Welcome to the first edition of Farm Women Fridays! I’m going to highlight some of our local farm ladies throughout the summer because A) Sometimes it’s nice to get to know the people behind the food in your grocery store and B) These chicks are pretty cool.
And speaking of chicks, allow me to introduce you to our opening act, Heather Clopper, from Caroline County, MD.
Heather was raised on a farm, and grew up with farming as a way of life. She says, “I have always been daddy’s little girl and when I was little I couldn’t wait for my dad, uncle, and grandfather to work in the fields close to my house so I could ride in the tractor or combine. Every time I rode with my dad I would fall asleep.”
Right now, Heather works on her family farm, which is a grain and poultry operation. They raise broiler chickens (picture the whole chickens you put in the oven or crockpot, about 7 pounds when fully grown). Her father and uncle till over 3500 acres of wheat, corn, and soybeans at their respective home farms and in the surrounding counties. Heather enjoys operating the equipment and assisting with the necessary upkeep of the farm + machinery.
It truly is a family operation, and working with her family is one of the things she likes best about her job. Different members of her immediate and extended family have varying responsibilities, from the actual farming + running equipment to balancing the books + running payroll to running into town to get lunch for the day’s crew. I’ve know the family for five years, and I agree that everyone in the family is always working for the farm in one way or another.
But it’s not all sunshine and roses. One of the biggest drawbacks of any farming operation is putting up with long hours, especially during the busy seasons. Harvest is the worst, and I’ll drink to that. It can also be a challenge, as a women, to do some of the physical things that the men on the farm do.
(But don’t tell them we said that. Us girls will never live it down).
Heather has worked off the farm, too, including stints with a retail plant nursery, greenhouses, and even at an accountant’s office. Though she learned a lot and is glad for the experience, she believes that “when you work somewhere you should love your job all the time.” More than anything, she just wanted to be back on the farm, a job that often feels more like a hobby. She gets to do something she loves, and also gets to help feed America. That really means something to her.
There’s also always something new to learn, whether it’s how to contract in the grain markets or new advances in agriculture technology. Technology is becoming a big part of farming, and one of Heather’s goals for the year is to eliminate the paper trail that bogs down so many farmers. Having business details on the computer makes things so much easier - finding info on a specific farm, for accounting purposes, and easier to back up important files.
I asked Heather what she, as a farm woman, would want to tell other women and moms about agriculture. She said she’d really like to let people know that farmers are doing everything they can to make sure their farms are environmentally responsible. In Maryland, one major concern is water quality – most of their farms are one county away from the Chesapeake Bay.
Her family is using a variety of environmental practices on their farms to help filter water – buffer strips around ditches and a sediment pond (to catch run-off) near the chicken houses are just two examples. They also enroll some of their land in the CREP program, which takes tillable acres out of crop production and instead allows that land to become forested buffers and even wetlands. (For more info on CREP, here’s a great summary).
When asked about how she raises her chickens, Heather said, “They are probably in a more comfortable environment than I am most of the time.” The birds get to stay in a climate-controlled house and have an all-you-can-eat buffet of food and water. They are actually on a vegetarian diet – no animal by-products in their feed.
As for the future, Heather is looking for ways to expand the operation. She’ll definitely keep farming as long as she can, because according to her, “Farming is in my blood.”
Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments!