Idaho women are finally getting more credit for running farms, ranches. Here’s why

Growing up, Chelsea DeFriez had to fight for her place on her family’s ranch.

Most farm kids she knew couldn’t wait to escape from chores, DeFriez said, but she spent every second she could at Valli-Hi Angus Ranch in Caldwell where her family has raised registered Black Angus cattle since 1960. She insisted on learning everything from her dad, the employees and even the veterinarian. Eventually, though, she’d be sent back to the house.

“They thought it was funny that a girl was so fascinated by it all,” DeFriez said.

DeFriez left the ranch for college, but 16 years later she was back. Now married with six kids, DeFriez runs the ranch with her parents Bill and Candy Jenkins. Her idea to start a meat store about a year ago has taken off, and the sale of Valli-Hi Angus Beef rib-eyes, tri-tip and hamburger meat brings in a valuable monthly income to the family.

“You hear a lot of farm kids who can’t wait to get away from the ranch and shoveling poop,” DeFriez said. “The first year back, I was shoveling out a chicken coop. I’d rather be here working this than doing anything else.”

Today, women run one-third of Idaho farms, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture released by the USDA earlier this year. More than 10,000 women hold leadership roles on farms and ranches across the state, from the chief financial officer of one of the largest potato farms in the state to the primary owners and operators of orchards more than a century old. In 2012, the USDA recorded only 13,043 women working on Idaho farms and ranches in any position. In 2017, that number grew to 17,230.

Women are also the “primary producers” — the lead decision-makers or owner-operators — of 26% of Idaho farms, which seems like a marked increase from 2012 data. But analysts and Idaho agriculture experts say Idaho women have always been vital parts of family farms. A slight tweak in the way the USDA records leadership positions on farms is giving them more credit than they used to get, according to the USDA.

“After meeting with focus groups, it was determined that we were probably undercounting females and young people,” said Randy Welk, an Idaho statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “One of the examples was that oftentimes, a great grandfather’s name will be listed as the operator even if he’s passed, and they don’t count the people actually running the farm.”

“It’s not a male-dominated business, it’s a family-dominated business,” said Sean Ellis, Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman. “Women have always been an integral part of family farms.”

Continuing Idaho family farm legacies

As farms across the country face more obstacles to success like labor shortages or tariff impacts, it can be difficult to see passing on the family farm to the next generation as a blessing — not a burden. The temptation to sell land to circling developers is great in the Treasure Valley in particular, as farmers could finally retire or leave money for their children and grandchildren by letting the family land be turned into subdivisions.

“The way that a multi-generational farm can really be successful is if people are able to humble themselves and teach the next generation,” said Michelle Gooding, who helps run Gooding Farms in the Wilder and Parma area. “That’s an advantage.”

Two pairs of sisters, the Goodings in Wilder and the women behind Kelley’s Canyon Orchard in Filer, are navigating that often-difficult transition between generations — and trying to make it easier for the next ones.

Cups full of Rainier cherries await patrons of Kelley’s Canyon Orchard at the Boise Farmers Market. Darin Oswald

“Keeping the family legacy alive is a critical part of our decision making,” said Robin Kelley Rausch, one of the owners and operators of Kelley’s Canyon Orchard. “We didn’t know when or how this would happen. Family succession planning of multi-generational businesses is very complicated and very personal. It is very good to have good planning.”

Robin Kelley Rausch and Gretchen Kelley Bietz run the same orchards established under the 1862 Homestead Act by their great-grandfather in 1908. Their great-grandfather took his first crop of peaches into Twin Falls to sell a few years later and now the fifth and sixth generations of the Kelley family sell a wide variety of stone fruit — cherries, apricots, peaches, plums and more — off their farm and at farmers markets around the state.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture and the Idaho Historical Society also recently honored the Kelley’s orchard as a Century Farm, which recognizes families who have farmed and ranched the same family land for more than 100 years. Visitors can stay at the historic orchards for a weekend vacation, or bring their kids to pick their own cherries and peaches during harvest.

