“If she wants to farm, then we will make it work.” Those few words spoken in 1985 by Bert Hemmes to his granddaughter, April Hemmes, framed a pivotal moment for an ambitious young lady and still echo across a century-old Iowa farm.
Like other young farmers who started in the 1980s, Hemmes faced tremendous challenges. She joined her grandpa and dad on the operation in Hampton, Iowa, armed with an animal science degree, three years of off-farm experience and no assets. But what she lacked in equity, she more than compensated with energy.
“I was the first girl to go through all four years of FFA at my high school,” Hemmes says. “I always knew I wanted to be on the farm.”
Hemmes has been blazing her own trail ever since. From starting a farrow-to-finish hog operation to doubling her corn yields to traveling internationally on behalf of American farmers, Hemmes is a sharp businesswoman and true advocate for agriculture. As a result, she was awarded the Executive Women in Agriculture Trailblazer Award from Top Producer.
April Hemmes is the first winner of Top Producer’s Executive Women in Agriculture Trailblazer Award, which recognizes female producers who represent an innovative farming operation and are advocates for agriculture. As winner of the Corteva-sponsored award, Hemmes received a drone, a trip to the Executive Women in Agriculture conference in Chicago, Ill., and business consulting sessions with Rena Striegel of Transition Point Business Advisors. <em>Photo: Joseph L. Murphy-Iowa Soybean Association</em>
Hogs And Headaches. Hemmes knew when she returned to the farm, she needed to bring value. She renovated an old building into a farrowing house and eventually expanded to 100 sows and a farrow-to-finish operation. She also added a 60-head cow-calf herd, trading labor with her dad and grandpa for feed.
The hog enterprise was going well until disease hit her sow herd and killed almost all the baby pigs. “I worked with veterinarians to find out how to keep the herd healthy and got my sow herd back to production,” Hemmes remembers. “But losing a pig crop was devastating to my income.”
So, Hemmes went looking for part-time work. Her Iowa State University degree opened the door for a job with a researcher, who just wanted someone November through March. “I helped to develop tests for cold germination in corn,” she says. “Oh, and I should mention, I went through all of that while pregnant with my first child.”
Hemmes slowly started taking more management responsibilities on the farm. She could see the payback of upgrading machinery and installing new technology. “I had to prove to my dad and grandpa that the changes I wanted to make were good ones,” she says. “I continually had to prove myself, not only to them, but to everyone who thought I was ‘just helping my dad.’ What I found out right away was I had to be better. I was going to be watched and scrutinized far more than any other farmer out there.”
Hemmes took over the operation in 1993, transitioning her dad and grandpa to come-as-they-liked tractor drivers. Her grandpa lived to be 101. “He drove the combine at a 100 and planted beans at 100,” Hemmes recalls. “I can only hope for such a great life.”
“I have chosen not to chase yield, but to chase profit.”
Full Speed Ahead. Today, Hemmes’ operation includes 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, hay and pasture. She exited the livestock business to focus on crop production. Hemmes and her husband, Tom Kazmerzak, own all their ground, which has been owned by the family for four generations.
“I’m content with my farm’s size,” she says. “I decided I wasn’t going to chase ground. I like being a size where I can do most everything myself or with my part-time help.”
Since Hemmes doesn’t plan to add acres, she carefully weighs return on investment for machinery, technology and inputs. “I have to get better at every acre I have by managing it better,” she says. “I have chosen not to chase yield, but to chase profit.”
Hemmes’ biggest goal is to use technology to become more productive. “I’m not a big farmer, so I can’t afford some of the technology,” she explains. “I call myself a dumpster diver. I get the used machinery, so I can still afford the technology.”
For the past two years, Hemmes has been one of the 22 members of John Deere’s lead user group. “Most of our software developers did not grow up on a farm,” says Cody Dicken, digital solutions product manager for John Deere. “So, we maintain contact with a panel of customers to fill the gap.”
Hemmes challenges the John Deere team to think about the real-life challenges on the farm, such as logistics. “Around here we say her name all time like, ‘April would want it to work that way.’ or ‘What would April use this for?’” Dicken says.
Markets Maven. Hemmes is constantly trying to improve her grain marketing skills. “When I came home to the farm, I would go to marketing meetings and my dad and grandpa would be so mad I took time off from the farm to go to a stupid meeting,” she says. “I looked at them and said, ‘I don’t think you understand; I’m making you more money by doing this than putting a tire on a trailer here at home.’”
Eight years ago, Hemmes approached Kelvin Leibold with Iowa State University Extension, about starting a grain marketing group. “I was selfish and needed to focus on marketing,” she recalls. “I didn’t care if it was men or women, but the men always wanted to meet in the morning, and I had to get kids ready for school.”
Hemmes and Leibold pooled their contacts and formed a women’s grain marketing group. A group of 15 to 20 women meet each month, from November to April. During their three-hour meetings, they host speakers and discuss USDA reports, marketing contracts and strategies.
