Cover Story: A Voice for Farmers & Ranchers
Mother-Daughter Duo works at national and state level in tandem for truth in agriculture
On any given day, you'll find Karen Yost scrolling through dozens upon dozens of emails, taking phone calls and keeping up with anything and everything that could impact our state's leading industry of agriculture. As president of the American Agri-Women, she knows, "I would devote 80 hours a week if I could and still be a little bit behind." If that isn't enough, she helps run Nutra-Lix, a family-owned and operated agricultural feed supplement business right here in Billings. It's a passion that stretches across four generations in her family.
Why does she fight for those who make a living working the land in one way or another?
"People are disconnected with where their food comes from so they are an easy target for those groups that want to bad mouth agriculture. It's become a political argument rather than a science argument," she says.
If it isn't unusual enough to have the president of one of the nation's leading voices in agriculture here in Billings, this fact is truly unusual. As Karen sits as the national president, her daughter Kellie Kittlemann is the president of Montana Agri-Women. The mother-daughter duo provides two powerful voices for farmers and ranchers in all corners of the state and nation from right here in Billings. It's a big job, especially if you look at this state alone. The last census figures revealed that Montana plays home to 30,000 family farms that cover more than 61 million acres. Nationally, Karen helps represent upwards of 50,000 women actively involved in agriculture, providing a "force for truth about American agriculture." Her organization is a non-profit, non-partisan, public-interest group that represents everything from those raising cattle, to citrus, to cotton, to timber and more.
"You've probably heard the saying you can take the kid off the farm but you can't take the farm out of the kid?" Karen says with a smile. "If you were raised that way, that's just a part of who you are. Agriculture is the basis of our whole society. Without agriculture, there's no culture."
As a third generation Montanan, she relies just as much on the agriculture industry to make a living as her father and grandmother did. That's right, her grandmother.
"My grandmother lost her husband when she was 40 years old and she had 10 kids. My dad was the youngest and he was 5 years old. She had just come over from Russia. They were Germans from Russia, and she farmed with her kids," she says.
Not only was it a tough job to farm as a woman, being an immigrant to this country wasn't easy either.
"The Ku Klux Klan tried to drive her out because they thought the family was low class Germans from Russia and they said the other people in Park City didn't want them there," Karen says. "They would hide under their beds until they left. Think of how afraid you would be in a country where you couldn't even speak the language? And yet, she adopted this country because it was so much better than where she came from in Russia."
You could say her grandmother's grit and perseverance has survived through the generations. Karen grew up on that same tract of land in Park City, helping her grandmother and her father farm sugar beets, and hay. "I was so fortunate to be able be raised on a farm. First of all, it teaches you a great work ethic. When I was being raised, I didn't resent that at all. I loved working with my family. We didn't take vacations all that much. My dad thought that this place was the place he wanted to be so, why leave it?" She has very fond memories helping her dad irrigate the land and learning how to be an active farmer along the way.
She never forgot her roots.
"My grandmother hoed in the garden the day before she died. She was so influential and very strong." Karen laughs as she relays one family story. "They took her to jail one time for keeping her kids out of school to do the beet harvest, even though she rotated her kids so that they wouldn't miss a whole week of school."
Turns out, Karen's grandmother was ahead of her time. While the 2012 farm census numbers have yet to be fully released, the 2007 numbers show a growing number of the nation's farms are being owned and operated by women. Those figures state that 30% of all farms are women owned and operated, a jump of 19% over the 2002 figures.
While the goal of raising food and fiber remains the same, the way in which a farmer does that job couldn't have changed more over the years. Instead of plowing by hand, there are massive tractors. The science has improved. GPS technology and software helps increase farm efficiency. But with the advances comes an added level of governance that American and Montana Agri-women sit ready to watch.
"It takes a lot of hours to farm and ranch," Karen says with a serious tone. "You are up at sunlight or before. You work all day long and sometimes, if you want to have a crop, you don't have time to go to all of the meetings or to visit with consumers. You have your nose to the grindstone." And, that's exactly why American Agri-Women was formed in 1974, to pay attention and be that voice. She admits, "Instead of commodities fighting against one another, we are working together to educate each other."
While the voices have joined together, Karen says the biggest job right now seems to be educating the public. "People are fighting modern agriculture, but that is what has made us prosperous and helped us to feed the world. Honestly and truly, if we are not out talking to consumers and to our legislators and to our agencies that regulate us, we won't be alive."
The group works to educate on food safety, bring education to the classroom, promote the industry, and keep track of legislation as well as any new regulations. The group does it, Karen says because, "With the exception of maybe two states, agriculture is the largest economic factor of every single state."
It's been 17 years since Karen first became a member of Montana Agri-Women. At the time, her and her husband George were running Nutra-Lix and owned a 10-acre tract of land where they raised Quarter horses and operated team roping events on the weekend. You could say, her interest in the non-profit action group was by chance. She smiles and says, "I just happened to hear a radio ad for Montana Agri-women. They were having a conference. So, I asked George (her husband) if I could get the day off and I attended it. Oh my goodness sakes! They were bringing forth issues that I didn't know existed. It was an enlightenment to me to see what was actually going on in the world."
Eight years later, she encouraged her two daughters, Kellie and Katie (who is now the secretary of Montana Agri-women), to give the group a try.
After Kellie's first meeting, the fire was lit inside her as well. "It was just such a relief to be around people who are so passionate about what they do and how safe they do it. They are raising their families to love the land and take care of the land and their animals. They want to defend what they are doing. It is sad that we even have to defend it," she admits.
As the state president of Montana Agri-Women, Kellie knows how blessed she and the state are to have not one, but two advocates representing Montana farmers and ranchers. She is quick to point out, "I think for Montana Agri-Women, we are spoiled rotten. I am always asking, 'Mom, what would you do now?' I am always taking issues to her. It's nice because I know a lot of people have tried to get a hold of my mother and can't." Kellie laughs and says, "That's only happened to me a few times."
Both mother and daughter agree that while each state faces different issues, educating the average, everyday consumer has to be a top priority. Kellie laughs when she shares one story she heard when attending a national convention. "You come across this all the time. In American Agri-Women, they were talking about how people get confused with soy milk and milk. They asked at a larger state fair what cow the soy milk came from. They have pictures with people saying, 'I bet it is this brown cow.' They don't know that soy milk is not actually milk. It is juice and it comes from a bean. They are just so far removed."
While Kellie's job as president just began last April and Karen's two-year-term comes to a close this fall, both feel strongly that this change can happen -- one voice, one person, and one story at a time.
"We are out in the public eye telling the story about agriculture but we are on the ground as well, knowing exactly what it is about," Karen says. "We need to win those issues moving through Congress. We need to watch the executive orders. We need to watch those people in agencies who are making decisions that hugely affect us and yet know nothing about us."
With 97% of all farms and ranches operating as family farms, both Kellie and Karen work every day as their advocates. Kellie will tell you, "A lot of these women find it hard to speak up when it is needed. That is the great thing about our organization. We help equip people to be able to express themselves. Karen adds with passion, "Every voice does make a difference."
TO LEARN MORE, visit americanagriwomen.org. There you'll find a page detailing the officers and events with Montana Agri-Women as well.