told the women. "We want to empower you as female farmers."
Berning also encouraged the women to consider a new idea or a "dream they have" for the future of their farm and begin "implementation of whatever that dream is."
Having a dream is what helped launch the unusual cow manure products on Freund's farm.
Because land is tight on her family's third-generation Connecticut dairy farm, Freund said it was crucial to be creative to find new ways to develop value-added products.
Besides selling milk to a popular cooperative that makes locally sought after Cabot cheese and developing her mother's on-farm greenhouse, gardens, bakery and catering business, the most unusual venture was her dad's development of "CowPots" that are made from solid manure.
"My dad had this crazy, crazy idea to make pots out of poop," she said.
After the manure is separated, the liquid is applied as land fertilizer and the solids are put into a methane digester — which heats the dairy barn.
The composted solids are then formed into seed pots.
Freund said the pots were initially a flop and stores refused to sell them.
Their break came when TV personality Mike Rowe featured the CowPots on his "Dirty Jobs" show.
"That was a game changer for us," said Freund, who travels around the country to trade shows to market the products on top of her on-the-farm job of feeding the cattle.
Freund said the manufacturing and marketing venture was part of the farm's mission statement to be a profitable dairy operation.
Being a viable business, she said, requires being aware of market changes and being flexible enough to embrace the changes and "move forward."