“Sometimes we’ll break up into groups and give each so many bushels, and they make a marketing plan,” Hemmes says. “Then we pull a different scenario out of hat because, that’s farming. We can see which tools work when.”
The group has grown into a tight-knit family, with some of the members driving up to 90 minutes to attend. By dedicating time and growing their marketing knowledge, Hemmes says, some of the members have increased their farming incomes by $10,000 to $30,000.
The group’s goals are to be educational and hold each other accountable. Hemmes’ marketing plan is centered on price and time goals. “My gut instinct also works for me more than often,” she says.
Hemmes’ grain marketing group is just one example of how she tackles challenges, says Mark Noll, president of Green Belt Bank and Trust, which has been Hemmes’ lending partner for 20 years. It also shows her dedication to helping others.
“Recently a neighboring farmer fell ill with an extended hospital stay during harvest,” Noll recalls. “She was one of the first to graciously volunteer during a busy time and helped to get the crop out.”
“You can be a born leader, but it is also a skill set that you need to develop.”
Inspire And Empower. Hemmes has a personal mission to empower other female farmers—both in the U.S. and across the globe. Whether speaking with a waitress, student or a farmer in a third-world country, Hemmes proudly explains how she sustainably raises her crops.
“I was in Uganda working on a Farmer-to-Farmer project,” Hemmes says. “I’ll never forget the look of sheer amazement on the women’s faces when the interpreter told my story. More than one of them hugged me and said, ‘Someday I want to farm just like you!’”
Leadership in county, state and national roles has been a cornerstone of Hemmes’ life for decades.
“I started leadership roles on the state level early on, and then once I started shuttling kids around, I pulled back and only held county roles,” she says. “Then, after they could drive, I ramped back up.”
Not only does Hemmes donate her time to important causes, but she also encourages others, says Pam Johnson, a long-time friend and farmer from Floyd, Iowa.
“She shows up at a meeting with a carload of young people,” Johnson explains. “She’s very smart, but also a lot of fun to be around.”
Hemmes knows she has a calling both in and out of the field.
“I could have a full-time job and do what I do on the farm,” Hemmes says. “But I couldn’t do the leadership. You can be a born leader, but it’s also a skill set you need to develop. I am very fortunate to be doing what I love to do—that is rare for a man or a woman. I never think of myself as a female farmer, just a farmer. I love watching people’s faces when I say, ‘I farm, and my husband works in town.’”
For the past two years, Hemmes has been one of the 22 members of John Deere’s lead user group. <em>Photo: Pat Lichty, Top Producer</em>
A Snapshot of Hemmes Farms
Operation: April Hemmes is a fourth-generation farmer in Hampton, Iowa. The original 40 acres of her family farm were purchased by her great-grandfather in 1901. Hemmes took over operations in 1993. Today the farm includes 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, pasture and hay. Hemmes and her husband, Tom Kazmerzak, have two children, Ethan and Ruth.
Conservation: Hemmes says her biggest aspiration is to pass down her farm to future generations with healthier soil. She uses practices such as filter strips, wetlands, no-till, buffer strips and pollinator habitat. “I’m pretty proud to be able to say that I have never plowed in my life,” she says.
Marketing Group: Hemmes collaborated with Iowa State University’s Kelvin Leibold to form a women’s grain marketing group. For the past eight years, a group of about 15 to 20 farm women meets monthly (outside of the growing season) to discuss marketing strategies and opportunities.
Leadership: Behind farming, Hemmes’ greatest passion is leadership. She has served on numerous boards and committees. Some of her current roles are with the United Soybean Board, Iowa Soybean Association, Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District, Franklin County Farm Service Agency and the Franklin County township.
<em>April Hemmes serves as an Iowa Soybean Association director, as well as a member of the United Soybean Board. In these roles, she helps develop new and existing markets for U.S. soy, both domestically and abroad. Photo: Joseph L. Murphy-Iowa Soybean Association</em>
Watch a video about April Hemmes’ farming operation at bit.ly/April-Hemmes
Inspiring Women In Agriculture
Iowa farmers April Hemmes and Pam Johnson have been long-time advocates for female farmers. Here’s the advice they share for young women.
- Know when you say yes to a business venture or leadership opportunity if you can give 100%. If not, let it go.
- If you want to return to a family farm, you’ll likely need either off-farm income or to provide a skill or service the operation is paying someone else to do.
- Network with other women in the industry and find a mentor.
- Don’t fill a leadership role just because they want a woman involved.
- Support and encourage your peers. Know there’s always room for more talented women.
April Hemmes doesn’t plan to add acres to her operation. So, she carefully weighs return on investment for machinery, technology and inputs. <em>Photo: Pat Lichty, Top Producer</em>
I love watching people’s faces when I say, ‘I farm, and my husband works in town.’”