In early August, after a full day of cutting lentils in eastern Montana, Tracy and Jim Zeorian, the married team that make up Zeorian Harvesting, completed the 45-minute drive back to their camper in Jordan, Montana, population 343. They had finished early that day, so the fact that some light still hung in the sky was unusual. But Tracy’s day was far from over. In addition to running the combine that is the centerpiece of their operation and preparing meals for her and Jim, Tracy has become a prominent advocate for custom harvesters, the itinerant workers who hire out their services and are responsible for cutting most of America’s commodity crops, including wheat, soybeans, and corn.
When her work in the field is over for the day, Tracy returns to camp, where she administers multiple blogs and Facebook pages that promote the industry and facilitate information sharing between harvesters spread out across remote corners of the Great Plains.
Late that evening, she posted an article to one of her pages, HarvestHER, about the suicide of a prominent Canadian farmer and agricultural advocate. By the next morning, she had received an email from Audra Zimmerman, the wife of a former harvester, who had joined the community the previous year.
“I was really touched by the FB post you shared today,” Zimmerman wrote. “When I was on harvest the past two years, one of the reasons that I quite ‘literally’ survived was because of the HarvestHER group.”
Since 2016, HarvestHER has existed as a forum to relieve the loneliness and stress that have plagued women of the male-dominated harvest industry since enterprising young cutters started following ripening wheat from north Texas and Oklahoma through Montana and North Dakota. Women make up only 31 percent of American farmers, and although no data exists for harvesters, a similarly small percentage has produced a culture in which they have been largely unnoticed. While women are essential to the industry, their role, like that of many women, in this already overlooked corner of traditional agricultural has never been fully recognized or appreciated. But HarvestHER seeks to empower these women by establishing a sense of community and providing a platform for them to have a voice and share their stories.
Tracy’s roots in custom harvesting date back to the 1950s, when her grandfather first started taking his combine on the road to cut for neighboring farmers. Her father continued the family business, and before Tracy was a teenager, she was driving the combine herself. She met Jim, who worked as a hired man for her father’s crew, and after some starts and stops, Zeorian Harvesting has been operating full time since 1991.
For the first few years, Tracy stayed at camp with their young daughters, while Jim and a hired crew member spent the day in the fields cutting wheat and hauling the grain to elevators or storage bins. When her four daughters were old enough, Tracy returned to the combine, but for the years she spent at camp, the most lasting memory was the loneliness. “It’s being away from family and home,” she says. “It’s being on the road and not knowing anybody.”
Tracy rarely identifies herself to local townspeople as a harvester. “Unless you’re really outgoing and making an effort to be a part of the community, you’re on your own for the time you are there.”
One of Eberts’ harvesting combines cutting wheat in South Dakota.
While the men of the harvest could face similar issues, because they are out in the fields, meeting with farmers and staff at the grain elevators, and passing through towns, they often have opportunities to interact with other people that women back at camp do not. According to Nancy Eberts, who has been in the business with her husband, Myron, since 1982, because women are often back at camp, they can miss opportunities to socialize with peers. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes the harvesters can have coffee but women aren’t always around.”
“I didn’t necessarily have people to talk to. Back in the day, the kids were mad, and my friends thought I was nuts for leaving and living in a camper,” she says. “So, it’s like who can you talk to that will say, ‘Stick with it’?”
The advent of cellphones and social media made it easier to keep in touch, but even today, many of the places harvesters work lack cell service, and because of the long hours and endless list of daily tasks, few could find the time to stay in touch during the season. And without the infrastructure to facilitate this kind of peer-to-peer sharing, women of the harvest remained isolated.
After three years serving as president and executive director of U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc., the industry’s advocacy group, Tracy wanted to do more to support her colleagues and turned her attention to the women of the industry. “They have always been there, but they’ve been invisible, and they are truly the backbone of the crew,” she says.
