“Women in agriculture are tough cookies!”

Els Lippens, dairy farmer, USA

Els Lippens grew up in Belgium, but moved to the United States with her parents almost twenty years ago. This farmer’s granddaughter learned the ropes of her trade on the dairy farm her father built from scratch in South Dakota, never to return to her home country. Today she and her husband Geert run their own dairy farm in Breckenridge, Michigan.

Although farming runs in Els’s family, for a while it didn’t look like she would be a farmer’s daughter. Her father grew up on her grandfather’s farm, a small mixed farm with ten cows, twenty pigs and a horse. Yet he did not join the family business:

“My grandfather saw no future in the business, and although my father very much wanted to start his own farm, he went to work as a mechanic in the meat processing industry, while my mother took care of the household”, says Els. Driven by a passion for agriculture shared with her father, Els studied at the agricultural school in Eeklo before starting higher education in Sint-Niklaas.

“I had the same curiosity as my father in the agricultural life, and when we took a trip to South Dakota, my father immediately envisioned starting his own dairy farm there. And that’s how it all started.”

From the Midwest to the Flatlands

In 2003, Els, her two sisters and her parents moved to Big Stone City in South Dakota. The real Midwest, she says: “the entire state is sparsely populated. My family and I lived in a fairly populated part of the state, but it would still be the middle of nowhere by European standards. The east side of the state is pretty flat with a few hills here and there, but the real hills are on the west side, where you also find the Badlands.”

Until the end of 2020, Els’ parents operated their dairy farm in Big Stone City. They decided to retire at the end of last year, but by then Els had already moved to Breckenridge to run her own family business.

“My husband is also an emigrated Belgian, he had moved to the U.S. with his parents in 2001 and was running a dairy farm with 10,000 cows. So when I decided to move from South Dakota to Michigan in 2013, the logical step was to start working on the farm.”

The Michigan flatlands are excellent for agriculture; “it is a real versatile state where many different crops can be grown. Many vegetables and fruits are cultivated here. Someone once told me that Michigan is the only state where you can grow so many different crops! I sometimes compare it with Belgium, but then on a much larger surface and with real winters. Although the winters here are less extreme than in South Dakota. In short, it is pleasant to live here!”

Running a farm and a family

When Els started working at Geert’s family farm, her tasks mainly consisted of keeping lists during pregnancy checks, assisting the veterinarian and processing everything in the computer. “That full-time follow-up from someone who is very detail oriented is really necessary when the cow count is that large.”

In 2017, Els and Geert’s first child, Elli, was born, followed by Mia in 2019. With the birth of the children, Els switched to a different work rhythm: “The intense work schedule diminished a bit, because now I also had the care for our two children. That’s why I am now responsible for ordering all the medicines and equipment used on the farm. That way I can better combine running my family with running our business.”

Els’ day starts with taking the children to daycare, as Gert is often out early in the morning. Only then can she begin her day’s tasks. What these daily tasks entail depends on the season:

“We work following a schedule, and each day there are different tasks. One day I inventory the drugs, and the next I do the same for the pieces and equipment. Around noon I check with Gert to see where he is working. Sometimes he has time to go out for something to eat together, but usually I pick something up or make a quick lunch at home and bring it to him. When we have lunch is not fixed: we eat when there is time.”

“After noon it’s then time for me to pick up the kids. Sometimes I can then take them to Gert’s so they can ride along on some machine: they always find it so much fun to ride along with Dad!”

Passion, ambition, hard work and perseverance

Over the years, Els saw attitudes towards women in agriculture change for the better. When she first moved to South Dakota, she had a hard time with the bias towards women working in agriculture.

“Some people there are still a bit skeptical about a woman doing more than just taking care of the home on a farm, especially if that woman is involved in or responsible for the decision making. My dad has three daughters and no sons, so that was a lot of girl power on the farm! When a representative came to the farm and asked for my dad for something I could easily have helped with… that made me very defensive at first. After a while, I got over it, but fortunately times have changed: more and more women are doing so-called ‘men’s jobs’ these days.”

When we ask Els if she has any advice she would like to give to girls and women who dream of a career in agriculture, she says: “The most important thing is to have passion and ambition, and then hard work and perseverance. Many women in agriculture are tough cookies, but they got there because of their hard work. Times have changed, stereotypes in the workplace have diminished, and I think that can only benefit the agricultural sector.

Els Lippens is from Lembeke (East Flanders, Belgium) but moved to Big Stone City, South Dakota (USA), 17 years ago with her parents and two sisters. She worked on her parents dairy farm until she decided to join her husband Gert’s dairy farm in Breckenridge, Michigan.







This article appeared in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-02. Click here to read the full article. 

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