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Farming widows often continue family business

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EL RENO, Okla. (AP) _ At 73 years old, Donna VonTungeln doesn't get out on the tractor much anymore. That's different from when, at 16 years old, she, her mother and her five sisters took over the family farm after her father's death.

The family had some hired hands, but the girls harvested the land, sowed the fields and milked the cows.

When a fence needed mending, they got their tools together and fixed it. All six girls received a college education, and some left the farm, which has been in their family since the Land Run.

But VonTungeln and her husband, Henry Jo, became the primary operators after her mother died in 1964.

VonTungeln, like many country wives, focused on raising her three children and working at a local technology center near El Reno while her husband took care of the farm.

The land now grows wheat and soybeans and cattle graze in the spring.

When VonTungeln retired from teaching a few years ago, she expected to live out her days tending to small tasks on the farm, but she said God had a different plan.

In 2004, VonTungeln once again became the primary operator of her great-grandfather's farm when her husband died.

She became one of more than 8,700 women who are the main caretaker of farms in the state, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service in Oklahoma City.

The number of women taking over family farms after a husband's death is increasing.

In 1997, there were 7,900 women serving as the primary operator of a farm in the state. At current levels, Oklahoma ranks fifth in the country in the number of women taking up daily farming duties.

Though VonTungeln said her most strenuous farming activity these days is writing checks, her neighbors would not be surprised to find her driving a grain truck during harvest.

``I was born on this farm right where we live now _ it is a way of life. I started hauling wheat when I was 15 years old,'' she said. ``I still drive the trucks, and I could drive the tractors, but (my kids) don't want me to.''

City girl Pam Mach was 19 years old when she married a third-generation farmer. Though farming is on the peripheral in what was once entirely a farming community in Yukon, she had never been on a tractor and knew nothing about planting a crop before she married.

Nonetheless, she dove into the lifestyle of being a farmer's wife _ she had two sons, kept the house clean and food on the table. When Mach's husband died of lung cancer in 1986, she had no idea how to do any of the physical work a farm entails. Her sons were five and seven years old.

All she knew, Mach said, is that she wanted her sons to have the opportunity to be fourth-generation farmers.

She taught herself to ride a tractor, till a field and bail hay. Her brother and young sons helped out, but Mach was responsible for putting food on the table, both as a caregiver and a moneymaker.

``They just put me out there, and I taught myself. I just started going round and round on the tractor,'' she said, laughing. ``I hit a few fences along the way, but no one cared too much.''

In yet another twist of fate, Mach's older son, Michael, died in 1993, leaving her and her 13-year-old son Matt even more alone on the farm.

The experience only further emboldened Mach to ensure that the land was kept for her son.

Now Matt, 26, is doing most of the farm work, though his mother still drives a tractor during harvest.

``For my two boys, this land is their heritage. I knew that I had to keep it for them when my husband died,'' she said. ``I had some help, but it was just more economically feasible to just do the work myself.''

Mach said she is not surprised that more women are taking over the farm, as women statistically live long than men.

She encouraged women to look into agriculture conferences and to lean on neighbors if they find themselves in a situation where they are having to take on more responsibility in their family's farm.

``When I did it, there was nothing available to help. I just did it,'' she said. ``(My husband) took care of everything, and I took care of the house and kids, but I didn't have a choice when he died. It wasn't scary, it was just something that had to be done.''

Though many farm widows do not have a choice when taking control of the family business, some women stay on the land after a death or divorce because they like the simple lifestyle.

Carol Haas, 71, who owns 240 acres near Martha, said she found farming therapeutic after her divorce.

``Out here it is quiet, you hear the birds, and a river divides the acres,'' she said. ``I work the land myself and am thinking about putting in a wildlife habitat. I grew up on a farm, and I wanted to return to my roots.''

Haas said she would like to see more women involved in agriculture so more children could get into the business.

``A lot of women are afraid, but children need to be exposed to a farming lifestyle. We can't let that die out,'' she said.
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