CommonGround connects farming and non-farming women

written by Jonathan Eisenthal

This is part one of a two-part series highlighting CommonGround, a program supported by Minnesota’s corn and soybean farmers. Look for part two on Wednesday.

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As the snow arrived this week, cattle rancher Rachel Gray got busy making sure her herd was “tucked in.”

“We just started getting snow last night,” Gray said Sunday evening from her home near Blackduck, in Beltrami County. “We spent the day today checking waters, making sure that heat lamps are good, putting bedding out for our claves and making sure wind breaks were up.”

Rachel’s herd — currently 65 heifers and their calves, each a sturdy mix of Black Angus and Simmental, with a dash of Hereford ‘baldies’ thrown in — winters outside. With three huge round straw bales chopped up, the mothers and their offspring happily ‘burrow’ deep into the straw — the way herds of cattle have lived for generations.

Gray’s family history on this patch of ground north of Blackduck goes back to 1935, when her great grandfather settled here and started a dairy, and raised sheep. In 1970, he and his son named the farm Timber’s Edge. In 2001, they sold the dairy herd and converted the operation to raising beef cattle. Rachel named her business Little Timber, in homage to the family history.

Feeding the Girls

Rachel gray feeds her cattle on her cattle ranch in Blackduck, Minn.

In addition to caring for her cattle, Gray is also one of 18 farm women in Minnesota who volunteer with a program called CommonGround. CommonGround volunteers connect with other women, answer questions about food and farming, share what they do on their own farms and talk about some of the science and research behind it.

“CommonGround focuses on woman-to-woman or mom-to-mom conversations, because women are usually making a lot of the food decisions at home,” said Meghan Doyle, state coordinator for CommonGround Minnesota. “Mom’s want to know they’re feeding their kids safe and nutritious food, but sorting through all the food and farming information that’s out there can be overwhelming. That’s where CommonGround comes in. Talking directly to a farmer is a great way to learn more from the individuals who are actually out there growing and raising food every day.”

Gray has got plenty to do on the on the family farm, so why does she volunteer with CommonGround?

“As a former teacher, I always feel the urge to educate,” Gray admits. “So many of the people buying beef from us had questions and a lot of people were confused by some of the terms and labels they saw at the store. I found myself making a sale, talking with someone and really going through how we raise our cattle and what we do. I could talk about farming all day long, so for me CommonGround is a dream come true.”  

Minnesota’s is one of the largest CommonGround state programs and more than 130 farm women volunteers are involved in the program nationwide. Of course, in Minnesota, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Starting from Gray’s ranch, which is about thirty miles northeast of Bemidji, you can travel nearly 300 miles south to the Swenson farm near Trimont, MN, right by the Iowa border. Kristie Swenson, a corn and soybean farmer and one of the first women to join CommonGround Minnesota, carries a vivid memory from childhood that motivates her to talk to consumers about food and farming.

“When I was in sixth grade I had a friend from school sleep over. Our family had some beef cattle at that time, and my friend said to me, ‘So those are cows, right?’ I was stunned that she had grown up in this small, rural agricultural town, but she didn’t have a sense of even the basics of agriculture,” Swenson said. “That opened my eyes to how many people are disconnected from agriculture. Ever since sixth grade, ag literacy has been a passion of mine. When I found out about CommonGround, I was so excited get involved and to have an opportunity to reach out to a much broader audience.”

Swenson grew up on the farm with her parents and two older brothers. Later, she attended the University of Minnesota and studied agricultural education with an emphasis on leadership training and development.

“I worked in the Twin Cities for a few years after college and then I got married and moved back home. Luckily, the guy I married wanted to be involved farming too.” Swenson said. “He had grown up on a dairy farm and agriculture was one of our common threads. Now my husband and I live on the farm and he works there full time with my parents. 

With two sons, a three-year-old and a newborn, as well as a full time job off the farm, Swenson is not swimming in free time. But she makes time to talk, mom-to-mom, about food and farming because she believes it’s an important extension of her passion for ag outreach and her own desire to put healthy, safe food on the table for her own family.

“I can honestly say that as a mom my perspective has changed,” Swenson said. “Even I get caught up in some of those articles that say, ‘oh, this was found in your food…be careful.’ Then I say to myself, ’hey, wait a minute, what’s the truth here? I’m a farmer and I know other farmers. Is there really some truth to this article? Or is this just somebody trying to blow an issue out of proportion? I understand what moms are going through, what their concerns are, because I’m a mom and I have those same concerns too.”

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If you would like to learn more about CommonGround visit FindOurCommonGround.com. Check back Wednesday for part two.

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