CULBERTSON, Mont. – As a young girl, Wendy Bengochea Becker was determined to change her father’s traditional belief that women couldn’t manage farms.
“I always told my mom and dad that I wanted to farm, but I was the girl and I wasn’t the oldest,” said the Richland County farmer. “I wanted to farm but I knew it was a constant struggle of someone believing a female could do it.”
Becker grew up on her family’s farm on Charlie Creek, 40 miles south of Culbertson, Mont., working to prove to her French father that she could farm as well as or better than the boys. Becker and her three brothers spent their summers working on the family farm, participating in 4-H and rarely taking a trip to town, except to go to the county fair.
“The county fair was the highlight of our summer and pinnacle of our 4-H year,” Becker recalled. “It was the only time we got to go to town.”
After high school, Becker decided to pursue an agricultural degree while her older brother worked with her father on the farm. She got an associate of science degree from Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., then spent a semester in France with her father’s family, before returning to Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., to earn a bachelor’s degree in animal science.
“I worked down in the Basque Country (France) with a veterinarian because I was thinking of going into the veterinary field if the farm thing wasn’t going to happen,” Becker explained. “I worked lots of jobs because I thought I needed a well-rounded education to make sure of what I wanted to do.”
While at Montana State University, Becker worked at the Animal Nutrition Center, researching feeding different varieties of forage barleys to cattle and sheep. This study came in handy when Becker went to North Dakota State University to get her master’s degree in animal science.
“The project they were working on was feeding barley and corn and different stages of processing,” she explained, “which was part of the barley project I was working on at Montana State, so it was a collaboration.”
Becker finished her master’s degree in two years and got a job as an extension agent in Carrington, N.D., while talking her father into letting her take over the family farm after years of struggling with the oldest son to co-manage it.
“I told him I would come back and work every summer for free. He finally realized I was serious about it, and he said ‘okay,” Becker recalled. “I came and fed animals, we seeded crops, we bailed crops. I was part of everything; I knew how to do everything. I did all his bookwork – I did it all. I knew what to do, and I still wasn’t a boy.”
Eventually, Becker’s father embraced her dream of running the farm.
“He got over it,” Becker said of the tradition of handing the family business down to the first-born boy. “That’s what they do in France. Maybe it didn’t happen as much here, but it did there.”
Becker and her father worked together to create a transition plan to allow Becker to purchase the farm instead of renting it.
“We did it in a series of steps over a very short period of time – after Christmas we bought the land and after January 1st, we bought the cattle,” she said. “I guess he had complete faith that we could – he goes from, ‘you can’t do it,’ to ‘well of course you can.’”
Becker uses her experience to guide others through estate planning and transitioning to the next generation as an Extension agent for the Fort Peck Reservation while raising her own three boys and working to improve the family farm.
“I chose to come back to the farm because I wanted to raise the family on the farm,” she said. “I’m a centuries old farm family – that comes from my family in Europe and my grandma’s family. All we ever were, was farmers; I feel very connected to it.”
Read more about Becker’s experience and other Montana women’s stories in agriculture in the DNRC Conservation Districts Women in History oral history project at http://dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/cardd/conservation-districts/women-in-agriculture-stories-1 or in the book, “Montana Women, From the Ground Up.”