Not just a man's world

Agriculture and farming aren’t usually considered a woman’s world, but that trend is changing. It’s often brains over brawn when it comes to women in farming, and increasing numbers of females are enrolling in ag-related university programs which include everything from agribusiness to agronomy, crop science and animal science.

From 1996 to 2012, females enrolling in agriculture-related programs grew a whopping 94.2 percent at land grant institutions, and 93 percent at all public institutions, according to Food, Agriculture and Education Information System (FAEIS) data generated nationally by Virginia Tech University.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), shows that 30.2 percent of U.S. farm operators are women – that’s more than 1 million. Illinois saw a 10 percent growth in the number of women operators from 2002 to 2007 and that growth is expected to continue.

This isn’t the old stereotypical world of a farm wife in an apron doing household chores while caring for her children and taking meals out to the field. Women are a force to be reckoned with in the world of agriculture! You can often find them involved in agri-marketing, finance, management, research and the day-to-day operations and decisions of a farm. What she may lack in physical strength, she’ll make up for in other ways.

Winning Ways Oxford Sheep Farm

IMG_5582Melanie Hall, of Winning Ways Oxford Sheep Farm in rural Moweaqua, is involved in many aspects of agriculture. Hall lives on the centennial farm where she grew up, has a degree in agribusiness from Illinois State University and is in charge of the conservation program and waterways for Farm Service Agency in Decatur.

Hall and husband, Darrell, were both raised on farms and have strong roots in agriculture. When they married, he already had Oxford purebred sheep and brought them with him to her family farm. As the operation grew, Winning Ways Oxford Sheep Farm became nationally-known as one of the top three breeders of the purebreds.

Oxford are a medium-sized breed with wool on their legs, down the panel of their noses and on the top of their heads. While the wool quality is good, they are a meat breed, with good mothering ability and temperament which makes them good for kids starting out with 4H or FFA projects.

The Halls mainly raise their animals as breeding stock, and a few are sold for meat, but the majority are private sales. They have 50 ewes that will lamb this year which she estimates will produce between 70 and 85 lambs. While the Halls don’t have to help the ewes with the birthing process, they are usually there to make sure the process goes smoothly. They have audio monitors in the large birthing pen, so they can hear the animals pawing when they are preparing for birth, and are also installing video monitors so they can watch them from the house.

Their daughter LeAnn, a graduate of Purdue University with a degree from the Agricultural College in Biochemistry, helps out when she is home. She is enrolled in a program at Purdue that will eventually give her a veterinary degree. She wants to remain involved in the sheep operation.

The college experience has evolved from the time mother and daughter each attended. Melanie says, “When I started at Illinois State, I was in the ag department because I knew I liked agriculture. There weren’t very many women in the department and the majority of them were studying horticulture. Now, I think that has exploded, especially in the areas of agribusiness, animal science and agronomy.”

LeAnn believes that “if guys were raised on the farm, they usually go back to the farm. Whereas, I’m looking at still being a part of the farm, but having an outside ag-related profession as well.” And, other women seem to find value in that as well.

As a woman in the ’80s, Melanie had to fight her way to become an insider in the breed. “I had to prove I would work – that I wasn’t stupid, but knowledgeable,” she explains. “You’re accepted, but you have to try harder. Being a female, you have to really prove your willingness to work and get dirty.”

Farming is not without its challenges, and Melanie foresees a problem in the public’s perception that the livestock industry uses too much antibiotic in its feed or in taking care of sick animals. “We need to educate the public more,” she says. “I’m not sure that antibiotics are used as much in the livestock industry as the public perceives. And, the majority of people that raise livestock as a living, take good care of their animals. They’re in it because they want to be. They love that type of work and love their animals.”

Melanie and Darrell are a team. “For us the whole agriculture thing works,” says Melanie. “He does his thing, I do mine, and when we need something from the other one, we’re together. We’re reaching for the common goal.”

Confessions of a farm wife

Emily Webel is a young farm wife but, growing up in the small town of Oneida, the closest she had gotten to the farm was the corn field in her backyard. Although her father was a high school agriculture teacher, she had no interest in it. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in elementary education, Webel thought she would follow her brother to the Chicago area, but instead began teaching sixth grade in Monticello – another small town surrounded by corn fields.

When her father retired from teaching, he joined Webel’s grandfather and uncle in farming. Farming just kept coming up in the life of someone that thought she had little interest in it!

She met her husband, Joe, in Monticello where he was consulting agriculture teachers in the area. After the birth of their first child, Webel and her husband decided they wanted to be closer to family. They gutted and rebuilt her grandparent’s farm house in rural Farmington and Joe, who was doing a national ag consulting job, decided to become a farmer.

