My Generation

Our First Female Master

Thoughts on women, agriculture and the first female Master Farmer in 86 years.

This week, Linnea Kooistra became the first woman to be named a Master Farmer in the award's 86-year history.


(We have a children's book at our house called "Lily's Purple Plastic Purse." One of my most favorite lines from it: "Wow. And that was just about all he could say about that. Wow." I think it totally applies here.)

I handled the awards portion of our banquet and I warned Linnea ahead of time that I wasn't sure I would be able to introduce her without getting choked up. It just felt momentous. It was sort of like when Cherry Stout became the first woman editor of Prairie Farmer a few years ago. You always knew a woman would become a Master Farmer at some point or would become editor at some point, but when it finally happens? It carries weight.

Linnea is, I'm proud to say, the real deal. Over the years, we have had several Master Farmers whose wives were very much partners in the operation. I think of Terry and Jan Wolf; Terry said in his acceptance speech that the two of them together made a whole person. Linnea and her husband, Joel, are very much partners, but enough so that Joel wanted her to be nominated on her own merits. Over the years, Linnea has not only been a full-time, cow-milking, decision-making, market-mastering farmer, but she's also become a savvy media source. In fact, when her nominator, Rod Stoll, called last summer to see if he should include any stories in which she'd been quoted, I said, "Sure. We often get nominations with a story or two included." I kid you not, Linnea's application included not less than 50 pages of news and magazine stories. Rod should get some kind of award just for compilation.

Farm women have a long and storied history in production agriculture, perhaps not in the driver's seat but moving the horses along nonetheless. Linnea tells of her grandmother going to their banker in the midst of the Depression and convincing them not to sell out the family farm. And how often I've heard stories of farmwives in the '80s who managed to save the farm because they mastered the bookwork and convinced their lenders to hang on. Remember the 1998 PBS documentary, "The Farmer's Wife"? That family would have long since lost the farm if not for the wife.

And still, how far they've come. Linnea tells of a 4-H when she was a kid that had separate clubs for girls (who were not allowed to show livestock). Colleen Callahan tells of being the first girl in her FFA chapter in the late '60s. And when I graduated from college in the late '90s, there were women in many agribusiness positions, particularly in communications fields, but they weren't in every field yet. Twelve years later, women are agronomists, ag economists, bankers, farm managers, elevator managers and more – all what we've long considered non-traditional positions for women. We even have a conference, just to tell that story.

And now a woman Master Farmer.

Perhaps I would feel differently if I lived 40 years ago and couldn't do what I do now. But I think of the way women have moved to the forefront of agriculture as being a graceful picture of equality. There wasn't shoving and pushing our way to the top; we haven't sought to displace the men with whom we work, or the husbands with whom we farm. Instead, women in agriculture have filled in gaps: learning to communicate, to balance books, to become a partner to their farmers in the truest sense of the word. Perhaps, as the mother of a little boy, I've become more sensitive to this over the years. But I don't think demands work nearly as well as partnerships.

Linnea closed her acceptance speech by saying she wanted to honor all the hard-working farm women who contribute to the food supply. "Rural women make up 25% of the world’s population, and in some countries they produce up to 80% of the food. Margaret Mead said, 'Never underestimate the power of a committed woman.' I share this award with committed women who feed the world."

Committed, indeed.

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