As far back as she can trace, Cheryl Tevis’ ancestors were farmers. Even she grew up on a farm near the northwest Iowa town of Hornick near the Loess Hills.
But when it came time to chart her own path, Cheryl chose to be a trailblazer. She combined her love of writing and rural roots to become a farm economics writer. It made her a double-rarity: few journalists specialized in agribusiness, and even fewer were women.
Through her writing, Cheryl found ways to spotlight women blazing their own trails on the farm and in agribusiness. She wanted to give them their due, wishing fewer women would say they were “just a farm wife.”
“As if that didn’t involve a lot of important skills!” she says.
So it made total sense in 2005 when Cheryl became one of the founders of and now leads Iowa Women in Agriculture, an all-volunteer group of women supporting women who actively run farms, manage land or work in agribusiness. They come to the meetings for networking as much as the expert business advice. And Cheryl, now 71, proudly notes that in recent years, all IWIA conference presenters are women, too, a sign of how times have changed in agriculture.
A friend and fellow IWIA founder April Hemmes says Cheryl played a key role in promoting those changes. Her journalism became a form of quiet yet important advocacy, where women in agriculture could read about other women just like them.
“She wrote the stories that really brought women forward in agriculture, and that encouraged other young women to get involved,“ says April, who farms near Hampton and was the first IWIA president.
These days, women are key players in all facets of agriculture - though April still calls Iowa’s universe of ag women a “small world.” But back when Cheryl finished high school, women running farms were rare. Farm wives served more as helpmates, bookkeepers and household managers. Wives working off the farm were exceptions.
Growing up on the farm, she collected cherished memories like playing with cousins who lived up the road and sledding on the Loess Hills. “It was a lot of fun!” she recalls. But she also learned the challenges of farming: long hours, injury risks, and sometimes losing a year’s profit in one bad weather spell. And it was growing more complex with export embargoes upending marketing plans and mounting pressure to create bigger, fewer farms.
After family dinners when women would typically adjourn to the kitchen, men would talk issues like grain prices or market timing. Cheryl found she wanted to learn more about that.
While getting a bachelor’s degree at Morningside College, she developed the idea of blending her love of writing with her interest in ag. There was no role model, though. “I didn’t know any woman who made a living writing, let alone about agriculture. And a lot of girls wanted to become a teacher or a nurse or a farm wife. At the time, none of those actually appealed to me,” she remembers.
She remained the odd one out at the University of Missouri, earning her master’s in journalism. With her chosen area of concentration - ag economics – it was even a struggle at first to assign her a faculty adviser.
She’d hoped to write for a general interest publication to introduce consumers to the world of agriculture. But with those jobs scarce, she took an offer with a new Wisconsin magazine, “Farm Wife News.” Other farm magazines had cut back on standard women’s news, and her publisher saw an opportunity. Yet even while covering so-called women’s topics, Cheryl found ways to dig into meatier issues like commodity futures or a Nebraska farm wife’s one-woman national campaign to revamp the federal “widow tax” on land transfers.
Within four years, she’d moved to Des Moines as farm management editor for Successful Farming, She would be the first woman hired by parent company Meredith Corp. to regularly cover anything beyond home, crafts and recipes. Before retiring in 2016, Cheryl rose to senior farm issues editor and explored issues like transitioning farms to the next generation, farm women battling to receive their own credit cards, and land-renter relationships. Along the way, she also would meet and marry farmer Stan Lingren, and together they would raise two daughters. From their farmstead near Pilot Mound, Stan would run the farm while Cheryl commuted most weekdays to Des Moines.
Two issues helped drive the creation of a separate Iowa ag group for women, Cheryl recalls: more women farmers and more women inheriting land and wanting to actively manage it. Mainstream farm and commodities groups were welcoming women, too, but feeling listened to could be a challenge. Cheryl, April and the rest of the IWIA founders learned women weren’t always comfortable asking what might sound like beginner questions. A roomful of women would be more supportive.
And that’s what IWIA offers. “It’s the conversations over the dinner table or on the break where they meet someone else… They realize they have a lot in common,” says Cheryl. “There’s still a need for women to come face to face, to learn together and to visit and laugh and network.”
The pandemic forced last year’s annual conference to go virtual. But Cheryl was gratified in August to give her president’s welcome in-person to a room full of attendees, including many newcomers.
Cheryl and other IWIA leaders are discussing next steps to keep the organization more relevant year-round, perhaps expanding its social media efforts and offering off-season virtual sessions to serve a busy, statewide audience. She also sees the group as a potential bridge-builder between farmers and consumers around thorny issues like land use, conservation and water quality. “Agriculture is a minority,” she explains, and farmers need to share their stories with non-farmers. That, in turn, can help dispel misconceptions, she says: “If people would come together and discuss issues, I think they’d find they have a lot more in common.”
She’s always been a lifelong learner. It’s part of what drew Cheryl to journalism five decades ago, and it’s just as important now to her and – she believes – to any retiree. In her case, it’s meant things like tackling new technology skills and earning her master gardener credentials. She’s also a presenter for the Iowa History Camp, and though both daughters have launched careers outside agriculture, mom Cheryl still leads a local 4H chapter.
She loves seeing so many women now with agribusiness expertise but also keeping strong ties to family farms and rural communities. “I see them reaching out, doing great things,” she says. And perhaps, this also means an end to the “just a farm wife” comments. For Cheryl, that definitely would be a great thing.