MOORHEAD, Minn.-When Melany Thomas goes to sell her beef cattle, potential buyers will sometimes direct their questions to her husband, who quickly sets them straight, according to Thomas.
"She's the one that's raising them, I'm just her farmhand," Thomas said, quoting her husband, Evan, who helps her with the family's grass-fed livestock operation near Fertile.
Women who run farm operations still encounter people surprised to see them in such a role, but that is changing as women increasingly take on more responsibility on farms across the country.
That's according to Noreen Thomas, mother-in-law to Melany Thomas and operator of Doubting Thomas Farms, an organic farm north of Moorhead.
"The trend in the last 20 years has been a 20 percent increase in women farmers," Noreen Thomas said, adding that factors leading to that include farm wives outliving their husbands and daughters who return to the land after going off to school, or having tried their hand at something else before deciding farming is where they want to be.
Noreen Thomas said the next U.S. census is expected to confirm the trend of more women taking the helm of farm operations.
"It's the fastest growing segment of ag, along with hispanic farmers. And they can be both-hispanic and women farmers," Thomas said.
The Thomases shared about their lives in agriculture on a recent sunny morning when they were joined by other area women who are making lives for themselves and their families by getting closer to the land.
Beth McConnon, a sixth generation farmer, attended North Dakota State University and obtained a degree in pre-medicine before deciding she was more interested in a different kind of field.
Instead of becoming a doctor, she went back to her family's Askegaard Organic Farm south of Moorhead, where she works alongside her father, Mark Askegaard, growing things like wheat, soybeans and flax.
In the blood
Since returning to the farm, she's taken a leading role in marketing what they grow to grocery stores, co-ops and other organizations and she rents some of her father's land for her own production.
"I've been pulling weeds my whole life. It's in my blood," said McConnon, who sometimes gets surprised reactions from men when she trucks things like beans to the elevator to sell them.
"It's like, 'Oh, you're the farmer?''' McConnon said.
"I'm lucky that a lot of people in my area know that I'm farming and treat me as an equal. You still get funny looks sometimes," she added.
Melany Thomas said she has encountered farmers who wouldn't rent land to her because she's a woman, but they'd be happy to rent to her stepfather because he's a man.
Jessica Creuzer lives in Fargo, but she and her husband, Paul, are in the process of clearing farm land their family owns near Dent, about 70 miles east.
Creuzer said growing up her family grew or raised most of what they needed to live and what they didn't produce themselves they could usually barter for from nearby farms.
"I've been away for quite some time now, but as a child I always knew I'd be back on the farm. I need to get out there as soon as possible," said Creuzer, who hopes to do consulting work along with working on the farm.
"I'm very eager to get back and have my hands dirty. I dream about it every day," Creuzer said.
'Nature is our school'
Jaclyn Weber, who has been deeply involved in community supported agriculture and operates Folcstede Farms near Shelly, about 40 miles to the north of Fargo, describes herself as a "lawn rebel," having moved into Moorhead proper for her children's schooling.
She continues to grow and market healthy food and is a big believer in the benefits of getting outdoors as much as possible.
"It's an aspect of childhood lacking from the world, just the ability to go get lost outside," Weber said.
"People joke that I have feral children and I love that," she said, adding that her daughter, Thalia, 5, can tell the difference between catnip, lemon balm and mint.
"They all look very similar. Nature is our school," Weber said.
Kayla Pridmore runs Woodchuck Community Farm north of Moorhead.
She grew up in Minneapolis and went to school to study climate change, but nothing really interested her as much as the farm work she would take on as summer jobs.
That work got her thinking about the farms her great-grandparents and grandparents operated in the Red River Valley, which she visited as a child.
"I moved back the day after I graduated from college and started farming," Pridmore said.
"I think I was too young to be afraid," added Pridmore, who is now 27.
Noreen Thomas is a common denominator in the women's stories and they describe her as a touchstone and mentor.
Thomas said she is happy to help any woman interested in "breaking the grass ceiling" and getting into farming.
She is organizing a women-in-agriculture circle that is set for 6:30 p.m. on June 12 at Doubting Thomas Farms.
For more information about the event, or to contact Thomas, visit the Doubting Thomas Farms website at www.doubtingthomasfarms.com.