Two local women whose family farms have deeply invested in tourism will participate in a panel discussion in July on farm diversification.

Tina Hinchley, of Hinchley’s Dairy Farm near Cambridge, and Theresa Schuster, of Schuster’s Playtime Farm near Deerfield, are among five women who will share thoughts on farm diversification and niche marketing during an online networking event at 7 p.m. July 14.

Advanced registration is required to attend at https://bit.ly/HFNJuly2020. There is no cost.

Originally envisioned as in-person, now online due to COVID-19, the panel discussion is being organized by Her Farm Network, a group for women farmers founded in 2019 by Landmark Services Cooperative in Cottage Grove.

The panel discussion is being moderated by Shelly Mayer of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

Other panelists are scheduled to include Debbie Crave of Crave Brothers Cheese in Waterloo; Kara Kasten-Olson, of Little Farmer Meats in Watertown; and Kim Dooley, of O’Dools Dairy Goats in Orfordville.

In a release, Landmark Services Cooperative said Her Farm Network was created in recognition that women make up about 30 percent of U.S. farm operators.

“More and more women are playing a vital role in today’s farm operations,” the release said. The goal was “to help provide education on critical farm operations (and) share stories and experiences that can help others, and provide an opportunity to network with other women in the industry.”

Chrissy Long, a marketing and communication specialist with Landmark Services Cooperative, and Ashley Schumacher, the cooperative’s marketing coordinator, said Her Farm Network met three times in 2019 at area breweries, and drew 30-40 attendees each time.

“We were very happy with that” turnout, Long said. “I think we are all looking for a little something we can add to our business, and to our lives.”

The vision for 2020 had been to meet at area wineries; the pandemic flipped that.

The July 14 online panel discussion is the first gathering in 2020. Two more events, in August and September, are also planned to be online. In August, the topic will be ag advocacy and telling your story. The September topic will be farm succession.

Schumacher said registered attendees will receive a care package ahead of time that includes a wine glass, in an effort to mimic the originally envisioned atmosphere.

“It adds a little human connection. At the brewery they would have gotten a glass or other memento,” Schumacher said.

Schumacher said 2019 attendees represented a wide range of ages, a wide variety of agriculture niches, from beekeepers to beef and dairy farmers, and included both veteran farmers and women new to the industry.

In any industry, “networking and education go hand in hand,” Schumacher said. “Just chatting with other attendees, you can learn things that you can apply back on your farm.”

She said she hopes that with the online format “we can still have time at the end where we can un-mute everyone and allow some networking, as best we can.”

Schumacher said the 2020 panel discussion format was based on feedback from last year’s attendees.

“We said ‘what would interest you?’”

Schuster’s Playtime Farm

Schuster, who with her husband Don has since 1994 grown a drive-in pumpkin patch into a regional ag tourism destination that draws 40,000 visitors a year, says she’s long noticed that farm men connect more effectively than farm women.

“Don and I belong to a couple of national organizations that network based on our ag tourism,” she said. “What's interesting is the men tend to communicate year-round, making phone calls, texting, keeping in touch with each other.”

They are more apt than women, she’s observed, “to reach out to each other and ask questions."

Schuster, who works full-time away from the farm, said that dearth of connection among women may be partly due to the pace of their lives.

The seems to be changing generationally, though, she said, noting the Her Farm Network is being largely being organized by women in their 20s and 30s.

“This younger generation does more networking,” which she said is critical for a group that seems to place importance on quickly accelerating operations, whether they’re a start-up or reinvigorating a long-time farm.

“Women in their 20s and 30s are moving more quickly than our business did, so that networking piece is important,” Schuster said. “Social networking is just part of who they are.”

Se said Her Farm Network and other efforts like it are rising as a younger generation is looking for guidance from women who have long been in farming. 

“They are pulling us in, those of us who have been doing this longer, and diversifying longer, and still surviving as a business,” she said.

Learning is a two-way street, Schuster said. 

“We have different things to offer each other, networking across generations," she said.

She said long-time women farmers have lessons to share about balancing work and family, ensuring that a business is growing at a rate that doesn’t overwhelm, and that all facets of an operation mesh with your personal and professional values.

“I think that is a piece that I have to offer, being true to what your family believes in and can stand behind, not doing things that don’t fit that,” she said

Looking back, Schuster said her and Don's significant business decisions have more often than not been tied to what was personally best at that moment for them and their children. 

Schuster also said said running a long-term business requires regular, intentional pauses to reflect on your past and future course.

“You need to look forward and back at the same time, rather than just always looking forward,” she said.

Hinchley’s Dairy Farm

Hinchley and her husband, Duane, diversified their Cambridge-area dairy operation nearly 25 years ago, by adding farm tours.

What began with school groups and fall pumpkins has “dramatically,” broadened, Hinchley said.

“The last four or five years, things have really changed,” Hinchley said. “Our audience has changed,” with more senior tours, of which Hinchley’s is typically one stop on a full-day or multi-day trip.

Seniors “want to do something fun but they don’t want to drive,” Hinchley said. “They can get on a coach bus and travel and visit our farm and some other destinations.”

There’s been an uptick, too, in recent years of families visiting, many of whom come armed with questions, Hinchley said.

“They want to know what kinds of corn we’re growing and does our milk have antibiotics in it,” she said. “They want to talk to farmer, and to know a farmer, so they can be comfortable with their food purchases.”

Conversations often turn to farm technology and to processes like managing manure, she said, “just sharing and being open and honest and giving them perspective.”

Hinchley’s draws corporate groups, too, that are meeting in Madison and looking for something fun for attendees to do, and groups from corporations that have ties to the dairy industry, looking to get employees out to a working farm.

It draws international groups during events like the World Dairy Expo, usually held every October in Madison. The 2020 World Dairy Expo has been canceled due to COVID-19. And, it still draws busloads of school kids, who get a chance to milk a cow.

Hinchley wasn’t a complete newcomer to farm tours when she and Duane shifted their focus.

As a college student, she worked on a farm in Racine County that had added farm tours.

“I did have that experience. I knew what I was getting into,” she said. “I knew how to handle busloads of people and how to plant pumpkins.”

She said opening up a farm to tours is just one way to remain sustainable.

“As farmers, we cannot be so shy,” she said. “We have to be willing to open up and say ‘come and see what I’m doing.’”

So, too, she said, is being able to effectively hand operations off to younger generations, a way of remaining sustainable.

When she and Duane began hosting farm tours they had four young children, all now grown.

Hinchley said she was encouraged to see young women at the 2019 Her Farm Network events and hopes that continues.

“Having young people with bright ideas, different ideas, involved in our industry is like a ray of sunshine,” she said. “We need to have that.”

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