Farm Women Launch 'Hillary Clinton Club'
By Jane Braxton Little
When the women of Hay Springs, Neb., learned that Hillary Rodham Clinton landed $100,000 by trading in cattle futures, they took action.
"We felt if she could make that much money in one year without even walking in manure, those of us who step in it every day should be able to make a little bit, too," said Linda Feddersen, who raises Angus cows and calves on her family farm.
Feddersen and five other women formed the Hillary Clinton Club, a marketing group devoted to basic business principles. Along with knowledge and self-esteem, the women have generated an interest in new crops and new farm techniques that has spread from their husbands into the local business community.
"It's brought families and the entire community closer together," said Twila Weyers, a founding member of the Hillary Clinton Club.
Across the country, farm women are tallying profit-loss columns and monitoring supply-demand fluctuations along with their traditional responsibilities for cooking, gardening and providing an extra hand in the barn and field. As the business of agriculture becomes increasingly complex, women on the farm are becoming involved in the toughest financial issues.
The Hillary Clinton Club began with "hedging," a term the women had heard their husbands use. "We thought they were talking about lilac bushes," said Weyers.
During a year of studying marketing concepts, they became familiar with hedging as the art of outguessing the market -- "What it takes to make a profit and how much we're willing to gamble," she said. Women who were initially afraid to raise their hands in a group began leading small group discussions of when to buy equipment and when to sell grain.
Along with marketing, the Hillary Clinton Club is exploring the profits and risks of new products as well as new markets for existing crops. This year members plan to make a field trip to Celestial Seasonings headquarters in Colorado to explore the possibility of producing mint, lemongrass, chicory root and other goods to sell as ingredients in the company's herbal teas.
Not everything they have tried has worked, said Feddersen. "We can raise this stuff -- corn, beans, beef -- but we're farming gobs more land just to stay alive. The market is so volatile you have to be able to change -- every year," she said.
The club's activities have attracted the attention of local businesses, which have coached the group on financial matters. Business leaders are glad to see the Hillary Clinton Club attending out-of-town seminars as well. They can see, Weyers said, that the more knowledge the women bring back to the community, the larger the potential profits for everyone.
"It's a big circle. Everybody's working together a whole lot better," she said.
But the Hillary Clinton Club and other similar groups are not just about business as usual on the farm.
Many see themselves as part of a new approach to farming, often called "sustainable agriculture." One of its goals is keeping decisions and profits local.
"They want the family farm to survive," said Kristin Kelleher, who works with similar farm women in California for the federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.
"But sustainable agriculture is more than that," she added. They want to link agriculture with "other societal issues like farmer health, thriving small towns, and clean water and fertile soil for their children's children."
Across Nebraska from the Hillary Clinton Club, farm women in the Bow Valley had been stewing for years over the quality of their lives, said Linda Kleinschmit, a self-described farm activist. They worried about preserving the family unit and felt isolated, cut off from their neighbors, Kleinschmit said.
"We used to all know each other, but those bonds had broken down. We had little understanding and less tolerance for one another," said Kleinschmit, who raises edible soybeans and Holstein heifers on her family farm.
The Bow Valley women began seeing their own happiness and sense of self-worth as a missing piece of the farm stability puzzle, she said. They formed EQUAL, Enhanced Quality of Life, and dedicated their first year to educating themselves about themselves with sessions on personality testing, conflict resolution, women's wellness and financial planning.
"To have stable farms you need stable families. No one will be farming if these families break up," Kleinschmit said.
The second year EQUAL focused on getting husbands and families involved in community leadership programs. This year the group's plan to get involved in political and public policy issues will include a trip to the state capital.
Like farmers everywhere, the Nebraska women are struggling with the everyday business decisions that make or break an operation. The margin is very thin, said Weyers.
"We like to think the Hillary Clinton Club has had financial benefits, but we know at least it's helped our families by making us more involved," she said. The club's monthly meetings draw 15 to 20 women in a town of about 500 people; some of its funding comes from the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.
The women in EQUAL would like to get to the place where they all receive a paycheck for their contributions to the farm enterprise, said Kleinschmit. For now, however, they are enjoying a new-found pride as partners responsible for their farms.
"We take very small steps and build on them. This is about helping people to continue to work in this community and bringing the community back together," Kleinschmit said.
Posted May 9, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service
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