Saturday, December 3, 2022

Women in Agriculture

Helping the business thrive and family farms survive

Ann Ruscoe, Candy Davis, Carlean Horton, Sherilyn Jones, Gabriela Brasher Photo by Rory Dole
Ann Ruscoe, Candy Davis, Carlean Horton, Sherilyn Jones, Gabriela Brasher Photo by Rory Dole

When a husband who is a farmer passes away in the Delta, all too often the farm ends up getting sold because the wife doesn’t have the skills to continue operating the farm.
“So we are losing our Delta farms,” says Sherilyn M. Jones, who is president of Women For Agriculture. “We could see a real need for women to get involved in agriculture.” The mission statement of Women for Agriculture is: Empowering farm women to be better business partners through networks and by managing and organizing critical information. “What we have seen is that people who raise chickens, horses, soybeans, sweet potatoes or other things all have the same problems,” Jones says. “So we have learned to network, share those problems and hash them out.”
Jones got started in the effort through a program offered by the Mississippi State Extension called Annie’s Project, which teaches women the necessary skills for farm estate planning, business planning, how to read a cash/flow sheet, and how to understand a farm operation. “My husband raises catfish,” says Jones, a retired schoolteacher. “I thought I needed those skills. Several of the people who graduated from Annie’s Project in 2010 formed Women For Agriculture. We currently have 11 lifetime members and 65 regular members. So we are still growing.”
The organization has made an impact. In one case a women with seven children was able to continue the family’s livelihood raising horses after her husband passed away.
They also support farmer’s markets and have a conference each year. Another project is the Diane Evans Scholarship Fund for a woman in agriculture. Evans, who died of cancer, was one of the founders of Women For Agriculture.
Candy Davis explains that Women For Agriculture members are very active in commodity promotions. “I work a lot in rice, and others ladies work with other commodities,” Davis says. “We’ve got a good group.”
Davis grew up on a family farm and later she and her husband, Larry Davis, bought her family’s farm in Bolivar County. “We have been farming for 34 years,” says Davis. “We raise rice, soybeans and corn. I don’t do the manual labor part of it like I used to. Now our two sons, Austin and Judd, are farming with us. My brother, Bruce Fullen, also farms with us and his son, Jake, now works for us.”
Davis takes meals to the workers, runs after parts, does the bookwork and marketing, and fills in elsewhere as needed.
Technology plays a big part in farming now. Davis says it is important to be a good manager because the window of operation is narrow between the costs of inputs versus returns.
“Not only do you have to be a very good producer, you have to be a very good manager,” she says. “We have plenty of acres that keep us all very busy. We have 14 employees. Some of them have been with us as long as we have been farming. We would not have been successful without them. We’re getting older and our labor force is getting older. For our sons, that will be a challenge. Fewer people are wanting to work on a farm.”
Davis says farming has been good to her and her family, even though there are hardships at times.
“We are always dancing with Mother Nature, so there are trials and worries you do have,” she says. “But farming is great. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It is a wonderful way of life.”
Another woman who has had a big impact on ag in the Delta is Carlean F. Horton, administrative officer for the Jamie Whitten Delta States Research Center in Stoneville which is made up of seven research units.
“The work is very important,” says Horton. “We have about 287 federal employees. During the summers we hire about 100 students who assist in the laboratory and field research. We are very proud of the work we do in assisting the farmers on a local and national level. The Stoneville Center is considered the headquarters of the mid-south, which includes the states of Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alabama.”
Horton’s job is directing her unit to provide daily assistance to the research units. “I like working with the people,” says Horton, who grew up on a farm. “Most of us are from this area, even though we have a great number who are from other states and countries. We work so closely together that we feel like one big family.”
Archie Tucker, who is assistant area director, has been a great mentor for 20 years, according to Horton. “I’ve also had many other mentors,” Horton says. “I’m just blessed to have this job and be a part of the USDA Agriculture Research Service family.”
Ann Ruscoe worked for the Mississippi State Extension Service in numerous capacities for nearly 28 years.
“I was the first female county agent in Mississippi,” Ruscoe says. “I have invested my entire career in the Mississippi Delta. It is an exciting place to work because agriculture is on the cutting edge here. After retirement from MSU Extension Service in 2006, I worked a short time for an innovative company called InTime. We wrote prescriptions for variable rate applications by using aerial imagery.”
After that she went to work for Delta Plastics, a company that manufactures polytubing for furrow irrigation. She is very proud of the work Delta Plastics does recycling the polytubing, and designing irrigation systems for water conservation.
Part of her job at Delta Plastics is working with a web-based irrigation efficiency program called Pipe Planner. “I recently took over the role of working with farmers in this water conservation resource program,” Ruscoe says. “The program tells farmers what size holes to punch in the pipe so that their runs end at the same time; short rows end at the same time as long rows. We are seeing a cost savings to the farmer of 20 to 25 percent with fuel costs for pumping water from the well. You pump less, so you save money. You also save a lot of water and are not flooding out part of your crop trying to water the rest of it. It is a water efficiency tool. It is an exciting program. A lot of the farmers are beginning to use it and find it really makes irrigation more efficient.”
Ruscoe enjoys the contact with farmers and others in the ag industry. “It is just something that is in my blood,” she says. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I enjoy being around all phases of agriculture. Traveling the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta allows me to be a part of the lives of those providing food and fiber for us all. And that’s rewarding.
Gabriela Brasher grew up in Switzerland. Her father, Heinz Kaiser, was in the machine tool business and their neighbors up the hill were dairy farmers with seven children. She and her two brothers spent most of their free time on their neighbor’s farm. “That is probably where I picked up a love of agriculture,” she says. “After I finished high school in Switzerland, I was registered to go to a university in Switzerland and planned to study agriculture. I wanted to take a break before going to university. So I came to the U.S. and worked on a farm in Bruce, Miss. I lived with a lovely family. I did a little internship, everything from washing cow trailers to cutting beans with combines and running tractors and they showed me Mississippi State University. Both of my brothers had studied in the U.S., so I thought I might get my bachelor’s degree and go back to Switzerland to further my study.”
She studied agronomy specializing in soil science at MSU. Then she had an opportunity to get an assistantship with a cotton breeder, Dr. Fred Bourland, and was able to earn her master’s degree in agronomy/crop composites.
She also got experience as a farm hand after her father purchased three farms in the Delta. She worked mainly on the cotton farm, did lots of manual labor and some bookkeeping.
She first met the man who became her husband, Brent Brasher, at a cotton short course at MSU and later again at a cotton conference. They got married in 1990. In 1991 the Brashers purchased a farm in Paynes while Brent also worked on another farm and Gabriela worked on one of her father’s farms.
While raising three children, Gabriela still worked on the farm doing book keeping, marketing and other chores. “I figured I could hire someone to drive a tractor, but didn’t want to hire someone to raise my children,” she says. “Now two are in college and one is in the eighth grade.”
In 2001 she and her brother, Christoph Kaiser, took over the last farm her father owned, and have a farm manager, Billy Walker, who does great job handling the daily activities.
The Brashers, who live in Holcomb, are best known for starting an operation with growing a value-added crop, kenaf, at their farm in Paynes. The kenaf is processed into oil absorbent bioremediation products, and into pet bedding.
— Becky Gillette, Delta Business Journal