Dec 1, 2015
National farm women’s organization has seeds in Michigan

After growing up on the family farm in Coloma, Michigan, Kim Schmuhl went away to college to become a teacher.

She returned with a teaching certificate – and a realization that she didn’t want to leave the family business. Schmuhl confessed that to her mother, fearing she would be disappointed.

“My mom said, ‘Disappointed? You’re feeding people, Kim,’” recalls Schmuhl, now 32. “‘You’re putting food on the table for families. How is that disappointing?’”

Schmuhl has never looked back. Today, she works alongside the rest of her family – the fourth generation operating Noffke Family Farms.

“My entire family lives on my road,” she said.

Schmuhl also works shoulder to shoulder with other women in farming – in Michigan and beyond. For five years, she’s been president of Michigan Agri-Women, as her mother was before her. She’s part of a legacy she knows took a lot of hard work and a pioneering spirit from the women who came before her – and is glad for it.

“I am completely proud,” she said. “These women have such a drive for what they do. We all do it because it’s our personal business, but it’s for other people, too.”

Connecting with women

Connee Canfield remembers going out to dinner with another couple on a Friday night in the early 1970s, and the weather becoming unseasonably cold – bad for the crop of pickles she and her husband had growing. She and the other woman, the wife of an apple farmer, got to talking in the back seat on the ride home about the uncertainty of it all – the crop, what apple prices would be that year and how it was impossible to plan because of such factors. Canfield was a teacher and hadn’t grown up on a farm, but realized she and her friend were probably not the only ones dealing with those troubling issues.

“Women did not have a strong voice in much of anything then,” said Canfield, who lives in Keeler Township, Michigan. “But at the same time, on the fruit and vegetable farms, women were pretty much equal partners with their husbands. We did the book work, we often handled the crews of people to do the harvesting.

“We made decisions with our spouse about what would be planted … that wasn’t true for our grain people or our livestock people, but at that time, I didn’t know that. We were ignorant of each other.”

Canfield, in her late 20s at the time, set out to change that. She got together with several other farm wives and put an item in the local newspaper inviting farm women to attend a meeting. The goal? To tell the story of the family farmer – in communities, in the media and in government to influence legislation.

One hundred women turned out for that first meeting, from all over southwestern Michigan, and so began what was at first called Women for the Survival of Agriculture in Michigan (WSAM).

“We were loosely organized – we weren’t like a Farm Bureau who has to go strictly by a policy book,” she said. “And at that time, in the Farm Bureau, if you were a woman, you served coffee. That’s not true today. I have to believe our group started making that difference.”

From the kitchen table

Word spread and the group grew. Sharon Steffens, who lives about 90 miles away from Canfield near Grand Rapids, remembers getting some fellow wives together and going to one of the WSAM meetings at a time when the group was trying to get a higher price for apples from cider processors. She outlined how they divided and conquered – making phone calls, addressing letters and mimeographed newsletters at her kitchen table, contacting legislators and setting up picket lines. They succeeded.

“As I recall, they were going to give us 50 cents per hundredweight of apples,” Steffens said. “We were asking for a dollar, and we did get it.”

It was all volunteer and it wasn’t easy, adding another layer of work to their already busy lives. Steffens had five children, for example. But it was worth it, she said.

“We had big visions,” said Steffens, who went on to receive appointments to commissions and committees and served as clerk, supervisor and trustee over 24 years in her local township. “You felt empowered because you felt like you had something to say and there were people who were listening.”

Beyond Michigan

Soon, WSAM members were connecting with groups of women in other parts of the country – New York, Oregon, Kansas, Washington state, Wisconsin. Realizing they needed to reach beyond their communities and states, they organized a special meeting in Milwaukee in 1974, to explore forming a national coalition. Steffens, who was WSAM’s state chairman at the time, said they came away with four state groups on board, and others kept joining.

“It has grown tremendously, and it has also grown across many different commodities,” she said, “which helps us all learn more about each other and the problems that others face.”

Today, American Agri-Women has 50 state and commodity affiliate organizations and 40,000 members who include farmers, wives of farmers and women in agribusiness. The group works to influence policy and stages an annual June fly-in to meet with legislators in Washington, D.C. Their agenda is long, ranging from farm labor and succession to property rights and more.

“We support all their policies and they listen to ours, and a lot of times it gets in the books,” Schmuhl said. “Whatever is happening in California is eventually going to work its way to Michigan.”

In June, American Agri-Women President Sue McCrum and Vice President Doris Mold spent three days in southwestern Michigan in honor of the national group’s 40th anniversary. They toured farms and made other stops as part of a five-month “Drive Across America” project that will conclude at the national organization’s 2015 convention in Portland, Maine.

“American Agri-Women is everybody,” said Schmuhl, whose mother was also a long-time president of the Michigan group, now known as Michigan Agri-Women. “That’s the whole key.

“It’s one voice. It’s pretty much informing the public as to what’s important in agriculture to keep the family farm alive.”

Kathy Gibbons

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