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‘It wasn’t easy’: How dairywomen spanning generations and geography have made their mark on the industry

Karena Elliott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 23 November 2016
Lee Earl and Betty Rose Elliott

Fifty years ago, Betty Rose Elliott could sign the checks, but she had to send a man to pick up parts at the local implement dealership because they refused to sell to a woman.

Forty-five years ago, Ellen Jordan was referred to as an “FFA bunny” by the national news media when they covered the first females to attend the FFA National Convention. And just 15 years ago, John Marcoot advised his four daughters to get their college degrees and never come back to the farm.

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As long as men have milked cows, women have worked in the dairy industry. Today, they serve as partners of LLC corporations, as faculty members in prestigious colleges of agriculture and in every single aspect of the professional culture, both on and off the farm.

But for every success story, there are generations of women who blazed a trail and endured discrimination that is almost unimaginable today.

Roadblocks

When Betty Rose Elliott’s husband was killed in a farming accident in 1966, the city girl took over their western Kentucky dairy operation and continued to farm solo for more than 30 years. “The men didn’t expect her to make it,” recalls her son Kent Elliott. “Honestly, I think they wanted her to give up,” adds his sister Sherry Elliott Ross.

Linda Hodorff, doug hodorff and clint Hodortt

Linda Hodorff, CFO and assistant CEO of Hodorff Enterprises, never felt hindered by women’s issues until her Cornell University dairy judging team (the first to be all female) earned silver tie tacks at the 1974 national contest.

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Then she adds, “Two agricultural companies I had dreamed of working for following graduation were not accepting applications from women for field positions.”

Ellen Jordan, professor and extension dairy specialist for Texas A&M, was the first dairy specialist in the nation when she was hired by West Virginia University in 1981. “My first day on the job in West Virginia, one faculty member told me I’d never succeed, as the dairy wives would run me out,” she candidly shares.

“In the end, the wives [in West Virginia] were very supportive and frequently would say they were glad to see a woman in my role.”

Today, Cindy Chapin farms in Weldona, Colorado. “Cindy’s biggest challenge as an owner of a dairy has been that some of the employees don’t want a woman telling them what to do,” admits her husband and co-owner, Foy.

“But with her convincing strength, they soon accept she is one of their bosses.”

Cindy understands the skepticism, but she refuses to accept it. “Some people are just shocked when they see me in a corral sorting heifers,” she says. “I’ve been told by men that their wives stay home and bake cookies. Well, I do that too.”

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Elliott, Hodorff, Jordan and Chapin didn’t give up. They became trailblazers in a male-dominated industry. But it wasn’t easy.

Acceptance

“My first mentor was Mr. Petrowich, my high school vo-ag teacher,” recalls Jordan. “Despite other vo-ag teachers asking him why he didn’t leave the girl at home or keep her in her place, he let me compete and succeed in vo-ag contests.

It taught me there would always be those that were skeptical, but what you do overcomes their negativism.”

“I was eager to learn and help when needed, but I have never had a specific job,” Chapin says. “I have milked the cows, fed the babies, pushed feed with a snow shovel, raked hay, ran for parts, pushed a lot of paper, changed tires and gone to A.I. school.”

The Chapins milk 2,000 cows on two dairies, and all four of their adult children are now involved in the operation, including two daughters.

“I credit my parents with stretching my mind to learn about the wide range of careers in agriculture,” Hodorff says. “And I credit my first two bosses, Earl Feinman in Cooperative Extension, and Pete Blodgett at Carnation Genetics, for their leadership in hiring me.

In addition to being mentors, I learned in later years how they worked behind the scenes to enhance cooperation among co-workers and plan for safety while I traveled on the job.”

Although they are farmers first, these women also learned the importance of economics in dairy operations. “After Mother died, people in our community told me they admired her for how she managed not only the farm but also that she was a great business woman who could make good decisions,” recounts Betty Rose’s daughter, Cindy Elliott O’Daniel.

Because of these pioneers, young women like Marcia Itle O’Connor, technical sales manager for Feed Components, maintains, “I can honestly say that I cannot think of a big challenge that I have faced on the farm,” when asked about career struggles because she was a woman.

Amy Marcoot, president of Marcoot Jersey Farm Inc. in Greenville, Illinois, agrees with O’Connor. “We certainly have challenges that are related to the fact that we are women,” she answers. “However, I don’t really view these challenges as set apart from other challenges we might have.”

Amy and her sister, Beth, returned to the family farm six years ago when their father, John Marcoot, began planning his retirement and considered selling the cows. Today, the women milk a herd of 70 registered Jerseys in addition to launching a new creamery.

