Shelli Mader: Road to Ranching 11-14-11
November 15, 2011
When Merry Jones was growing up on a ranch in the sand hills of Nebraska in the 1940s, a farm wife’s place was in the house. At that time, few women took an active role in the day to day work of raising cattle. Jones, a self-proclaimed tomboy, was glad she was stuck somewhere in the middle of five sisters and one brother because it meant she got to do more work with the cattle than most farm girls her age.
“Since there were so many girls in my family, one of my sisters and I had to help my dad. We learned to rope, ride horses and mend fence,” she remembered. “We’d often ride for hours a day. It was common for us to leave the house at 4 or 5 a.m., to help neighbors round up cows.”
Though Jones experienced unusual freedom to help with the stock on her folk’s ranch, she was scrutinized in the cattle show circuit. “When my family first started showing cattle in the 1950s, people looked down on a woman in the show ring,” she said. “Boys were the only ones that were supposed to be in there. I showed cattle anyway, but a lot of people in the industry didn’t like it.”
During her lifetime Jones has seen some major changes in the way women in agriculture are viewed. Today most people aren’t surprised to see a women like Jones working alongside her husband on their ranch. Jones is in her 60s now and has been farming and ranching with her husband for over 35 years. She plays an active role in their commercial cattle and farming operation in Colorado. There isn’t a thing on the ranch (from fixing fence to hauling hay to pulling calves) that Jones doesn’t do.
I can’t help but be thankful to live in an era where women can be part of all facets of agriculture. Some of my favorite things to do when I was growing up were gather cattle on horseback, show calves and rodeo. I used to entertain the dream of being a vet, then I majored in animal science in college with the hopes of becoming a ruminant nutritionist. I eventually changed my major to agriculture communications and focused on building my writing career. Fifty or more years ago though, I wouldn’t have been able to have those dreams or opportunities.
When I think about modern day agriculture, I can’t help but appreciate the work of true pioneers and innovators in the industry. Men like researcher and chemist George Washington Carver and farmer Frank Zybach – the inventor of the center pivot sprinkler – changed ag forever. But I also admire all the unnamed women who worked (often behind the scenes) to make farms and ranches successful.
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Opal Howard is one of those “behind the scenes” women. She grew up on a farm in Missouri in the 1930s. Though she didn’t get to help with the horses like she wanted (she had too many brothers to do that) she worked hard on the farm too. In addition to the regular household chores to help her dad and brothers, she gathered eggs and cream to sell at the local store, gardened and took care chickens.
Early women in agriculture like Howard were truly the first stay at home mom entrepreneurs. They had multiple small income streams that helped support their families. As a stay at home mom trying to build a home-based business, I’m inspired by their example.
Today, women have more chances and support than ever to be involved in any sector of the ag industry. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers a Women in Ag program. The program is designed to help women develop skills to be successful in agriculture. The group provides educational material, offers advice and hold conferences.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) also provides support for women interested in ag. They have a special Women’s Outreach Coordinator who works with FSA’s partner organizations to help increase the number of women owning and operating profitable farms and ag-related businesses.
Though I’m not one of those strong, skilled women like Jones who could run a ranch by herself (nor do I want to even try), I’m glad that I live in an era where I can have the opportunity. I’m grateful for the current part I get to play in agriculture (writing and blogging about it) and look forward to the added opportunity of not only being a rancher’s wife someday, but also an equal partner in an ag business. Thanks to all the hardworking men and women who came before me to make it possible.
You can follow Shelli on her blog at RoadtoRanching.com.