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More women working on Kansas farms

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP)--Back in the 1970s, when Sue Ann Peter left Kansas for the bright lights of San Antonio, she didn't know when she'd be back.

She knew someday she'd return near the small town of Ellinwood, where she grew up. But the last thing she figured on was finding true love amid central Kansas cropland.

Nearly 30 years later, you'll find 57-year-old Peter alongside her husband, helping him run a small farm operation in Rice County between her day job at the county Farm Service Agency office.

"He taught me to pick up hay, drive the tractor," Peter said of her husband, Rollie, whom she married a few years ago. She added that her list of chores also includes checking the cattle.

Although it's still considered a male profession, the number of women who work on the state's farms and ranches has grown dramatically, according to the 2007 census of agriculture data that was recently released.

The report shows 26,794 women farm operators in Kansas, compared with 20,959 in 2002, a nearly 28 percent increase.

Moreover, 7,940 women are the farm's principal operator, up 40 percent from the 5,660 in 2002. Before 2002, the census only acknowledged women's role in the occupation if they were the primary operator.

Mark Schwarzentraub, an Extension farm economist with the Hutchinson office of the Kansas Farm Management Association, said he has noticed more women taking front-seat roles on the farm. The association works cooperatively with farm families to provide production and financial management information to help with the decision making.

"I think it is more prevalent today; they're bolder about it," he said. "Many of the women I work with have the responsibility of the banking, they work with the FSA office, and they do the recordkeeping. There are many times I make these visits, and I don't see the husbands."

The growing number has created a movement of sorts, as more women want to be educated about farming's daily grind. This week on Thursday through Saturday, organizers expect more than 300 women to attend the Women Managing the Farm conference in Hutchinson.

Topics include insurance, estate planning and farm bill program changes, as well as organization, networking and family relationships.

Some have been involved in agriculture all their lives. Some are widows who have taken over the farm. Others, like Peter, married into the business.

Whatever the reason, the growing number has spurred women to want to be more educated, said Mary Shaffer, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Salina, who added that sometimes women feel intimidated raising their hands and asking questions in a roomful of men.

It's the fourth year for the women's farm conference, but the bigger effort, Shaffer said, has spurred county and regional groups to meet about topics from crop insurance to simple meal ideas to take to the field.

Smaller groups meet in Beloit and Newton. Peter has been attending a subgroup in Rice County for the past year.

"It's good for women in agriculture to network," said Rice County Extension agriculture agent Frannie Miller, who formed the local group. "Many of them are facing the same obstacles--some of the same problems."

Margaret Scheufler, who attends the Rice County meetings, said she's been farming with her husband since the 1980s. She doesn't sit on the sidelines, however.

"I'm actively involved," she said of the couple's farming operation, but added that things have changed since she and her husband started farming 20 years ago.

"I'm continually learning," Scheufler said. "I get a lot out of the group."

So has Peter, who said she is starting to learn her husband's "farm lingo."

"I haven't done too badly, after 30 years in the big city, to come back to rural Kansas to live," she said.


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