UNDERWOOD, MINNESOTA - On her 25th birthday, Brittney Johnson slept in until the luxurious hour of 7 a.m.
"I'm thrilled I'm officially a quarter of a century old today. Glad to have made it!" she laughed later, sipping lemon iced tea on the porch of her farmhouse, surrounded by irises.
Johnson planned to spend this birthday morning fixing the fencing around the farm to keep her sheep from breaking out. She bought the farmhouse, 40 acres, five ewes and one ram in her home state of Minnesota last year, shortly after her mother died, armed with a degree in plant science from the University of Minnesota, and months in rural Senegal and northern India on scholarships to learn more about agriculture around the world.
The biggest challenge to being younger, she says, is getting capital to maintain the property. So to keep the farm afloat, Johnson works two jobs: full time as an irrigation technician in a nearby town and part time at a farm supply store in another town. Then she comes home to make sure her flock is fed, safe and sheared.
While she would be justified in putting her feet up and resting after that, she feels a responsibility to her community to help local farmers who are just as stretched, just as hard working.
So she's running for a seat in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.
Partly motivated by the love for her community and partly because she's become keenly aware of the struggles faced by the local farming community, she campaigns in her extra hours, she said, to represent the many farmers who are in the same situation as she is.
"You just see so many people who have to work two or three jobs like 60-70 hours a week just to afford the basics," she said.
Struggling for the American dream
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), net profits of farms are down for the fourth year in a row, cut almost in half since 2013. The median income of farmers in the United States has effectively remained flat since 2015, even decreasing slightly when accounting for inflation, according to the USDA's Farm Income Forecast released in February.
"I think in America we have this ethic of 'If you work really hard you should be able to get ahead.' That's like the American dream, right? But for a lot of people they're working really hard and they still can't get ahead and that dream is gone," she said. "And you know I want to get it back and that's why I'm running."
Improving access to affordable health care for farmers in her area, who mostly have to buy extremely expensive plans in the individual market, is one of the first issues she said she would tackle if elected.
"I would love to be able to farm full time," she said. "One of the challenges we face is the affordability of our health care."
Johnson also cited the divisive political climate across the United States, which she says has led people in her area to feel forgotten by their representatives.
Her goal in St. Paul, she says would be "re-establishing those relationships between people and people who are supposed to represent them."
Meanwhile, she sees her age as an advantage in the busy mix between the farm, the jobs and the race.
"You've got to do a lot of physical work, and I feel like I have more energy now than I might later, so that's good I've got that on my side," she said, noting that there are fewer new farmers entering the field. Older farmers nearby have been willing to help teach and guide her.
But does it get lonely?
Not when she is enthusiastically greeted by her golden retriever, Mumford, two cats, and Hillary, her seemingly most social ewe, whether she's entering her house, walking the pasture, or coming up the driveway.
"What a great way to come home!" she said, patting Hillary on the woolly head.