Women Driving Innovation at Barton Ag Research Center
CAPE GIRARDEAU, MISSOURI., Feb. 6, 2015 – In a largely male-dominated sector, Dr. Julie Weathers and Dr. Indi Braden are lacing up their boots and breaking the glass ceiling as female co-faculty members leading the operation of the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center (ARC) at Southeast Missouri State University.
Southeast’s ARC is one of the few university level research facilities in the Midwest and Mid-South with women at the helm, said Dr. Mike Aide, chair of the Department of Agriculture at Southeast. The two have a leadership role in both the operational and budgetary management of the center.
“Regardless of gender, these two individuals share three common traits: they’re competent researchers, they’re effective administrators and they care about the professional outreach of this property to our agricultural community,” Aide said.
Weathers is in her fifth year as the Department of Agriculture’s animal scientist, teaching coursework focused on cattle, hogs and sheep. Her leadership role includes working with the beef herd and providing outreach to the beef producers of southeast Missouri. Raised on a small, family farm in Texas and the daughter of an agricultural sciences teacher in a lineage of educators, Weathers says she came by the profession naturally.
She downplays gender as a factor in her agricultural success, pointing instead to a natural curiosity as the underlying contributor.
“You have to want to know why you’re feeding this, why did you breed that bull, why did you choose to go with those genetics, why did you choose to do rotational grazing versus just a stationary pasture,” she said. “If you don’t have the questions, you’re never going to improve your farm, you’re never going to grow as an agriculturalist.”
Braden, who was raised on a farm in Russellville, Missouri, is in her 12th year of teaching agronomy, plant and soil science, sustainable agriculture and precision agriculture courses at Southeast. The granddaughter of a dairy farmer who served as a Missouri state representative and Lincoln University educator, and the daughter of a farmer, Braden says agriculture is in her blood. Her family milked 97 jersey cows, she said, until the mid-1980s when prices soured.
“So we got out of dairy and did mostly beef,” Braden said, adding her family raised crops along with livestock. “I grew up on corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, sorghum-sudan. You name it; we grew it. We also had hay pastures as well, so we put up hay. I had an upbringing in agriculture. I grew up on a farm and learned to love it that way.”
She wouldn’t have it any different, she said, despite the obstacles women in agriculture face.
“I know there are certain personalities and tradition that your role is to be in the kitchen and that your role is to cook and clean, but that’s not my personality,” Braden said. “So I’m okay with pushing some barriers sometimes, even if it’s a challenge. But it is a challenge. You have some very stubborn-minded people who are stuck in their traditional roles, and sometimes it’s a very difficult task.”
She says her success has been driven by “that determination that comes with agriculture. It’s that science and the art in agriculture that you have to work with Mother Nature, you have to work with what the weather is, you have to work with the technology that’s available for that day and you have to work with being outside,” Braden said.
Braden and Weather say barriers for women pursuing agricultural careers are gradually fading. Many have had a behind-the-scenes role for years, writing checks and keeping the books for their family farms. But now many women are outliving their husbands or inheriting farming operations from their father, evolving into more visible roles directing their family farm, Braden said.
“There is still a common misconception, not even so much in the agricultural industry, more in the public that to be a farmer and to raise cattle you have to be a man — that you could be a farmer’s wife or that you could help with little things around the farm, but to actually raise cattle, or to actually raise a crop that you have to be male,” Weathers said. “And that is slowly but surely changing in the animal science department here at Southeast. We are at least 70 percent female” now, she said. “So I think it’s becoming more accepted that females are going to be a driving force in American agriculture.”
For decades, many farmers have bypassed their daughters, leaving the family farm to a son-in-law. That practice is beginning to change, Weathers said.
“And that’s great,” she said. “I think that we’re starting to see that women can start to take over the family farm in a more public viewpoint.
“I do think that we are moving more towards seeing women on tractors, out in the fields, making those more public management decisions,” Weathers said. “And a lot of that I think has to do with the fact that it’s becoming more socially acceptable.”
She says women are becoming more prevalent in operating agricultural research centers in the United States in the Northeast and many dairy farms in the western and northern United States are female operated.
“But here in the Midwest, we tend to be a little more traditional and it tends to be male-oriented. So we don’t see a lot of females running an ag research center” here yet, Weathers said.
She and Braden are leading the charge at Southeast, though, saying they are proud of the research and work they lead at the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center, located one and one-half miles south of Gordonville, Missouri, off of Highway 25.
Braden recently collaborated with faculty from Kansas State University to conduct a canola variety trial. Cover crop plots were established over the last couple of years to serve as a demonstration for area farmers interested in seeing what the benefits are from cover crops. They also served as a primer for soil health, she said, providing valuable information on how to manage soil health to prevent erosion. Cover crops are plants seeded into fields and allowed to grow during or between seasons, resulting in benefits for the environment and for the land.
She also spearheaded, with the help of students, a riparian management zone, along Williams Creek. It is a 100-foot plant buffer in a row crop area with a sub-surface irrigation tile drainage system. A field was leveled in this area to control and evaluate irrigation water movement and drainage and its magnitude. The plant buffer, Braden says, is 75 feet of trees and shrubs native to this area and with characteristics that fit the soil – swamp white oaks, burr oaks, walnuts, pecans, elderberries, wild plums, and redbuds. The buffer also provides a food source for wildlife. She also experimented with a 25-foot buffer strip of native vegetative grasses, including switchgrass and native wild flowers.
