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Women of Estevan - If you do it all, you can get it all. The inspiring story of Jennelle Wimmer

“Don't let anyone think that just because you're a woman, you can't do it,” Jennelle Wimmer.

TRIBUNE - Born on a farm by Estevan, the daughter of Adriaan and Rose Lievaart, she was never raised to become a farmer in the full sense of that word.

But when her life made a tragic turn, Jennelle Wimmer decided that she could do it all. She was raised tough and taught by example, and even though she didn’t know much about farming, she took everything in her hands to make sure that her two sons had a chance to live on the land – the life their mom and dad always wanted for them.

Within this year’s Women’s Day special, the Mercury shares the inspiring story of Jennelle Wimmer, who lives and farms by Tribune, teaches kindergarten at Legacy Park Elementary School in Weyburn, raises three wonderful kids, and whose life changed a lot after her husband, Brad Wimmer died alongside his father Phil in a tragic plane crash on Father’s Day in June 2014.

Making dreams a reality

Born and raised in a nice, loving family on a grain farm outside of Estevan with sister Jaclyn and brother Justin, Jennelle never was viewed as the kid who would keep the farm going when her parents retire, and so she didn’t know much about farming and even less so about ranching.

“I really don't think my dad thought it was going to be me. My brother actively farms with my dad; he’s taken over the farm with him. And everybody knew I always loved farm life. I loved animals, I loved country living. And that's what I always wanted to do. But if I ever thought way back in the day that I would be kind of the the one in charge here, I would not have thought that," Jennelle said.

As a teenager, she would run some simpler equipment but didn’t have a deep knowledge of the operation. However, one thing she knew for sure – farming was tough, but also a great lifestyle she always admired.

“My hard work ethic comes all the way back from my grandparents, Hank and Johanna Lievaart, who immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1953. They came here with absolutely nothing and worked very hard to build a family farm, which my own parents expanded on over the years. I have had lots of role models over the years that showed me that when you put your mind to something, anything is possible,” Jennelle shared.

While growing up on the farm, she had a dream to become a teacher. She always loved playing school, and the teachers she had at Estevan's Scotsburn School and who she still remembers with kind words, motivated her to become one like them. Jennelle always knew she wanted to work with little kids, and she planned to become a Grade 2 teacher, but life had a different plan for her.

“I was called in for an interview to take a kindergarten position in Weyburn in 2006. And I thought, 'Well, this will be okay for a year and then I'll get the grade that I want later.' Well, I've never left it. I love kindergarten. There's so much growth that you see in a year in kindergarten, that it's just, it's amazing … And I've never left it, I've had opportunities to, and I've always just wanted to stay.”

Since her young days, Jennelle also had that vision that she would marry a farmer and they would live on a farm, raising kids in the same traditions she was raised. Her husband would work at the farm and she would go to town to work. And her dreams did come true.

“I was in university in Regina (and Brad was driving a truck for Dave Kirby at the time), and we just met through some mutual friends. It was crazy that our home farms were actually not that far apart. His home farm was west of Oungre. And my home farm was past Outram. So it was crazy that our farms were not so far, and we met in Regina. That was neat. We both were interested in being on the farm someday. So we were married, and we lived in Weyburn for a short time while we looked for the perfect place. And then we found a really nice farm, just six miles west of Tribune,” Jennelle shared.

They bought a nice package of land and had about 100 head of cattle that came with it. Jennelle travelled to Weyburn to teach and helped with the chores a bit, and Brad worked in the oilfield and took care of the land and the cattle.

“I still remember it was like boom, overnight we were here and we had all these commitments and things that we knew were coming, but back then we were still living a pretty simple life in Weyburn,” Jennelle recalled. “We moved out here on December 31, 2007. We just drove right in. The first calving season was only a couple of months after we moved here. And I remember Brad was working on the rigs, and I was teaching, and I knew nothing about cattle, literally nothing. And I was scared of them. I remember checking them at night in my car because I was too scared to walk through them. While he was on night shifts, that's what I would do.”

A few years later, they had a baby boy who they named Brayden, and two years after that Jaxon joined the happy hardworking family.

And then the story changed

In June 2014, Brayden was three years old, and Jaxon was only 15 months. On June 15, Brad and his father Phil were heading to Lampman for a Father’s Day breakfast, when their Cessna plane crashed just outside of Torquay.

“Then my story changed ... I decided I wanted to keep farming and I wanted to keep the farm for the boys. But I wanted to keep teaching. I wanted to do it all but I wasn't sure how that would look,” Jennelle recalled with the calm voice of a person who made it through hard times, but came out of it even stronger.

“At the time we, I decided to downsize the cattle a little bit because we had quite a big herd, and I knew that it was unrealistic to do that with basically a baby, that's what my youngest son was.”

The times after the crash were tough, and even these days Jennelle sometimes wonders how she made it through that. She says if not for help from good friends and neighbours Rick and Cheryl Williams, and support from the family and the community, it would be way more difficult to get through her first harvest, and calving and haying seasons.

“We had crops in the ground, we had a harvest that had to be taken off. And people came and helped. It was amazing. We had people come do haying for me that summer, we had people show up at harvest time, and they brought their combines … Those were really tough times. But it was amazing to see in tough times how community pulled together,” Jennelle recalled.

