Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Farm Wife, Farm Partner Or Farmer, Which Is It?

July 21, 2003

Dr. Farmer:

While I appreciate that there are those who sympathize with your "farm wife" columns, please understand that there are folks out there who view this far differently. Let me explain.

When I married my husband about three years ago, I told him that my grounds for divorce were far different than the statutory ones provided by the State of Ohio. They included: aggressive culling of dairy cows; excessive use of two-way radios; and being referred to as a "farm wife."

When I decided to marry my husband, we became partners in his farming operation. That means that we share the burdens of this occupation as well as the joys. We are both out of bed at 3:45 a.m. to start the milking, and we both forego many recreational activities because the farm is our priority. We created our own little world out here, and if that is the cost, then so be it. We will soon be married three years, and, to date, we have not had time for a honeymoon.

But I get to spend everyday outside with the wind and the sun and living creatures. Even better, I am working all day (and much of the night) with the man I love building a farm on our terms. Perhaps because I was an older bride (40) or a professional (agricultural attorney), I dislike anyone's identity being tied to what another human does for an occupation.

I also get frustrated with the excessive use of the term "farm wife" by the agricultural industry. It is sexist, archaic, and promotes the kind of problems many of those women voiced in a recent column. It is astounding to me the number of sales persons who appear uninvited on our farm and assume that I am not capable of carrying on a conversation about the operation.

Well, with a farm background, three degrees and twenty years of work experience, that attitude is not tolerated around here. But the incessant use of the term "farm wife" causes this attitude to prevail. I asked one salesman what century we were living in. I inquired of another if a certain part of the male anatomy was required to operate a skid steer.

I enjoy reading your columns, but I wanted to share this point of view with you. These women need to break free of that label and create one of their own that means something to them. Maybe, if their involvement and commitment to the farming enterprises is there, they need to claim their title as "farmer" and go about changing the parts of the farm business that they dislike.

If that is not their choice, then they need to create an identity based on who they are and what they want. All of this "farm wife" talk is a little too much like playing the victim, at the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil.

Furthermore, the agricultural industry needs to stop assuming that a woman working on a farm is merely a "farm wife." The last time I checked, a female with a medical degree was considered a doctor, not a doctor's wife. And when I put on a nice suit and go to court, the judge and jury assume that I am a lawyer, not a lawyer's wife. And at least several salesman know that I am a farmer living in the 21st century and quite capable of operating a skid loader. - Leisa Boley Hellwarth, Esq. - Farmer from Celine, Ohio.

Farmer or farm partner. The term "farm wife" does suggest married to a farm instead of a farmer or that she is not a farmer herself. Many women are now using the term "farm partner" to describe their role to others. If wives married to farmers identify themselves as farmers because of their emotional or physical involvement, they may prefer "farmer" to farm partner.

The "farm partner" role often involves being the chief financial officer, political advocate and marketing expert, an on-the-spot resource to her husband in the farm work and member of an executive decision-making team. As such, she shares executive headaches and stress of trying to make a profit in today's highly stressful farm economy.

Multiple responsibilities. No matter what term is used, a woman in this role is usually talented and versatile and works hard to integrate her role as a business partner with a lifestyle based on love, family, service to others, and personal expression. The demands of the farm, off-farm employment and community responsibilities are added to other demands they willingly try to meet.

They provide an answer to the question, "What's it all for?" when their tired and weary husbands come in the door. The mood and well-being of the family key off the emotional tone and commitment a woman gives as she labors with love, optimism, and courage.

Two-way street. None of this is to suggest that male "farm partners" don't have responsibilities for nurturing and meeting the needs of their wives and children. A woman on a family farm is able to meet the demands of an active, challenging and often hectic lifestyle if her needs for attention, recognition and emotional support are being met by an equally sensitive husband.

Amid these pressures, rural women take the time to meet their personal needs and goals. These are not ordinary women, but extraordinary women doing extraordinary things.

These women need for more recognition for what they do - especially from their husbands.

Thanks for the reminder. Leisa - farmer from Ohio.