Women in Farming are Able to Adapt
By Lynette Cockerell
Editor’s note: The following is the first installment of a story about four women who manage farming operations.
More women are entering the world of work outside the home than ever before, and a number of them have chosen to sit in a tractor cab rather than an office cubicle. Production agriculture is the preferred career of several women on the Texas High Plains; women who are able to adapt to the unpredictability of farming and can operate all the machines of the trade from microwaves to module builders.
Farming has always been a way of life for Vivian McClaren, a cotton and grain sorghum producer near Lorenzo, Texas. As a young girl, she helped her father on the family farm subconsciously gathering knowledge that would give her a head start in her future career as a farmer.
Vivian and her husband, Bill, started their own farming operation in 1974, a year after they got married, and the division of labor in the McClaren household was considered a bit unorthodox almost 30 years ago in the small town of Lorenzo. Because Bill McClaren is visually impaired, Vivian decided to assume the bulk of the farming responsibilities while he took care of the couple’s two children. They believe working side-by-side for 28 years has strengthened their marriage and reinforced their friendship – they are a team.
“We really take a lot of flack for our decision to raise our family and operate our business the way we have, but it has worked well for us,” Vivian says.
The McClarens believe there is no better place than the farm to raise children. Although son Billy, 15, is an aspiring musician often busy practicing his music, and Audra, 24, is enjoying the hectic life of an animal science major at Texas Tech University, the two pitch in when help is needed on the farm.
“Both of my kids can operate most of the farm machinery we own, and we’ve raised them to be very independent and self-sufficient,” Vivian says. “I have the best kids in the world,” she proudly adds.
While Vivian now keeps an eye on 150 head of cattle and farms 1,500 acres of cotton and grain sorghum, she had a great deal to learn in the beginning. She credits most of what she knows about farming to her husband and his father; men who were creative in their teaching techniques.
“Because they realized I got nervous and messed up when I knew they were watching me work in the field, Bill and his dad would park about a mile away and watch me through their binoculars,” Vivian recalls. “I’ve really come a long way since then,” she laughs.
A passion for knowledge and the courage to try anything at least once have contributed to Vivian’s success as a farmer. As most operators of small farms who strive to save as much money as possible, Vivian has learned to repair her own farm equipment. Her husband often diagnoses mechanical problems and lifts heavy objects for her, but it is up to Vivian to complete the repairs. She cannot fix the internal problems of an engine but is able to return the rest of her machinery back to working order, she confesses with a grin. Vivian also gains an overwhelming sense of satisfaction through watching the crops she plants reach maturity.
“I enjoy competing against myself and attempt to make each year’s crop even better than the last,” she says. Although she finds her career very rewarding, Vivian feels some pressure from her peers.
“As a woman, I’m under more scrutiny than the other farmers in my area,” Vivian says. “I feel like I have to perform 110 percent better just to be considered equal to the men. My rows always have to be straight.” Vivian certainly has gained the respect of many people in the farming industry including Susan Sechrist, the office manager at Owens Coop Gin.
“Vivian is just incredible. She’s not only a hard working woman, but a lovely person,” Sechrist says.
Often, many people do not associate women with farming which sets the stage for misunderstandings and confusing situations and can make a quick stop at the local convenience store an interesting experience.
“One time, I stopped at the store after a long day in the field and the clerk at the counter said I looked tired,” Vivian remembers. “I told her I was exhausted after stripping all day. The cashier knew exactly what I meant, but the lady in line behind me took a step back in surprise,” she says with a chuckle. Despite an occasional humorous misinterpretation of her occupation, Vivian cannot imagine herself in any other profession.
“I’m sure I could get a job in town or something, but I can’t think of anything that would be this rewarding,” she concludes.
Vicki Davis Patschke
“When I was growing up, my father never dreamed of letting his little girl drive a tractor. After I took over the farm, I had to begin learning the business at the most basic level,” Vicki says. “I am living proof that with perseverance a person can learn this unpredictable profession and strive to be successful,” she remarks.
With the help of only one employee, Vicki oversees a combination of dryland and irrigated cotton totaling 750 acres. Vicki’s husband, Michael, also is a farmer but their farms are operated independently with separate farm equipment, field hands and financing. “We are a two farm family,” Vicki jokes.
The couple enjoys working in the same profession and often share farming information and advice. Vicki is assertive enough to ask questions in order to make educated decisions when diversifying her farming operation.
“Most people are more than willing to share their knowledge if you just ask; therefore, I’m not afraid to go down to the gin and ask some of the more experienced farmers a few questions” Vicki says. “I’ve found that everyone has a unique way of farming, and with my own touches, coupled with advice gleaned from others, results in a way of doing things that works really well for me,” she adds. This season, Vicki harvested the first bale of cotton delivered to Acuff-McClung Coop Gin.
“Vicki really is devoted to her work. In fact, she has brought us the first bale of the season several different years,” says Ernestine Stennett, Acuff-McClung Coop’s bookkeeper. Vicki believes discovering new techniques to make money to increase her bottom line in years where cotton prices have been lower than usual has been the most challenging part of her career.
“You have to be flexible enough with your farming operation to be able to do what is necessary to cut corners without affecting the quality or yield of the crop,” she says.
Diversification also can be important in a farming operation, according to Vicki. In addition to cotton, the Patschkes grow vegetables in their garden to sell at a local farmers’ market.
“It’s becoming more difficult to make a living in the ag industry and our vegetable sales clear a profit. It’s a small profit, but a profit nonetheless,” Vicki says. “I do what it takes to stay in business,” she adds.
A fourth generation farmer, Vicki still produces cotton on a portion of the land her great-grandfather purchased from the State of Texas in 1903. Because she is proud of her heritage and hopes to share the history of agriculture with future generations, Vicki serves on the Board of Directors of the Agriculture Heritage Museum raising funds and collecting farm equipment. Once the committee’s financial goals are met, the museum will be erected near the American Wind Power Center on East Broadway in Lubbock, Texas. Call 806-842-3274 for more information about donating funds, farm equipment, or volunteering your time to the Agriculture Heritage Museum.
Vicki also serves on the State Board of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (TBWEF) as a representative from the Southern High Plains Caprock Zone. The zone encompasses more than 1.2 million acres of cotton, making it the largest boll weevil eradication zone in the world. In addition to her farming responsibilities and her work with TBWEF, Vicki is active in Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE), active at St. Paul Lutheran Church, and volunteers in the Women’s Building at the South Plains Fair in Lubbock.
“The Texas High Plains is the largest cotton patch in the world. Lubbock depends on agriculture for its economic well being, so it is important to do all we can to promote the growth of the industry,” Vicki says.
The job description of each woman in farming may vary; however, their goals are the same – to make a crop in order to make a living. Although the common stereotype of the American farmer does not include tennis shoes, hairspray and a hint of lipstick, that might change due to a handful of women farmers on the Texas High Plains.