Women who farm...

...and are Widowed. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to connect with a couple of women about their experiences running a farm. These aren't just any female farmers, these are women who share one thing in common: they are widowed. 

It has been a journey looking back into their lives, the way it was before, and the way it is today. 

Much to be learned, much to be taught. Are you ever prepared? 

Farming takes teamwork, and as these two women reminded me, what made their farms work before their husbands passed away was the teamwork of the marriage. One was good at the books, one was good at the tractor maintenance. While the other tended the daily care of the animals, the other was plotting out the acreage that needed to be tilled. 

When you take one of those pieces of the equation away, things are unbalanced and lopsided. And as we all know, farming never stops...there is rarely a chance to catch your breath, and there comes the challenge. 

Karen Larson and her husband Glenn farmed 160 acres of soy and corn in Balaton, Minnesota. In 2016, Glenn passed away. 

Before Glenn's passing it was Karen who handled the administrative work for the farm, tax paperwork and bookkeeping. Glenn did most of the decision-making in regards to mechanics, ordering the seed and fertilizer and fixing things. 

Karen said that she didn't realize just how much he fixed and tinkered with things until she had to deal with it herself. 

At first she tried to do things on her own and learn for herself. But what she found was that it was too much. She felt overwhelmed. With the help of her three children who have encouraged her, Karen now calls for help and pays for the projects and incidental things that come up to get done. The kids have lovingly coined the phrase, "Call the man, Mom, just call the man." That is their way of reminding her to not get frustrated and try to do it herself, rather call someone for help. 

After three years Karen is slowly getting to a place where things are manageable. The first task that she had to accomplish was the cleaning out of all the barns and outbuildings. "Glenn had a lot of stuff everywhere, like many rural farmers, he had his hands in a lot of things." This was a task that she had not anticipated. 

Luckily the Larsons had done a lot of financial planning before Glenn's death, so the means were there for Karen to get help and to "Call the Man." This has been a hard thing to learn, for a team that has always so self-sufficient at caring for the property and tending the home and farm.

In addition to calling "the man," Karen has decided this year to lease out land to a neighboring farmer. After Glenn's death she had a neighboring farmer do the custom harvesting, but she has realized that for now, she doesn't want to worry about the harvest. 

The marketing of the grain was always something that she and Glenn did together - now that he is gone she has found that it doesn't bring her joy anymore. Karen is trying to find those things that now bring her joy - it's difficult, their lives were one. 

Karen said that each one of her children has a piece of Glenn in them. She relies on each child differently for those reasons and it makes her feel like through them, she finds her husband. 

Karen's daughter, Jessica, who lives on the east coast, stated how important the communication has been between the siblings and her mother. Despite the great distance that two of the children have from the farm in Minnesota, they are all still very involved in caring for their mother and helping her navigate things during this difficult time.

Karen's words of wisdom to other women revolve around estate planning. "Use a good lawyer to help you plan before there is a problem. The life insurance policy was critical." 

Beth Steeley, 58, lost her husband Lee in 2004, when she was just 43 years old. They farmed in the Chesapeake Bay area on a small scale. They raised harness horses. Her husband was the maintenance person and groundskeeper while she was the daily caregiver to the horses. 

Beth always leaned towards animal care, and worked at a non-profit animal shelter before she met her husband. Her roots were from much larger agriculture in Texas. 

The Steeleys had a lead time before Beth's husband Lee passed. They were able to talk through a lot of things. Lee's biggest concern for Beth was that she wouldn't be able to keep up the golf course-look that he maintained. 

Beth was upfront with her husband and told him that she would be taking the farm in a different direction, utilizing the farm to help her church's "Worship Without Walls" program. Today, while Beth works toward the formation of a non-profit organization, she is teaching young people that they can farm on a much smaller scale through vertical and urban farming programs. 

After all these years she is just now breaking even. Things are taking a turn for the better, and Beth believes she is in her season. 

At times after Lee's death, Beth felt that she had to go against what those around her told her she should do. Even though she knew they had her best interest at heart, she felt it was her responsibility to keep the farm for the next generation, her daughter. She just had to figure out what her calling was to do with it. 

Beth said, "I believe that all these things happen for a reason, to get us to the place (calling) where we need to be to teach the mission we were meant to teach." Through her vision for the non-profit's approach to farming education, she feels she has found it. 

Today, Beth has chickens, honey bees, and horses for logging. She has greenhouses and uses hydroponics for seed starts. She sells locally, right on the farm. 

And one thing that Beth is very proud of is that she now has a pink John Deere tractor. Once Lee passed away she had different equipment needs to run her farm for small scale production. She needed to trade in their large equipment for smaller models. She saw an article that John Deere had different color options for tractors. One was pink, for breast cancer awareness. Beth decided that pink was the color for her new tractor and went on a mission to get it. 

After many phone calls, and requests, conferences, and persistence, 2.5 years later she now has her pink tractor, made possible by Atlantic Tractor in Queen Anne, Maryland. 

Beth's words of wisdom are, "If you want to keep the farm, let your faith show you the way. It will happen, go by your heart rather than your head." 

Each of the women that I spoke with, in her own way, wanted to make sure for me to share how important it is to get the finances figured out before the throes of grief come at you. 

Prepare and plan with a team how you want things to proceed in the event of a death or disability. 

For the sake of your children, your parents, nephews, nieces, in-lawes, friends, and MOST importantly for the sake of YOU. You owe it to yourself. 

If this article can be the impetus for just one you to go get the plan done, or to start this difficult conversation, then I will have accomplished the mission and the reason for giving you a glimpse inside these two women's lives. 

Never take for granted the special partnership that a husband and wife farming team have. It truly is magical and challenging all at the same time. There are good days and bad days...and it takes two for balance, through all of it. 

Appreciate each other and all that you do for your marriage and your business. You never know when the partnership might be taken away. 

Take care, and stay will...and plan. 

With love and thought, 

Kate. 

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