the fourth generation: erickson farm
Michelle is a 4th generation farmer. I met her in the middle of the day, in the middle of her fields. The sun was high in the sky – to the left, fields of unopened sunflowers, to the right – the fields of gold stretched on and on - until it was abruptly interrupted by the brilliant blue sky.
We climbed the short staircase to the cab of her John Deer Combine. It was my first time in a combine – I liked the feeling that we were in a large vacuum, working neatly, row by row - scooping up the kernels, leaving the stalks behind. She told me about how she’s been working with her father off and on since 1984, telling people since she was 4 years old that she wanted to be a farmer. She told me “I wanted to be a farmer so much I seriously considered getting a degree in diesel mechanics” by the way, she confesses that she is a terrible mechanic.
Instead, she went off to college and received her bachelors degree with plans of going on to law school to get a combination JD/MBA degree. She wanted to become an international commodities trader. After college, she got a job at UPS while applying to law schools. But she fell in love with the job and scrapped law school to begin pursuing a dual MBA focusing on Operations Management and Mediation/Dispute Resolution. She quickly rose through the ranks and then eventually left UPS for Amazon. Her time there was cut short however when the opportunity arose to return to the farm.
My dad calls one day to ask what my dream job was. I did not hesitate to say "be a farmer." At the time she was single and had to consider the consequences of giving up a salary, health insurance, cash bonuses, stock options. But she knew were she belonged. As soon as I got home I put a quote on my living room wall that said,
"Life takes you unexpected places, love takes you home."
Historically, the 6,000 acre farm had been primarily in winter wheat production. But she has evolved the rotations to include malt barley, safflower, sunflowers, corn, hay barley/forage mix, and alfalfa. And then she married a rancher who operates a black angus cow/calf operation.
I ask her who her mentors are – she lists off the names, her husband "Travis, Ryan, Tony, Les, Mitchel, her father, Bart."
And I realize, none of her farming mentors are women.
She tells me a story about how a neighbor called up looking for her dad to buy a bushel of corn. She told him, that she could take care of it – he said he would rather wait and do business with her father. She told him “That’s fine. But you still have to make the check out to me…because I own the corn.” She thinks most people automatically assume that daughter means young girl vs. the farmer and business owner that she is.
She is the first woman on the executive board of the Montana Grain Growers Association. That's a big deal and she sincerely wishes she had the time to become an officer at the national level and even become their first female president – but, because of her growing family - those ambitions will have to be tabled – she hopes by the time her children are grown and she has the time to dedicate to the role, that there will have already been several female officers.
I ask her what she wants people to know most about farmers. She says she wants people to understand that no matter the size of the farm - farmers care very deeply for their land. She says, “Our ultimate goal is to improve the land, care for the soil, and pass the farm down to the next generation in better condition than when we started. That is not to say that the previous generation made mistakes -- but it is to say that we strive to improve ourselves and our land EVERY day. “
She told me that no one wants to be the person that causes a multi-generation farm to fail-- whether by mismanagement or simple bad luck. It is a very real fear -- and source of anxiety. Everyone wants to add another generation of farmers to their family name. She hopes everyday that one of her children will become the 5th generation farmer/rancher