With this in mind, she set up a blog for HarvestHER and recruited women such as Eberts to share their stories and struggles as well as recipes, advice for raising kids during the harvest, and anything else that might come up.
Nancy Eberts taking a break in her trailer after breakfast.
“Back in the 1800s, women got together and sat around a quilting bee—and I’ve done that,” Tracy says. “And what you tend to do is you sew and talk about your life’s problems. We don’t do that anymore, but we’re still built that way.”
So, for Tracy, HarvestHER has become a modern day, digital quilting bee, and over the past three years, she has seen her idea blossom. “It’s rewarding for me to see them chitchatting in the group and feeding off each other’s ideas,” Tracy says. “Why do it on your own when there are people out here to help?”
Over the past three years, Tracy has watched the group evolve as more and more women have started to feel comfortable sharing their experiences. “Because there are gals who trust each other and are willing to open up and talk about different things, it’s bringing in new people,” she observes. “They’re starting to talk and be a part of it as well.”
Tracy is very much aware of the national conversation seeking to elevate the voices of women at all levels of society, especially in politics and business, but in a traditionally conservative industry in a conservative part of the country, her focus is aimed less at a national audience and more inward at the harvest community. “By giving so much of yourself all day long, you tend to lose who you are,” Tracy says, referring to the loss of identity that comes with the endless nature of the work. “HarvestHER has the ability to say, ‘Oh, you don’t get your eyebrows plucked either? You’re not the only one who feels that way,’” she says.
“More so than trying to create a movement, it’s a community,” Tracy says. “It takes everything that you continue to forget about yourself, pulls it back, and makes you aware you aren’t the only one.”
This message resonated with Audra Zimmerman. After years of running a drain and tile business with her husband, the romanticism of following the harvest inspired them to hit the road. Unfortunately, any quixotic notions quickly dissipated. “I did not like anything about harvest,” recalls Zimmerman, who, along with her husband, gave up the business last year. “I went into severe depression when I was on harvest, and I thought it was just me.”
“If I hadn’t had that support group, I don’t know what I would have done the past two years,” Zimmerman continued. “I would be like these women who are committing suicide.”
Over the past few years, as crop prices have declined, suicide has become a growing problem in the agriculture community. The data on suicide among farmers is not certain, however. A widely reported 2016 study by the CDC showed the “farming, forestry, and fishing workers” occupational group suffered the highest rates of suicide of all occupational groups in the U.S., pointing to an epidemic in the industry. That study has since been retracted by the agency because of flawed data, and the CDC is now reanalyzing the data to issue a revised report.
This apparent surge has led to the founding of groups such as The Do More Agriculture Foundation, which seeks to support mental health in agriculture by acknowledging that some of its foundational elements—independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency—can be obstacles to seeking help.
This was not an issue Tracy had intended to address when she created HarvestHER, but groups such as Do More have identified community as an essential building block to support mental health, and for Zimmerman, the impact was real. “I don’t think it’s talked about in agriculture as a whole. I had been reading about the men in agriculture struggling with this,” Zimmerman acknowledges. “But [the HarvestHER Facebook post] is the first time I had seen anything where it was a woman.”
At the moment, Tracy does not have any long-term plans for the group. Last winter, in Omaha, Nebraska, she organized the first ever HarvestHER retreat. Eight women attended the two-day event that was mostly about relaxing, getting to know one another, and swapping stories from the field. Tracy is looking forward to their second gathering this winter, which she expects to be much bigger. She occasionally still has doubts about the group’s efficacy, but with support from Zimmerman and Eberts, who calls it “the most positive, reaffirming, validating experience,” Tracy is happy to let the group grow organically.
Her focus is still on building that sense of community among a traditionally independent and isolated group, but the larger picture is on her mind. “My thought is for [the group] to show the world what [harvesters] have to do to get food to people’s tables.”
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
Reporting for this article was made possible by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.
Michael J. Dax is a writer, environmentalist, and the New Mexico Representative at Defenders of Wildlife. He is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West.