“Those were tough times for sure, you just go through the motions, and you get your day-to-day work done. But when I think back, I do often think, 'Whoa, how did I get through those times?' Because the kids were so young too, they were just little, and they went everywhere with me. They were in the combine and the tractor, and they spent a lot of time places they probably didn't want to be.”

It was difficult, but it did make Jennelle who she is now. She said she’d always been “the stubborn one” in the family. And when relatives and friends would suggest downsizing or selling out, she just kept going.

“I was like, 'Are you crazy? I'm not doing that.' I wanted to keep our farm as viable as possible. And we did it,” Jennelle said. “I wanted my kids to grow up with that work ethic of working hard, but still having fun when you can. And a huge part of it was that I felt like Brad's presence was in this place, and I didn't ever want to leave that. It was like he was here, even though he wasn't here.”

Jennelle's faith and knowing that there's a greater plan for all of us was a big part of what kept her together. But her sons were probably the biggest motivation that kept her going at that time.

“I had a15-month-old and a three-year-old and they are just spitting images of their father and they look at you and they need breakfast and they need to be dressed, so you just get up and keep going,” Jennelle shared.

Support from the family and friends played a big role as well, but in the end, it was her stubbornness, her commitment to goals and her internal ramrod that helped her take over the operation and succeed.

Despite all the odds

And soon Jennelle realized, she very well could do it all, just as she wanted.

“I went through the first calving season and figured, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ I got my feet under myself and carried on and then slowly I've built my herd back up to where we were before. And I still teach. I only teach half time, I teach every other day because I need to manage the farm as well and I need time for that. So every other day, I teach kindergarten in Weyburn at Legacy Park School. It's the new school in town. And every other day, I am here doing chores. I feed my cows for two days at a time and run an operation like that so that I can do it all,” Jennelle shared.

She would take Brayden to hockey, get him involved with 4-H, help Jaxon grow his skills in science, make sure the boys learn how to swim, go fishing and snowmobiling with them. While they lost their father, Jennelle still wanted to give them everything the two parents would.

“That was tricky for a while, because they were young, and they didn't understand why. For example, we went to swimming lessons in Oungre Park, and all the moms stayed there all day. And I would take my kids to swimming lessons, and then we'd go straight to the hayfield, and the kids would always be like why can't we stay and play with the kids? And I would have to try to explain that this is what's paying for us to go to swimming lessons,” Jennelle recalled.

She kept teaching part-time and also tried to stay sane in this life vortex.

“I was a single mom, and I worked a lot. And there were definitely times when I felt like, 'Oh, boy, is this the best choice for my own children? Is this what we really want?’ Because I felt like I was always working. But I look now, and we still have this place and the options. My son is in 4-H and he's out feeding the steers every day. And he does that himself now. And I really do feel like I have modelled hard work and dedication to my kids, that I hope that they grow up to have a strong work ethic, like what I was taught as well when I was young,” Jennelle said.

Not only were the times objectively tough but being a woman in this men’s world that she knew a little about, in the world where one needs to be physically strong to get things done, was even more difficult.

“I took on a man's job. And some days I thought, 'Oh, maybe I am crazy, maybe my family's right,'” said Jennelle with a laugh. “It gets messy sometimes being a mom, and a teacher and a farmer. Sometimes I feel like you got your irons in all fires, but I had good help.”

Entering the agriculture world as a woman wasn't easy. People wouldn't take her seriously when she'd go shop for equipment or try to solve farm-related problems, and would even try to take advantage, assuming that as a single woman she wouldn't understand.

"There were many, many times I was frustrated because I think just because I'm a woman it doesn't mean, people have to think they can walk all over me," Jennelle said. "I've always said, stick up for yourself and don't let anybody think that just because you're a woman, you can't do it."

She said the ag world is getting better, and women in agriculture "is becoming more of an acceptable thing," but it hasn't been the case for a long time, and she had to stick to herself to keep her life going the way she wanted it.

"I have learned to be strong and not let anybody tell me what to do," Jennelle shared.

Casey Claffey was always a big part of Brad and Jennelle's lives and was a huge support to Jennelle after Brad passed away. But it wasn't until a few years ago that their relationship changed.

"We had plans to be married in June 2020, but then found out we were expecting a baby and decided to postpone our wedding plans for a while. Then COVID happened and we still haven't nailed down a new date," Jennelle said.

Casey has a ranch by Yellow Grass, and he runs his operation out of there every day, while Jennelle works her farm and teaches. Two years ago, in April, the couple had a baby daughter Madison. 

When it came to men's jobs around the farm, her neighbour helped a lot in the beginning, and now Casey and her older son Brayden took on some of the physical duties, but a lot of it Jennelle would do herself.

They rented most of the land out, but Jennelle works some of the land herself. And they built the herd back up to where it was and will have about 120 cows calving starting at the end of March. Summer is busy with haying.

She said balancing everything wasn’t always easy, and she probably wasn’t the most successful at times, but they got through and her vision, changed by the outer circumstances, once again came true. She always remembered to take time and do things just for herself. Keeping in mind that no one can be a superwoman and learning to ask for help were her other strategies. She also put family first to stay true to herself.

While her work ethic comes from childhood, she says it was the circumstances that made her who she is today.

“I did learn a bit about cattle over the years with Brad here, but it really wasn't until Brad wasn't here that I had to really step it up, figure out what was going on that I knew what I was doing. And there was some learning curve, that's for sure. But I think it turned out pretty good.”

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