“We fell into cattle farming,” says Webel. “A neighboring farmer was ready to retire and had cattle he wanted us to take over.” They now have 150 head of cattle and 500 acres they plant with corn, soybeans, hay, and occasionally, wheat.

She had her second child, was living on a farm and realized she knew nothing about the farm culture and started educating herself. “There were a lot of people that were engrossed in agriculture and using terms I just didn’t feel comfortable using,” remarks Webel. “I was asking Joe questions but didn’t feel like I had a grasp of what was really going on, and I didn’t feel like there was a voice like mine.”

In response, Webel started the blog Confessions of a Farm Wife. “I realized there were other farm wives like me, that really have nothing to do with the farm, but because it’s our livelihood, we feel like we have a voice, even though we don’t have an on-the-farm job.”

The blog utilizes a stream of consciousness style of writing and Webel often responds to hot button issues about agriculture. She decided to get proactive and has found a voice in speaking to urban mothers and other non-agriculture related groups. Webel believes there is much that people don’t understand about agriculture and that’s where her voice can be heard, to help them get back to the land. Her blog,, has become her way of “agvocating.”

As a family, the Webels believe in the three Fs of faith, family and farming. “You cannot, not, be a believer if you’re a farmer,” she explains. “You have to believe there is something bigger than you and have faith that everything will be taken care of. Farming has so many risks that you just have to hold onto that faith.”

One of the biggest challenges the Webels, and all farm families, deal with is weather. In sub-zero temperatures or the heat of summer, they have to be out there each and every morning. “We’ve gone through drought, floods and the muck and mud. Sub-zero temperatures are making us very nervous because we are coming into calving season,” Webel says. “There’s only so much we can do. We want to do our best and the hard times can be really trying on your psyche.”

Webel admits she had a misconception about farm wives, thinking they stayed at home, made the lunch, took care of the kids and maybe helped out a little bit. Through her association with other wives, she has learned they come in all shapes, sizes and ages, are vocal about their place on the farm, and you can’t pick them out of a crowd.

Webel has become passionate about ag-advocacy and is taking the challenge offered up by fellow farm wife, Katie Pratt, the speaker at a recent Farm Bureau meeting, to be comfortable and confident in her message. “We are all farm wives, but we’re not all the same,” says Webel. “But, we are all grounded together in this crazy thing called agriculture. We need to be comfortable and confident in our place in farming.”

I was the brawn, and he was the brains

IMG_5671W hen Kelly Brokaw, husband Mike and their sons returned to Illinois 14 years ago, her father, Shelby Electric Cooperative Director Jim McCoy, asked her to join him in managing the rural Blue Mound family farm.

Brokaw, a graduate of the University of Wyoming, has a degree in home economics and grew up on the 750-acre grain farm, but was usually inside cooking and sewing and occasionally riding along as her mother, Joyce, drove the grain truck.

Side-by-side with her father, Brokaw has been learning all aspects of grain farming. Brokaw says, “I was the brawn and Dad was the brains.” The two of them attend Illinois commodities conferences, marketing seminars and various other meetings which has helped increase Brokaw’s knowledge base. According to Brokaw, those conferences always open up farming conversations between them. They also attend field days to see the different seed varieties and hear the research.

She says many at the conferences are surprised to learn she farms right along with her father. Occasionally, she is the only woman in attendance but the number of women is increasing, especially when the topics include marketing and management.

Brokaw is the fifth generation of her family’s 100-year old farm and they own the land, while some is crop-shared. As McCoy says, “If I don’t own it, then it’s in a trust of which I’m the trustee. Whatever mistakes we make, we live with.”

According to Brokaw, they have made a lot of changes to the equipment so that it’s not as labor intensive. They now have a seed tender so that she doesn’t have to deal with lifting seed bags. Her father runs the tender while she hooks up the planter and fills it. Her skills of maintaining the equipment has developed quite a bit, according the McCoy, and it has gotten to the point where she recognizes what needs to be done and can do most of it.

Most of the strategic planning happens around the kitchen table with discussions of everything from transitioning to more modern equipment to modernizing and updating their computer system. Brokaw is small in stature so they planned and welded (yes, she welds) additional steps to help her more easily climb into equipment. That table is where varieties of seeds are chosen and marketing decisions are made.

For Brokaw, the biggest challenge is not the manual labor, she can handle that. “The decision part is the hardest,” says Brokaw. “There’s so much, such as timing on purchases, selling, keeping apprised of the market and current on computer system bookkeeping.”

McCoy says, “Kelly will continue the legacy of our centennial farm. We are at the point now where we are going to have to redesign the organization of the whole thing. She is going to become a more responsible part of it and the time is coming for her to be moving into my place.”

She is up for the challenge, she had a good mentor.


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