She continually conducts soybean studies, examining fungicides, gypsum lime, potash and fertilizers and focuses on connecting students to their food sources. Her “Precision Agriculture” course examines new technologies such as soil electroconductivity meters, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the use of non-piloted vehicles in crop scouting.
“I can fly a non-piloted vehicle or drone over the area and take pictures and not have to walk through the whole thing,” Braden said.
She says she enjoys working with land owners on conservation research – studying water, air and soil quality.
Meanwhile, Weathers’ research focuses on cattle reproduction and genetics, she said, explaining that the center’s herd generally consists of about 60 cows and 60 calves.
“Last year, we had a student who studied differences in conception rates from different breeding trials,” she said. “We have a student who is currently working on a project about the differences in weather compared to conception rates.”
A breeding project currently has been undertaken in which two smoky calves – each with a quarter Simmental and a quarter angus genes — were bred with a charolais bull.
“We’re trying to bring out more changes in the genetic pattern to see them be a heavier boned, heavier muscled animal,” Weathers said.
Both women say that involving students in ongoing research efforts at the center is imperative.
“I don’t do any project unless it involves my students,” Braden said, pointing to her desire to challenge young agricultural minds. “My classroom isn’t just sitting in a classroom with the chalkboard or the dry erase board or PowerPoints. My classroom is here. I can show them if we have herbicide damage and weeds that have caused problems. I can show them if we have plants developing. We can talk about the stages of those plants and help them identify that for their own farms. I can challenge them to look at things” and explore possibilities.
The opportunity for students to get hands-on experience sets Southeast’s agriculture program apart from others, Weathers says.
“We have students out here at the farm, with the livestock. If you’re taking a horse science class, you’re out here with the horses every time you meet with that class. And so we’re giving our students the availability to actually be able to handle the livestock and combine it with the agribusiness core, so they can do accounting, they can do sales, they can do marketing. All of our students walk away with that.
“Our animal science students also walk away with the ability to do something with the livestock,” she added. “If you look at your traditional agribusiness core or if you just get an agribusiness degree, you may not have taken a class that actually took you out to a farm. And so you may be able to do marketing, sales, accounting, all the business aspects, but you may not be able to actually do anything with the livestock or the plants. And our curriculum, the way it’s set up and the way it’s designed, you can do both. And that makes our students very marketable.”
About three to five students are regularly employed at the center, but many more students are exposed to the farm through their coursework, including as many as 150 in the animal science program.
“We come out here a few times a year to get the people acquainted with cattle because not everyone grows up with large animals,” she said.
This spring, Weathers is teaching an “Animal Handling” course that meets once a week entirely at the Barton Center. The class is for students with no practical large animal experience, or maybe only experience with horses, she said.
“Cattle and horses move differently,” Weathers said. “They react differently to stimulus, they’re different animals. We do different things, learning how to move animals from a pasture up to a pen. We learn how to move them through the head shoot” and how to separate one animal from the group to administer medication.
“It’s very useful if you don’t have experience with cattle because they get to learn how to handle these animals,” Weathers said. “And one of the things that we really like from that class is that they get to experience one-on-one time with the livestock. It’s also very helpful for any of our pre-vets because to get into vet school you have to have large animal experience and small animal experience.
“For a lot of students, coming out here and facing a 700-pound calf is kind of frightening — especially when you get to the big cows that can be 1,400 pounds – that’s very frightening because you know that they’re stronger than you are,” Weathers said. “And so it’s a good experience for those students because they actually get to handle those animals and see them interact in a calm manner so that they can go to a vet clinic and they’re not scared of them.”
After five years at Southeast, Weathers says she is most proud of the evolution of the curriculum in the Department of Agriculture.
“When I first got here, if you wanted to be out at the farm with the cattle, you pretty much had to work out here,” she said. “And now I have classes out here at least once a week.
“We’ve changed the program trying to offer a few more animal science courses. Our program has grown tremendously in the last five years, not just in animal science but agribusiness in general has grown, and as the program grows, we’ve had to accommodate more interests and varying interests of people and our student population,” she said.
More field trips are being offered to expose students to differences in agriculture and the opportunities available, Weathers said.
Interest in the discipline is mushrooming, she said, “because agriculture is never going to go away. We are always going to have the need to have food and have fiber in the United States. One of my favorite quotes is that, ‘unless you’re hungry and naked, you’re involved in agriculture.’ There’s truth in that statement,” Weathers said. “And it doesn’t matter if they want to move to California or if they want to stay here in southeast Missouri, there are jobs in agriculture, and they are always going to be there. Agribusiness is a growing field, and it’s becoming more technologically advanced. It’s becoming more science minded because you really have to think through the decisions you’re making. It’s no longer just, ‘oh we own a couple of cows and farm a couple of acres.’ That’s not an option if you want to make a living anymore.”
With nearly a dozen years in under her belt at Southeast, Braden says watching her students cultivate their agricultural knowledge keeps her coming back for more.
“You see them grow, you see them change, and then we push them off successfully hopefully to a job where they’re making a whole lot of money, and they’re happy, and they’re choosing a job that fits to their personality, that fits to who they are. That makes me happy, that we see them succeed.”
And thanks to Braden and Weathers, perhaps with each passing year, just a few more of those agricultural successes will include women.