4 Women of the Illinois Ag World

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Prior to the 1970s, when Helen Reddy had her hit, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” farm women were apt to be canning green beans, running into town to get parts for a broken-down tractor and taking care of kids. Their role on the farm was to bring meals to the fields during planting and harvesting and help with the farm books.

About the time cake mixes became more popular than made-from-scratch cakes, farm women began to find jobs off the farm. In the ‘70s, about a third of farm women in the nation had off-farm jobs. By the end of the decade, at a time when farm income was plummeting, two-thirds of farm women had off-the-farm employment, providing much needed living expenses and health insurance.

That trend has continued. Farm women are among the busiest – on and off the farm – as they have found a niche that ties in with agriculture. If the four we’ve profiled are any indication, farm women do what they do because they have a passion for agriculture.

Sharon Covert at the Lincoln Park Zoo's Farm in the Zoo soybean exhibit June 2009. Photo Ken Kashian

Sharon Covert

Sharon Covert, from tiny Tiskilwa just south of Princeton, travels the world looking for places to sell U.S. soybeans. Grandmother to 10, farm wife and nurse by trade, she also helped bring the agricultural exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry into a reality.

Covert, a longtime leader for agriculture, has served on her county’s Farm Bureau board, the Illinois Soybean Board and the United Soybean Board, a national appointment made by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

“I’m still on that,” she says. “I’ve worked on international marketing the whole time. This year, I’m chairing the value-enhanced committee.”

Like the soybeans her husband raises, Covert has a knack for blooming where she’s planted. Some 14 years ago, when she was visiting her daughter who lived in downtown Chicago, she wanted to take her young grandson to the Museum of Science and Industry. She remembered her own experience visiting that museum as a child and enjoying an agricultural exhibit there, funded by the McCormick family.

“It was gone,” says Covert. “Here we were in the Midwest, and there wasn’t a thing about agriculture.”

Motivated by what she didn’t find at the museum, Covert pitched the idea of funding an agriculture exhibit to the Illinois Farm Bureau State Women’s Committee, and the Farm Bureau leadership decided to pursue the idea.

“It took years,” Covert remembers. “We’d make a little progress, but then there would be changes in museum staff that pushed us back to the beginning. Several project managers came to our farm to visit, but nothing happened.”

Eventually, the head of the museum brought his family to visit the Coverts’ farm and ride the combine.

“From that moment on, we moved forward,” she explains. “Finally, how it really came about in the end came with the head of the museum. For his birthday, he wanted to visit a farm at harvest. He brought his wife and children – all of them rode the combine – and after he was here, decided we needed a combine in the exhibit. From that moment on, we moved forward.”

With a final plan in place, Covert and the IFB groups began raising funds in earnest. Major contributors included Archer Daniels Midland and John Deere & Co.

“The whole point of the exhibit is to educate,” Covert says. “People today go to the grocery store and food is always there. They don’t think about where that food comes from or the farmer who grew it. We want people to realize someone had to grow that food.”

She’s already working on her next project – an agricultural exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“They have nothing,” Covert says. “How can you tell the history of America without telling the history of agriculture? It seems a real omission not to include agriculture in the history of America.”

If Covert has any say, it won’t be that way for long.
Nancy Erickson, owner of MC Farm Management, in Altona, Illinois, manages land for absentee land owners. Illinois Farm Bureau Partners - J. Kyle Keener

Nancy Erickson

Nancy Erickson of Oneida has a way of making numbers make sense to farmers and non-farmers alike – a skill she learned from her grandfather Tom McHatton, who managed land for Peabody Coal Co., and from her mother, who took over the family business. Her father farmed in southern Illinois, then traded land and moved the family to the Oneida area.

“I didn’t even live in the country until I was 13,” Erickson says. “And then it was a grain farm. I knew from the time I was in high school that I wanted to go into the business end of farming. I loved math, and I like things in order.”

She approaches life in that same matter-of-fact way: Erickson has short black hair, is trim from her discipline of exercise, and has a perfectly organized office with everything in its place. Her first part-time job was working for a farm business management service.

“I loved it,” she says. “I saw that agriculture could use some help.”

She ended up with a degree from the University of Illinois in agricultural science, specializing in ag economics. Out of college, she landed in the real-estate division of Aetna in Hartford, Conn. Three years later, she returned home to marry Dave Erickson, a high school agriculture teacher. He later started farming, and together the two now run their own farm management service, named after her grandfather.

“He was my inspiration,” she says. “He gave me the ability to see that part of the business. We don’t work with Peabody Coal anymore, but we keep people connected to the land. It’s been a nice complement to our farming.”

The couple specializes in giving full-service help to clients, from choosing a tenant farmer to leasing property, and selling grain to simply answering questions and soothing fears.

They start with a plan for the soil as well as the finished product.

