Across the U.S., women in agriculture work not only to feed their own families and communities, but also families around the world. As soybean farmers, these women understand the connection between families and the land, and the responsibility that comes with the job. Their perspective embraces local, national and global considerations.
As Minnesota farmer Karolyn Zurn, the mother of five children and grandmother of 10, puts it, “Not only do conservation practices make us better farmers and preserve the quality of the land, it is our legacy. That’s what we are going to be passing down to our children and grandchildren. In the meantime, conservation practices help us provide a more sustainable, affordable food source for Americans and people overseas.”
In speaking with three women in agriculture — Vicki Coughlin, Vanessa Kummer and Karolyn Zurn — it is clear that family farming is a tradition for them. Growing soybeans and volunteering in industry associations has expanded their horizons as they work to provide food for themselves and others.
Vicki Coughlin, Coughlin Farms, Watertown, Wisconsin
Farming is part of the Coughlin family tradition, as is growing soybeans. “My husband and I started farming in 1962,” Coughlin says. “He had farmed all his life. It’s a family farm that goes back to the 1800s. His family came over from Ireland in the 1840s and purchased land here, and it stayed in the family. Our youngest son is farming now on that farm, and he has sons as well, so we are hoping we’re going to turn this into six generations.”
The Coughlin Farms have been growing soybeans for 35 or 40 years, originally as a source of protein for their dairy herd, and later as a corn/soy crop rotation. “Now that my son is also part of the operation,” Coughlin says, “we are looking at planting soybeans for human consumption. We have done it in the past. We see it as an opportunity, because the consumption of soy as an export product is growing, thanks to the United Soybean Board.”
Coughlin has been involved in many industry organizations, including the Wisconsin Soybean Association. She adds, “I served on the Wisconsin Soybean Board, and chaired the board for a couple of years. Eventually, I went on to the United Soybean Board for nine years.”
Her board activities also brought opportunities to travel and learn more about world soybean consumers. “I was very interested in the human consumption of soybeans. It’s the area I was focusing on, from a family perspective and a woman’s perspective — how a woman can feed her family better, with a better source of protein, in developing countries. I had the opportunity to travel to Africa and to India. We did some woman-to-woman programs promoting the idea of using soy in the diet.”
When their family started planting soybeans, she says, “The philosophy was that you didn’t need to fertilize soybeans a lot and that it was a low-impact crop.” As the years went on, though, ideas changed. “Also, the technology, the seed itself, has improved so much,” she adds.
These changes help feed the world. “We are the producers,” Coughlin says, “and we want to enhance the production per acre that we are getting today. I think that is what all of agriculture is attempting to do. Farmers feel the responsibility of feeding the world. It’s part of who we are, and it’s part of the rewards. Farming is doing the work you love. That is pretty special.”
Vanessa Kummer, Colfax, North Dakota
Along with her husband, Paul, and her son, Blaine, Vanessa Kummer grows soybeans on their North Dakota farm. “My husband and his parents were raising soybeans before we even got married, and on our farm we’ve been growing soybeans for over 40 years.”
She grew up working in a lumberyard rather than on a farm, but says, “I started farming when I married Paul. It was not a big transition, because you also put in a lot of work in a lumberyard. It’s a little different type of work, but as long as you can learn how to drive equipment, understand what needs to be done and aren’t afraid of working, it’s much the same.”
In addition to farming, Kummer devotes time to organizations such as the United Soybean Board, where she served as chair the last year she was on the board. “Women are part of the farm,” she says. “A lot of times we don’t take the time or feel we have the ability to be on boards, but we really need more representation from women. Women bring different ideas and different thought processes to the table. Having a diversity of thought is what makes an organization stronger.”
Her involvement in industry organizations has given her the opportunity to learn more about soybean customers around the world, to visit with them and to address issues those customers have shared. “I felt, as a farmer, I was able to promote our crop and the benefits of U.S. soybeans. Part of the benefit is that we have trade laws in place, and infrastructure in place, so we are very consistent and reliable. We also raise a quality product that is beneficial to the customer. Through our commodity groups, customers have direct access to the people who raise soybeans.”
Soybean growers such as Kummer meet with global customers both when trade teams come to the U.S. to spend time on farms and when U.S. farmers travel to other countries. “We go to many countries,” she says, “such as China, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam, to visit with customers and ask them about their needs and concerns.”
She adds, “We are not just raising soybeans, we are also assisting in technical issues and food security issues around the world.”
As a way of life, soybean farming offers many opportunities. As Kummer points out, “Farming is really very rewarding and gives us the ability to work together as a family and to provide food for the world. As farmers, we feel that taking care of the soil and preserving our land for the next generation is very important. Farming provides time for a family to work together, share responsibilities and grow — all at the same time.”
Karolyn Zurn, Calloway, Minnesota
On their midsize farm in northwest Minnesota, Zurn, her husband and two sons farm together, producing soybeans, corn and sugar. “All of our children have stayed involved in agriculture,” she says. “Our farm has evolved during our 43 years of marriage. With raising five children, all of them in 4-H, FFA and doing other things besides, we were very busy parents, not only farming but also raising our family.”
After her children got older, Zurn had more time to become involved in agriculture advocacy. Speaking about just a few of her current activities, she says, “I am a Minnesota Soybean Growers Association director and also a chair of the Northern Crops Institute. We work with the U.S. Soybean Export Council, bringing in people from all over the world for coursework.”
The Northern Crops Institute is a collaborative effort encompassing North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.
Zurn mentions that one of the first soybean courses she participated in shared information with bakers and millers about baking with soy flour. In developing countries, soy flour provides protein for an ever-growing population of children who need protein in their diets.
“The soy flour is produced right here in Minnesota and in Iowa,” she adds, “and it is sent all over the world.”
Zurn notes that Minnesota is now one of the major soybean-producing states in the U.S. “The change is due to technology and variety. We have shorter days and colder temperatures here, and, without the right varieties, you couldn’t get the length of days needed to grow soybeans. In the past, if we were lucky, we got 20 bushels of beans per acre. Now, over the last 10 to 20 years, we have doubled or tripled that due to better varieties and better practices.”
As an agriculture advocate, Zurn works to promote the importance of today’s farming and conservation practices. In addition, each of the boards she serves on provides her with a different viewpoint about how to approach current issues. Her industry involvement also offers the opportunity to make personal connections and exchange ideas. “I have hosted many trade teams on our farm. People who come here to buy beans or for course work at the Northern Crops Institute take a bus down to visit our farm. We explain our farming practices to them. We want them to know they are buying their food from a family.”
The family connection extends both ways, too, as the Zurns have participated in a foreign exchange worker program, where students get course-work credit by working on a farm in another country. The Zurn farm has hosted workers from several countries, including Denmark, Germany and Australia.
“They learned different farming practices, and we learned their culture as well. We’ve stayed good friends with many of them. We had three sons here from one family. When my daughter got married, they came over from Denmark for the wedding. When you talk about family and farms,” she says, “there are big connections.”