ST. THOMAS, N.D. — Kevin Lee has known Emma Papenfuss all her life and has seen her working on his farm countless times over many years. Asked about her connection to agriculture, the St. Thomas farmer smiled and said that Papenfuss “drove herself home on a tractor from the hospital when she was born.”
Now, Papenfuss, 22, is putting her love for agriculture to multiple uses. She’s a full-time agronomist in Grafton, she works on Lee’s farm and this year, for the first time, she’s planted crops of her own on rented land.
She’s marrying Andrew Torkelson, a Grafton farmer, on Nov. 16. He and his family raise potatoes, while Papenfuss raises sugar beets — crops which Emma describes as “two different (agricultural) worlds” and which require the couple’s relationship to be especially flexible and mutually supportive.
“I just have a passion for agriculture,” Papenfuss said of her diverse roles.
Her ultimate goal — one she knows won’t be easily or quickly achieved — is getting enough land to become a full-time farmer. But she’s excited about making a start, planting 142.5 acres of sugar beets and dry edible beans of her own this spring, and is committed to success in her multiple duties.
Papenfuss grew up on her family farm near St. Thomas, a mile from the Lee farm. Her father, Blaine, has worked for Lee for decades and Emma has helped out Lee since she was a teen.
Her commitment to agriculture was especially obvious in 2016, when Lee’s sugar beet harvest was hampered by extremely wet conditions. Emma Papenfuss, then a student at North Dakota State University, repeatedly drove back to help with the harvest while continuing her studies.
That dedication and extra effort “showed even more how important farming is to her,” Lee said.
Many Upper Midwest farmers have difficulty finding enough good help, and Lee emphasized that he’s fortunate to have both Blaine and Emma working on his farm.
Papenfuss, who graduated in three years with a degree in ag economics, originally thought about being an ag banker. But she eventually realized she wanted to be more “hands-on in farming.”
After graduation, she worked as an agronomist for J.R. Simplot, an agricultural supplier specializing in potato products in Crystal. She interned with the company when she was in college.
Early this year, she joined the new Hefty Seed Co. location in Grafton, which is closer to her St. Thomas roots.
A few older, “traditional” farmers seem to have had reservations about her age and gender, but by and large clients have accepted her, she said.
“This is 2019. I hope we’re past that (concerns about women in ag),” she said.
Papenfuss emphasized that she learns as much from clients as they learn from her. “I’m not afraid to ask questions. I think that’s one of my strengths,” she said.
“She’s very hard-working, very willing to learn. Not afraid to call on customers, learning more about the agronomics,” said Brian Sieben, Hefty branch manager. “Hopefully she’ll be with us a long time.”
Papenfuss’ agronomy career and her own farming is “a balancing act. We talked about that when I hired her. She said that her priority is the job here,” Sieben said.
But starting her own farm this spring is obviously important to her, too. Papenfuss rents land from her father and Dean Scharmer, a neighboring farmer and her dad's cousin. She thanks Scharmer for giving up some of the land he farmed so that she could plant more acres.
“It was a very selfless move from him and something not everyone would do in order to get the next generation farming,” Papenfuss said.
She hopes to take on more land, over time, when and if it becomes available.
Nature hasn’t cooperated with her first year of farming.
“The beet crop is still hanging on pretty good, but the edible bean crop is definitely struggling and in some places starting to go backwards with the lack of rain we've had all summer,” Papenfuss said. “(I’m) still optimistic about the beet crop, but I'm afraid there might not be much out there for the pintos and navys (the two kinds of edible beans she’s raising).”
But Papenfuss’ ag experience and training tell her that agriculture is cyclical. Prices and yields vary, often greatly, from year to year, and occasionally difficult crop seasons are an inevitable part of farming.
“I still think the long-term outlook for farming is good,” she said.