“Dave does a lot of the agronomics; I sell most of the grain,” Erickson says. “Some years I look brilliant; some I don’t. I like selling because I’m more emotionally detached than the farmer, since I’m not physically connected to it. We look at grain differently than the farmer does.”

Lisa Buzzard, age 47, of Beecher City, Illinois, feeds the beef cattle on the farm where she works side by side with her husband Stan tending their 600-acre farm raising  corn, beans, wheat, and hay for feed the beef cattle.

Lisa Buzzard

Seven days a week, you will find Lisa Buzzard in a pair of Carhartt coveralls, taking care of the 120 head of cattle that fill the barns and pastures on her farm outside Beecher City. When she and her husband, Stan, married, she offered to help with farm chores. But before long, it became a full-time job that she loves.

“I grew up on a farm, but we didn’t have livestock,” Buzzard says. “My sister Deb was always in the house with Grandma. I was always outside with Grandpa.”

Buzzard has a passion for the 120 “mama” cows she helps give birth to their babies each spring. Mama cows ready to calve are moved inside a big barn with individual stalls. Once a calf is born, the mom and baby are given time to bond and eat, and in some cases, Buzzard helps the process along by bottle-feeding the calves.

“During calving season, we often have pens everywhere,” she says.

Her work includes setting up those pens, opening gates while her husband drives a small tractor with an end-loader to dump feed into troughs, and carrying heavy buckets of water and feed. Despite the hard work and manual labor, it’s a job she loves.

“Sometimes, when it’s really cold and we’re still out here at 9:30 at night, I think about a desk job,” Buzzard says. “I started working in a nursing home in high school, then took an accounting job. I still keep the books, but I love working outside with the cattle.”

A farmer through and through, Buzzard says her best Christmas present ever was a pair of foot warmers.

“Your feet do get cold; the warmers are wonderful,” she laughs.

Those foot warmers come in handy in February and March, when calving season is in full swing. If a mama cow is having trouble calving, the Buzzards will get up at 2 a.m. to check on her. “That’s why this time of year is the busiest – and we’re the most tired,” Buzzard says. “This is also the most physically challenging time for me, because we have so many cows penned up that have to be fed by hand.”
The couple also raises corn, soybeans and hay, but for Buzzard, the cattle are her calling. She’s even completed cattle breeding school so she can help artificially inseminate the cows. 
The best part is that no day is the same. My life is the cows and the farm.”

Beth Gehrke, age 50, of Elgin, Illinois, raises corn, soy beans, wheat, hay, and straw on her family's 1000-acre farm, where she also does a lot of educational outreach due to her close proximity to Chicago. As a hobby she also raises chickens, sheep and rabbits.

Beth Gehrke

Kane County farmer Beth Gehrke says her passion is teaching kids about agriculture.

“It’s fun to have them guess my job – most have never met a farmer before,” she laughs.

Gehrke, who raises corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and straw with her husband, says her goal is to put a “face with a farmer.”

To do so, she uses a reading program called SPROUT to teach area third graders about agriculture and also brings families to the farm for tours.

“For generations, everyone had someone close to a farm,” says Gehrke. “Not anymore. Now when you say you’re a farmer, people are genuinely interested because they haven’t met a real, live farmer before.

“We have a sign that says we sell straw. People drive in and, in October, ask if we have strawberries – they saw the sign. They’re used to buying fresh produce anytime of the year in the stores, so they don’t know that strawberries are grown in May.”

Beyond the row crops she raises with her husband, Gehrke has a huge garden and orchard, which she uses to teach canning and preserving, and she has a waiting list for the poultry she raises and butchers.

She also works through the Kane County Farm Bureau to bring legislators to the farm and, if they want to, ride a combine at harvest.

“For someone who has never ridden in a combine, it’s quite an experience,” she laughs. “I love agriculture, and I love sharing it with others. Everyone eats, and everyone cares about their food, but not many are fortunate to have the background or knowledge about it. That’s where we come in.”

She says she is constantly thinking of new opportunities to share that knowledge.

“When I go to the Kane County fair, I will take one of the chickens or geese or rabbits and sit in the barn with it,” she says. “Kids will come by and I’ll ask if they want to pet it. At the same time, I’m talking to the parents about agriculture. I feel all those little opportunities make a difference.”

She and her husband, Bob, also help with a three-day Ag Day on the farm, inviting ag organizations to put up displays and give 3- to 5-minute talks for the more than 2,000 fourth graders who visit.

“That’s the primary thing – telling others about agriculture any way we can.”

About the Author: 
Charlyn Fargo grew up on a farm in central Illinois showing Shorthorn cattle and baking yeast breads in 4-H. She has bachelors’ degrees in agriculture communications and food from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in nutrition from Eastern Illinois University. She also is a registered dietitian. She and her husband, Brad Ware, live in Jacksonville.

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