The most valuable lesson that I learned growing up on a small dairy in Crawford County, Wisconsin, was the very lesson that I never actually learned. You see, my family forgot to teach me the difference between girl jobs and boy jobs. On our farm, the only body parts that mattered were strong arms and a good back.
It wasn’t until I went away to college that I learned that the world outside the hills of Crawford County was going to expect me to play a more traditional role.
“It’s good you picked up a teaching major too,” a male friend mentioned, after I had decided to double major in animal science and agriculture education. “A woman is supposed to work off the farm for things like health insurance.” Joke’s on him, because I’m a full-time dairy farmer and my husband (who is also a beef farmer) works full time off the farm and carries our insurance.
Moving to Jackson County, Iowa, after college, it took a few years, but eventually folks realized I was serious about this farmer thing. In the spring of 2014, we began construction on our dairy farm, and I began to call builders. I received one return phone call that went a little like this:
“Hi. You left a message. Is your husband available?”
“Yes! I called. We are looking into putting up a dairy barn and wondering if you could give us a quote.”
“Is your husband available? I can give him some more information. Maybe he and I can set up a meeting.”
“I have specs here, if you want to meet.”
“Yes. Let’s make sure it’s at a time that your husband is available.”
Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. But unfortunately, the cement contractor, who seemed to need my husband as a translator, and the equipment installer, who second-guessed me on every decision I made, were hired. While most of the folks we do business with didn’t bat an eye at a female operator, it got to the point after about six months of milking, where my husband – who to this day has never milked a cow – told a new company representative, “I don’t know anything about any of this. If you have a problem, talk to her; your truck is that way.”
Even though most of the comments I’ve heard as a female farmer fall into the category of trying to make polite conversation, they can still be grating. I could live without being asked if I’m “just a stay-at-home mom” ever again. Stay-at-home moms are doing great things, but I can’t imagine a male farmer with a toddler in a tractor being asked if he’s a stay-at-home dad.
There’s also the little comments about having three boys. Yes, I am more than blessed to have three beautiful boys, but please don’t tell me that girls can only feed calves while I’m changing milkers or stand in my barnyard and explain to me that girls aren’t interested in farming like boys are, unless you’re interested in hearing the pedigrees and milk records of every cow on the place.
It seems that most female farmers get asked, “Where’s your husband/father/boss?” I usually figure that the person who asks that question isn’t going to be worth my time anyway, so I respond with “No, he isn’t here.”
I’m honestly most annoyed that the women’s long underwear at Theisen’s is only rated for “mild cold,” while the men can buy long underwear rated for the Arctic, and that the men’s gloves cost $5 for three pair and my gloves cost $4.50 for one pair (I guess I’ve got small hands).
But some remarks fall short of lighthearted or innocent. Sometimes being labeled as “just a woman” can have a pretty heavy cost.
One of our milk haulers moved on from passive-aggressive comments about my husband doing chores straight to aggressive, unsafe behavior while trying to prove that he doesn’t need to listen to a woman. He won’t be back.
That equipment installer who laughed in my face when I told him that my husband wasn’t going to do chores? He changed the prices of the equipment that he sold me and overcharged me by several thousand dollars. He’s also never been back.
The fact is that women have been involved in the dairy industry since the beginning. We’ve been milking cows and feeding calves and paying bills and holding the house together for as long as the cow has been domesticated. I’m proud to be a woman farmer. I’m proud that my husband willingly gets the children up in the morning while I’m doing chores (before he does his chores) and does the dishes at night while I’m feeding calves. And I’m proud of all of those in our industry – the fellow breeders and all of the industry representatives – who know that it’s what is in a person’s heart that truly matters, not whether their boots come in pink.
Heather Moore is a dairy farming mama herself, raising three little boys with her husband, Brandon. The Moore family has a 50-cow dairy and custom feeds 800 head of beef cattle near Maquoketa, Iowa. When she is not chasing around cows and kids, you'll find her volunteering, cooking and very occasionally, sleeping.
PHOTO: This photo is from a family reunion hosted at our farm last summer. My aunts, cousins and sisters pitched in to help me milk. Meanwhile, the men were busy cooking. Photo provided by Heather Moore.
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