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Landowner Helen Gunderson
About the author
Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Kathleen Masterson was a Harvest reporter, based in Ames, Iowa, from 2010 to spring 2012.

Helen Gunderson always wanted to be a farmer.  It’s in her blood, after all.

Gunderson’s family farmed large tracts of corn and soy in Rolfe, Iowa.  But, her brother Charles was trained to take over the family business.

“He was the one groomed to make decisions about farming,” Gunderson said. “He had more significant farm projects. I had chickens; he had cattle. He had a 40-acre field project.”

This was not unusual. Women have long been involved in agriculture, but often in the role of helpers or farmer's wives, as a U.S. Department of Agriculture report describes it.

When she was 31, Gunderson and her five siblings inherited some land from her grandparents.  Her brother managed Gunderson’s land, which worked because she lived out of state at the time.

But when Gunderson moved back to Iowa in the 1990s, she grew increasingly frustrated that she wasn't making the decisions for her own land.  Eventually she wrote a letter to her brother and her father.

 “My brother began expediting it, right then, that year,” she said.

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Gunderson’s father, who has since passed away, took a bit more convincing.  She still remembers the day they met at his farm, and sat down together at the round, oak table in the kitchen.  She brought up her great-grandmother Dena, as an example to show her father a woman who would have been good at managing a farm.

“He said, ‘oh, yes, Dena would have been really good.’ So I pointed out other examples, soon he softened up… and I hadn't planned to tell him I resented the favoritism he gave to Charles, in terms of grooming to make farm decisions.  But at end of conversation I told him,” Gunderson said. “He said he could understand.”

With her father’s blessing and her brother's help, Gunderson took over managing her 580 acres of farmland — and joined a growing proportion of women who are principal farm operators (about 9 percent of operators today vs. 5 percent in 1978).

From her ranch house in Ames, Iowa, Gunderson started making spreadsheets, staying on top of soybean and corn prices, and managing the tenant farmers. 

Even as she was mastering these new skills, though, Gunderson wanted to make her farm more sustainable. So she looked for a farmer willing to try out some new ideas — and three years ago reached out to one of her neighbor’s children. A daughter.

Betsy Dahl farms 180 acres for landowner Helen Gunderson. They are converting the land to organic crops. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson / Harvest Public Media

Betsy Dahl, 30, now farms 180 acres for Gunderson and they are converting it to organic crops.

Although this is her first time farming on her own, Dahl said, she has plenty of experience from helping her father when she was young. She started by “discing” — chopping the stalks after harvest — and then learned the more technical task of planting, too.   Her sister did the combining, and her dad handled drying the grain.
“I'd haul in grain to farms, unload, get augers fixed, which I got good at too,” Dahl said. “I did a lot of the repairs; he'd show me.”
She said she's thankful that her father trusted and encouraged her.

Gunderson said she has photos of Dahl driving the planter — “doing what my dad thought was the men's work. Over the years I'd say to her, Betsy, someday do you suppose you'd want to farm for me?”
By industrial ag standards, 180 acres isn't a big farm.  But even among the farms operated by women, what Dahl does is unusual.  The vast majority of women-run farms are smaller, and focus on niche markets, like grass-fed livestock.  Together, Gunderson and Dahl are breaking into a typical male territory — and taking it in their own direction.

Harvest Public Media is committed to fully exploring issues of food, fuel and field. Toward that end, our coverage often leads to a series of stories on a given topic. We consider these special efforts to be ongoing — agriculture, after all, is an ever-evolving cornerstone of the U.S. economy. And we welcome your feedback and suggestions on what we should look at next.

- Donna Vestal, editor, Harvest Public Media