EXCHANGE: Knox county women have the drive to farm
By ROBYN GAUTSCHY
Lara Scholl grew up raising cows in 4-H and helping her dad on the family farm near Galesburg. But when it came to career choices, being a farmer wasn’t on her list.
"I don’t think I ever thought I would end up farming and driving tractors. I didn’t think it was a job for a girl, and I never thought that’s what I would do," she said. "But my dad needed help and I thought, maybe this is what I was meant to do. My dad taught me and my husband how to drive the tractor and we loved doing it. I love animals and I love harvest time. I love getting to drive the tractor and the combine."
Scholl now works full time on the farm with her dad, Tim Carlson. They tend corn and soybean crops, along with a small herd of cattle.
"Every year I’m doing something new and learning something bigger," she said. "I want to grow our cattle herd and learn as much as I can from my dad. He’s a knowledgeable and successful farmer, in my eyes."
To further her knowledge, Scholl accompanies her father to every farm meeting and errand she can. And as a 23-year-old woman who says she looks more like 15, she’s gotten used to people not quite taking her seriously as a career farmer.
"I’ve not had anybody say, ‘You can’t do this,’ but I get some weird looks, like they think I’m just driving him around. They don’t know the extent of what I do," she said. "I go up on the tall grain legs, I service equipment, I get my hands dirty, I get hurt. Sometimes people think I just hand my dad things and drive him places. They think I’m his helper … but I’m his partner. We’re a team."
While she admits it "kind of stings" when people doubt her capabilities, she doesn’t let it get to her.
"I don’t really mind because I know if my dad didn’t think I could do it, he wouldn’t lead me to it and teach me everything he’s taught me," she said. "If my dad believes I can do it, and he’s been doing it for 30-plus years, that’s all that matters. If my husband and my dad and my family think I can do it, that’s all that really matters to me. Women can do just about anything men can do."
As a farmer who happens to be female, Scholl is in the minority. There are 24,265 female farmers in Illinois, according to 2012 Census of Agriculture data — that’s 23 percent of Illinois farmers, and they’re tending to almost 6 million acres of land. In the U.S., female farmers number 969,672, or about 31 percent of American farmers. Arizona has the highest proportion of female farmers, at 45 percent.
The number of women running day-to-day farm operations is smaller, though. Of those 969,672 female farmers, only 288,264 are principal operators.
Monica Stevens is a third-generation farmer in rural Altona, and for her, working on the farm, and seeing other women do the same, feels like the norm.
"I think Knox County is lucky. Being a woman in agriculture is nothing really new in Knox County," she said, naming other women she’s met who run farms and other ag-related businesses and serve on state boards. "I look at my grandma … it was just something I grew up with," she added. "My grandma was out there helping with the calves and she was in the tractors."
Stevens works with her parents to raise corn, soybeans, hay and cattle, and she also has her own cattle and hay operation. Like Scholl, she grew up helping her family on the farm and participating in 4-H. She was only 10 when she bought her first heifer from her parents.
"I was always riding along with my dad and hanging out with him while I was growing up," Stevens said. "I was always exposed to farming and, especially with cattle, it was in my blood. I’ve always known I wanted to come back to the farm and carry on the family tradition of raising crops and shorthorn cattle."
Stevens attended Carl Sandburg College and Western Illinois University, where she earned a degree in animal science. She farms full time and soon will take on an additional role as a USDA meat inspector at Farmland Foods in Monmouth.
"I’m really excited. As college was ending and I was in my senior year, being a USDA meat inspector was on my list of dream jobs," she said. "I’m excited I finally get to become a meat inspector."
Stevens got involved in area farm boards and bureaus straight out of college — she was the first female chair of the Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leaders — and she recommends that other aspiring farmers make involvement a priority as well.
"It’s a very rewarding field. If young ladies have an interest in agriculture, I would say to study, study hard, and take any opportunity that’s thrown at them, because you never know where it’s going to take you," she said. "Socialize and network. Build your base of knowledgeable people and get active on boards and committees."
Stevens said after she graduated college and got into the workforce, she did face some issues because of her gender, but it was "nothing too horrible." In fact, it only spurred her onward.
"Some guys would question me or make it difficult at times, but I would use that. I fed off that to work harder and prove them wrong. It kind of made me stronger in many ways," she said.
Once, she recalled, she had a part-time job at a veterinarian’s office and was steering a cow into a chute for vaccinations. A couple guys were watching her, she said, wondering what this 5’6" girl was doing there working with cattle.
"I did my job and I did it well, and after that they very well respected me. It was nice to prove them wrong," she said.
To other young women, she said, "Believe in yourself. Sometimes it’s hard. Luckily my dad and granddad told me my hands fit the pitchfork just as well as my brother’s did. There were no men’s and women’s jobs on our farm. I joke that we were an equal-opportunity farm. I guess l was lucky growing up with people who believed in me."
Stevens’ father is 73 and celebrated 50 years of farming in 2016. Stevens is 39, and her obvious passion for the family farm indicates she’ll be celebrating her own milestones someday.
"The best part is seeing what your hard work does," she said. "Nothing is better than calving season — all the hard work we put into feeding the cows a balanced, nutritional diet and vaccinating them, and making sure the cows are healthy and we’re treating them well. One thing my grandpa taught me is how to treat livestock with respect, and that shows in how our cattle treat us. It’s amazing to see our hard work pay off, to see a healthy baby calf running around on the farm, or planting and then seeing the crops grow and change throughout the seasons. I could talk a novel about all the good things."
Scholl just started her career in farming, but she already has the foundation for a lifelong endeavor.
"Just like anybody, you have to follow your passion," she said. "If you think you can do it, the drive is all you need, as long as you work hard and make yourself a teachable person. I think that’s really important with anything. If I wasn’t teachable to my dad, it would be very difficult to learn everything there is to do in farming. … Just learn as much as you can and get involved as much as you can, and don’t let other people make you think you can’t do it."
Scholl also looks to other female farmers for encouragement and inspiration.
"I love hearing how other girls farm, and not just because their husbands farm, but because they grew up on a farm and want to farm on their own ambition. That’s really encouraging," she said. "I go to these things where it’s all men farmers, which I don’t mind, but it’s really cool to see there are other ladies out there who like the same things as me."
Source: The (Galesburg) Register-Mail, http://bit.ly/2nOeCq0
Information from: The Register-Mail, http://www.register-mail.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Galesburg) Register-Mail.