There are a lot of women managing Montana farms and ranches. It's often thought of as a sector long dominated by men, but that's changing as women enter the state's agriculture industry.
There's a conference underway in Billings this week where women ranchers and farmers are gathering to learn more about making their businesses profitable.
Rancher Anita Brawner stands in line waiting for lunch. Her family runs a cattle calving operation in Nebraska, but the Brawner Ranch Company is headquartered south of Livingston, Montana, where she was born.
“Sixty years ago, I didn’t even know the difference between a steer and a heifer.”
Now, Brawner runs her family’s company.
“For a long time, women still were part of the ranch and in the decisions making. Now, we’re stepping forward. Also, a lot more women are doing the running of the ranch after the husbands or the spouses or whoever has passed away.”
Family farms and ranches are struggling to keep pace with corporations making a larger footprint in the industry. This conference, called "Women Stepping Forward for Agriculture," is an annual event offering women a place to network and promote their agriculture services.
Shauna Farver is from Scobey, Montana. She and her husband produce soup and salad mixes from wheat and lentils they grow.
“It was three years ago at this ag conference that I sort of got the idea for what we’re doing now, and we’ve been developing and just starting to really get our feet under us now.”
Farver wants to keep her business in the family...and she's encouraging her son and daughter to return to the ranch.
“There was never a question for our kids whether they wanted to stay. It was, how do we make that happen? And I think for a lot of families that’s probably the same scenario. The kids would love to come back. It’s how do we make a livable wage or an earning from doing that? How do we create those opportunities?”
Farver is celebrating. Her daughter is ready to move back home. Keeping the family together is a theme among some women at this meeting. They also are discussing loans available to business owners, the opioid crisis in rural America, and generational divides.
Some of the ranchers and farmers are looking for new opportunities.
Whitney Klasna operates a farm and ranch out of Lambert, MT.
“We switched to a non-GMO canola variety this year, just ‘cause there’s a market for people who want non-GMO canola oil.”
Klasna says consumer demand is always changing, and farmers and ranchers have to pay attention to what people want. Products are evolving and farmers and ranchers are doing more to protect the environment while harvesting crops and meat. They're also paying attention to the global market in the wake of the Trump Administration's new tariffs and trade policies.
The first conference was held in 2001 in Great Falls and the event has been held annually across the state. This week's conference wraps up in Billings Thursday.