With the help of a third woman, cheesemaker Audie Wall, they are producing award-winning farmstead and artisan cheeses.

“I found most dairy producers quickly accepted you once you showed you were capable,” Jordan says. “My mother always said, ‘Don’t tell Ellen she can’t – because she’ll show you she can.’ I guess that’s why I’ve always used any negative as positive motivation.”

In addition to mentoring, networking has been a key tool embraced by these dairy professionals.

Hodorff connected with a women’s local ag peer group beginning in the 1980s. Between 2000 and 2012, she attended or worked with three International Forum for Women in Dairying conferences.

“A valuable annual lunch and networking event is the World Dairy Expo Dairywomen of the Year,” she points out. Hodorff also participates in the University of Wisconsin’s Association of Women in Agriculture.

“I have connected with other women in the dairy industry through a group called the ‘Dairy Girl Network’,” adds O’Connor. In addition to a strong Facebook presence, the relatively new organization initiated a family lounge at this year’s World Dairy Expo to assist young moms and hosted their first national conference in Minneapolis this fall.

“I appreciate the networks women in agriculture have helped to create,” notes Marcoot. “I think we can encourage one another and continue to work hard to build a great reputation for our industry.”

Leadership

Hodorff, O’Connor, Marcoot, Jordan and Chapin have embraced leadership roles within the dairy industry and agree that consumer issues are among the most critical they will face in the coming years.

Hodorff is a former member of the Holstein USA Board of Directors. She helped found the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Livestock ID Consortium and the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge. She says, “I challenge growing dairy farms and agri-businesses to assure fair access to leadership for qualified women.”

Jordan helped develop HeatSynch and played leadership roles in establishing the Texas Animal Nutrition Council and the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council. “I get a great deal of satisfaction from helping people succeed and work through problems,” she explains.

A widespread problem each of these women is tackling is agricultural advocacy.

“Educating consumers about where their milk comes from is important to us,” emphasizes O’Connor. In addition to her professional sales career, O’Connor continues to work with her home farm, a 200-cow dairy and creamery near Cresson, Pennsylvania.

Vale Wood Farms hosts numerous events throughout the year that welcome the public, including thousands of schoolchildren. O’Connor even ran the Boston Marathon as a member of the “Eat Beef” team in order to capitalize on the opportunity to address the role of beef and dairy products in an elite runner’s nutrition.

“Many people don’t exactly understand what being a dairy farmer means or what we do,” Marcoot says. From “Moovies on the Farm” serving fried cheese curds to “Graze in the Grass: A Farm-to-Fork Experience,” the Marcoot sisters also carve out time for tours and regular public events. She stresses, “We need to respect that our customers want to learn about what we do.”

Jordan agrees. “Consumer perceptions of our industry are going to be a major challenge, and we need to take that as an opportunity to be the face of the industry,” she says. “We can lead if we get out in front of issues and provide direction.”

Advice

Work hard, earn your roles, take risks, step into leadership, develop professional friendships, humbly take feedback, visit every dairy you can and let the negatives roll off your back. This is the advice for young women from these amazing dairy producers. And figure out a way to balance work and family.

“I recently got married,” O’Connor says. “My husband and I have already talked about how we are going to balance work life and family.” For now, she appreciates that a sales role allows her the flexibility to make her own schedule.

For family-owned operations that want to involve adult children, consider the advice of Chapin. “I gave up helping outside when my oldest daughter had a baby,” she shares.

“My time was better spent allowing her to help at the dairy and me watching Jayden.” While this challenge is almost unique to women on family farms, it’s a crucial decision in order to invest in the next generation.

It won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

Some of these women came to the dairy profession by choice, some by marriage and some by tragedy. Some were raised on farms. Some were city girls. However, they are united in hard work and the inability to take “no” for an answer.

They see challenges simply as mountains that must be climbed, so they keep putting one foot in front of the other until they reach their goal. Then they look for the next mountain.  end mark

Karena Elliott is an international freelance writer. She lives in Amarillo, Texas. Her mother-in-law was Betty Rose Elliott and was the inspiration for this piece.

PHOTO 1: Lee Earl Elliott brought city girl Betty Rose Young home to dairy in 1942. She dairy farmed solo for 30 years following the death of her husband in 1966. 

PHOTO 2: Today, Linda co-owns Second Look Holsteins LLC in Eden, Wisconsin, with her husband, Doug, and Doug’s son Corey and his wife, Tammy. Pictured from left to right are Linda Hodorff, Doug Hodorff and Clint Hodorff. Photo by Ray Merritt.

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