“It’s all about passion, regardless of whether you’re female or male,” Kelley said. “Regardless of their gender, anyone who is in ag is not in it for the money. They are in it for a different purpose and a different story.”

There were no boys on the hop farm where Michelle, Diane and Andrea Gooding grew up in western Canyon County, so if the next generation was going to continue the family tradition, it had to be them. Hops is traditionally a male-dominated industry in Idaho, Michelle Gooding said, but she and her sisters were always taught to be “strong people.”

“You have to be business-savvy and efficient and you can’t really be really weak in any aspect,” Michelle Gooding said. “You can be caring and definitely be a good person, but you have to make sure you do your best and your farm is protected. It’s really competitive.”

Today, Michelle and Diane manage the never-ending problems and tasks of a 900-acre hop farm, handling everything from finances to worker safety. Their father is vocal about his daughters being the present and future leaders of the operation, but his daughters say he still holds much of the knowledge and longterm vision that helps them keep the family business alive. They’re a good team, Gooding said, and they’re not sure if they could do the same without the work the previous generations did before them.

“For us, we were raised in it,” Michelle Gooding said. “We grew up in it, which probably makes it a little easier than being the outsider trying to come in.”

Starting farms in Ada County isn’t easy

Starting a new farm or ranch today isn’t the easiest task — and it can seem impossible to do so in Ada County. With the population and land prices soaring, building houses for a long waitlist of transplants can seem like a better bet than a working farm.

Lyndsey Mulherin started small — really small. She started renting the land that would become High Noon Farms about two years ago, when she and her partner moved to Boise from New Mexico. She grows tomatoes, bok choy, zucchini, garlic, and other vegetables on a quarter-acre nestled in the sagebrush-covered hills in the Dry Creek area of Boise.

“I’m definitely on a micro-farm scale, “ Mulherin said. “Things under an acre tend to get that label. It’s kind of a contentious point. Are you a farm, are you a garden? People are reluctant to refer to it as a farm, but I figure I’m feeding more than myself. I don’t need to be feeding the world, just making a difference in the local food community.”

Mulherin said she made roughly $6,000 selling at the Boise Farmers Market last year, before she really felt like she knew what she was doing. Without the support of the farmers market and local resources and workshops, she’s not sure she would be able to make it work. People outside the agriculture community are usually skeptical of women interested in farming, Mulherin said, but the agricultural community is far more supportive and welcoming.

“As I was meeting other women my age who were getting into agriculture, it made me realize that this was something I could do,” Mulherin said. “Definitely not the easiest way to earn a living, but there are a lot of people doing it. If you’re in a community that is interested in supporting local food, you definitely can make a living.”

Despite the opportunities for women, Stephanie Mickelsen from Idaho Falls said farming in some parts of Idaho is still a “little bit of a man’s world.” Mickelsen is the CFO of Mickelsen Farms, one of the largest potato farms in the state, and is a state director for the Idaho Farm Bureau.

“For women that want to come and be a part of it, I think you have to be educated in the issues and be willing to work harder than anyone else, and willing to show that you are looking out for the team, for agriculture as a whole,” Mickelsen said. “Then, you’ll have all the credibility in the world and be able to go out and change the landscape of agriculture in that way.”

Chelsea DeFriez is one of the primary operators on her family’s registered black angus ranch in Caldwell. One-third of Idaho farms are managed, operated or owned by women. Darin Oswald

More and more farming families Chelsea DeFriez knows are only successful because one or more of the family members have jobs off-farm. Others may be concerned farming is too precarious or risky for fathers worried about supporting their families, DeFriez said. But that only means there are more opportunities for women to find a place in Idaho’s agriculture community.

“Learn everything you can, realize that once you stop onto that place that you know nothing. There’s no other way to go about it in my opinion,” DeFreiz said. “You have to prove your mettle.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the fourth and fifth generations of the Kelley family run the Kelley Canyon Orchards in Filer.

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Investigative reporter Nicole Foy covers Latinos, agriculture and government accountability issues. She graduated from Biola University and previously worked for the Idaho Press and the Orange County Register. Her Hispanic affairs beat reporting won first place in the 2018 Associated Press regional awards. Ella habla español.