Welcome again to Farm Women Friday!
This week, I’m introducing you to a young woman who is an integral part of her family’s farm operation. I first remember meeting Megan Bishop in high school FFA, though my mother would tell you we met way before that: Megan and my middle sister attended preschool together.
(Yes, you could say we’re from a small town. Everyone really does know everyone else around here.)
Megan and I sat down in the middle of a field (no, really!) and had a nice chat about farming, family, and building a business.
Joining the Family Business
Megan is another farm woman who was born into agriculture. She grew up working in her family’s operation part-time through high school and college, though her duties have evolved over time. Her father is contracted with a local chemical + fertilizer company to spray other farmers’ fields. Megan started working with that company to delivery chemicals and to do a bit of field scouting as well.
A field scout is employed by a farmer or grower to physically walk and monitor their fields for problems such as insects, weeds, diseases, or nutrient deficiencies. They serve as an extra set of eyes for the farmer to identify problems early.
Megan also took a little bit of time away from the family farm to work with the local extension office, but she found she didn’t really like working all day behind a desk, and knew she would have to get back out on the farm. “I have more time with my daughter working on the farm than I would if I had a desk job somewhere, and I really like that.”
When she came back, the family knew they’d have to find an additional avenue of farming to bring her back into the fold. The operation purchased a variable-rate spreader, which became Megan’s main job. She applies lime and fertilizer on a custom basis for other area farmers, as well as the Bishops’ fields.
“We’ve always been good at finding extra jobs,” Megan tells me. They understand that in order to stay in business, they have to diversify. The bulk of the family’s operation is their own crops – Megan and her father are currently tilling about 2800 acres. Most of their “extra” comes in the form of custom jobs – Megan’s father still sprays chemicals for the local supplier; Megan runs the spreader; and they even started doing custom straw baling. They come in and bale the fields after the wheat has been harvested, and mushroom companies up in Pennsylvania come and get the large bales of straw for use in their operations.
They actually started the straw work as a job for Megan’s younger sister Logan, who has since taken a full-time job off the farm (but still in agriculture). Logan still helps out with the farming as much as she can, as she was quick to point out from behind the work truck as we talked.
“We also chop silage for other farmers, and do as much custom work as we can,” Megan explains. “Custom” is just the farm way of saying, “doing work for someone else.” It takes some of the risk out of farming. “We try to have other operations to pull from, in case we have a bad year with our own crops.”
Megan and her family are also moving into using more technology, both on their own farm and in their custom work. The spreader they purchased for Megan is actually a “variable-rate” spreader. In a nutshell, this means that Megan is able to precisely apply the exact amount of lime that a field needs, and in precisely the right spot. How? Well, farmers are taking advantage of current GPS technology to make their operations more efficient. By combining soil tests and nutrient recommendations with different segments of a field, Megan can apply a small amount of lime in one section of the field, then automatically switch to a higher application for the next area.
But are many area farmers using the technology? “It’s slowly catching on,” according to Megan. “We have the technology to do it, with auto-steer (GPS controlled-steering) and extensive soil testing.” She and I both expect that farmers will use it even more going forward, especially if they can see yield improvements because of it.
A Philosophical Farmer
“I worry sometimes that other people don’t take farming seriously,” Megan admits. “I think about the future of our food, and I know we have to feed more people, but we don’t have the workforce we once did.”
She’s right. Many 2nd or 3rd generation farm family members are leaving the farm. They are often searching for a more secure career, one with a guaranteed salary and benefits. Megan concedes that farming can be tough, though she feels the benefits outweigh the negatives.
“We may have had to do without some material things growing up, but we also learned about hard work and appreciating what you have. I want my daughter to grow up like that. I think our generation has gotten too used to instant gratification. I’m guilty of it too, but I try to remember that my father has been building this business for 25 years, and the wait has been worth it.”
If Megan’s outlook seems uncharacteristic of the typical young adult; keep in mind, she’s a farmer. Hard work and patience are a way of life for her and other young farmers like her. She loves her job, and loves getting to work with her family, which makes the tough times a little easier.
“It’s a hard job,” Megan tells me. “But I’m getting a lot more out of it than just money.”
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 or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.