Women down on the farm are coming up in agriculture industry

Jeanne Kessler juggles a lot of things in her busy life. She gets her son off to kindergarten in the mornings. She cooks and cleans. At the moment, she is feeding 38 calves.

''I never dreamed I'd be doing this,'' she says, dunking two plastic bottles into a large pail of fresh milk. ''I was a cheerleader in high school.''

Mrs. Kessler is one example of how women down on the farm are coming up in the world. Slowly, many women are making a transition from farm wife to farm partner, observers say. A 1980 survey of farm women by the United States Department of Agriculture found that 55 percent considered themselves one of the main farm operators. An estimated 7 percent of the nation's 2.5 million farms are operated solely or principally by women - a number expected to increase to 10 percent by 1985.

And their increasing visibility is beginning to be felt in rural - and urban - America.

Is women's liberation wending its way to America's farms? Horsefeathers, many of these women say. A main reason women are more active is economic necessity.

These days, ''if you're going to make a go of it, it takes two of you,'' says Donna Nelson, who directs a South Dakota wheat farm with her husband. ''I'm more involved than my grandmother ever was.''

Another reason is time.

Even though women appear to be doing more farm work, many say they still spend less time at it than their husbands do. This means that women are freed up to volunteer their time for a slew of farm organizations.

''I do have more time than my husband,'' says Carolyn Hegel, farm wife and second vice-president of Indiana Farm Bureau Inc. She now travels about 20,000 miles a year promoting and educating the public about agriculture.

Marsha Herndon, director of women's programs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, agrees: ''We're seeing in the past few years that women are coming out of their shells a little bit. . . . They've gained confidence.''

And recognition. November is farm women's month, proclaimed by Secretary of Agriculture John Block for the second year in a row.

The women's committee of Farm Bureau is the largest of a string of women's auxiliaries to farm organizations. A 1982 survey found that 12,500 women across the country were serving in county Farm Bureau women's committees. Other women's support groups include the American National Cowbelles (affiliated with the National Cattlemen's Association), the National Porkettes (National Pork Producers Council), and the Wheathearts (National Association of Wheat Growers).

In addition, there are two major independent women's groups - American Agri-Women and WIFE (Women Involved in Farm Economics).

The homey names belie the fact that these organizations perform a variety of important activities, especially in the communications area. There are public education efforts, such as Farm Bureau's agriculture-in-the-classroom program, and attempts to influence legislation involving agriculture.

''We don't feel that most consumers know that agriculture is important to them,'' says Ruby Ringsdorf, former president of American Agri-Women.

Women are also making inroads into the male-dominated farm groups.

One woman is president of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. A former state Wheathearts president may become head of the South Dakota Wheat Producers within the next few weeks. At the national level, women now head a couple of committees at the wheat growers' association.

Women's participation ''does make the organization more effective,'' says Bill Brown, communications director for the wheat growers group, although the influx of women ''is not an overnight transformation.

Jeanne Kessler, for example, applauds the fact that more women are getting involved in agriculture, but she's not sure if she wants to become as involved as her mother-in-law, a farm women's activist in nearby LaPorte, Ind. Right now, she says, turning back to her calves, she's satisfied working on the farm.

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