She may not spend her days operating a combine or a chisel plow anymore, but Karolyn Zurn still considers herself a farmer.
During the course of her 43-year marriage to Callaway native Bill Zurn, Karolyn has been an integral part of the family’s farm operations, whether it involved doing the books, driving a tractor or tending to the livestock (at various times, the family has raised cows, pigs, chickens and horses, she says, though their current operation consists of crop farming exclusively).
These days, she and Bill both say they are in the process of “transitioning” out of the family business, leaving more and more of the day-to-day running of the farm in the hands of their sons, Eric and Nick. Karolyn has even handed over the bookkeeping duties for the farm to her daughter-in-law, Erica.
“I liked working out in the fields,” Karolyn says, “but our family decided they wanted to me to work for the agricultural world, as an advocate. This is where I can be the most productive now.
“In any one day, I will put three different papers together for the groups I work for,” she continued.
Those groups form a pretty long list. Currently, Zurn serves as president of the Minnesota Agri-Women as well as the Government Affairs & Vital Issues chair for the American Agri-Women, as well as serving on the board for Minnesota Ag in the Classroom.
She is also a member of North Dakota’s Common Ground, an organization, made up primarily of farm women, that works to help “take the fear out of food” by showing exactly how farmers and ranchers grow and supply food for public consumption.
In addition, she serves as the liaison between the Northern Crops Institute and the U.S. Soybean Export Council. Located on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo, NCI is a collaborative effort among North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota to support the promotion and market development of crops grown in the four-state region.
She said exports are a vital part of Minnesota’s agricultural industry.
“Minnesota is one of the leading states in the export of turkeys, soybeans and swine,” she said.
Through her work with Common Ground, she was also recently invited to be the Minnesota spokesperson for the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.
Basically, this legislation seeks to prevent activists from making the labeling of genetically modified foods mandatory in all cases, and to require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a safety review of all new plant varieties used for genetically engineered food before those foods are introduced into commerce, thus ensuring that the products are safe for consumers. It would also create a new legal framework, subject to FDA oversight, governing the use of label claims regarding either the absence of, or use of, genetically engineered food or food ingredients.
Zurn says that making such labels mandatory would cause a steep rise in food prices, as well as needlessly making families afraid of feeding their children anything that isn’t 100 percent organic.
“I think it’s horrific that couples feel they’re not doing the best for their kids” if they can’t afford to buy organic food, Zurn said. “Genetically engineered does not mean unsafe. I know what we raise on our farm, and for the last 20 years or more it has been proven safe by the USDA. Not one person has gotten sick from anything we raise.”
Genetic engineering has done a lot of good things, Zurn pointed out. For instance, the cotton industry has developed genetically engineered cotton plants that do not require spraying for pests and diseases, which is particularly valuable in areas where supplies of fresh water are limited.
Zurn is also a vocal advocate of Ag in the Classroom, which as she pointed out, is about more than grade school kids spending a couple of days at M State each year, learning about crops and livestock (though that program, sponsored by Becker County Farm Bureau, Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce Agri-Business Committee and Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District, is a good one, she noted). There are many more programs available, for classes of all ages.
“I’m on the grant committee (for Ag in the Classroom),” she said. “Schools can apply for grants and we give up to $1,000 to teachers for their class projects.”
There are also downloadable curriculum materials for teachers to implement in their classrooms, all free of charge.
“Minnesota Ag in the Classroom strives to promote understanding and awareness of the importance of agriculture,” she says. “The educational materials provide a wealth of opportunities to embed agriculture, food and natural resources content into the context of K-12 education.”
But Zurn is perhaps most passionate when it comes to talking about women’s role in agriculture. She said that women who work side by side with their husbands on the farm often don’t classify themselves as farmers, even though their role in the success of the operation is vital.
“Advocacy for women in agriculture is something I love to do,” she says. “A lot of them don’t see their own value.”
Fortunately, Zurn says, her husband Bill has always viewed her as a partner in the family’s farm operation.
“My husband has always promoted me and helped me realize my own worth,” she says. “He’s been a great mentor.”
They have worked together on their goal of leaving behind a healthy, sustainable farm operation for their children.
“We had a goal to make sure our farm stayed sustainable and productive, and that we would leave our land in better condition than when we purchased it,” she says.
She, in turn, has tried to pass on those values to their five children, and in turn, to their 11 grandchildren.
“I took care of them and made sure their life was full,” she said. “I worked off the farm and on it at the same time. I did a lot of the tillage, combined wheat and drove the trucks a lot of the time.”
She also worked for food service companies like Proctor & Gamble and Mrs. Gerry’s Foods.
“After work I’d come home and jump in the combine and think nothing of it,” she said.
Her advocacy work was originally just an offshoot of her work on and off the farm, promoting agriculture and food production.
“Farmers take excellent care of their land and their livestock,” she said. “If we didn’t take care of our land, it wouldn’t be productive, and if we didn’t take care of our livestock, we couldn’t sell it for a profit.”