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‘We can do it!’: The story of the Cruze Farm Girls

Callie Curley Published on 19 November 2015
Cruze Farm Girls

It’s no secret. Farming requires a great deal of time, energy, know-how and heavy lifting.

Who knew it could all be done in a gingham dress?

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For Colleen Cruze Bhatti of Cruze Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, farming has never been just about the day-to-day labor or turning a large profit. She has built a name for herself and her farm – one that draws attention from both fellow farmers and non-farming community members alike.

“Farming has this reputation as being very hard work, which it is, but also for being strictly a ‘man’s job,’ which it most certainly is not,” Bhatti says. “Women, especially [those] who didn’t grow up in farming, are intimidated by the idea of getting involved.”

The Cruze Farm website features a particularly unique mission statement: “We are not just a dairy farm, but we are a movement inspiring women all over the world that we can farm.”

While the farm doesn’t operate solely on “girl power” (three of the seven employees are male), Bhatti notes that female empowerment is a large part of what does get accomplished on the farm. This may be, in part, a tribute to the women in her family who have inspired her to be a part of agriculture and of the family farm – most notably, her mother and grandmother.

Bhatti’s grandmother, Louise Cruze, grew up on the farm and was known for milking cows while wearing a dress.

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“Probably even more than my grandma, my mom has inspired me,” Bhatti says. “When my parents got married, my mom had no farm background at all. One day, my dad told her he had always wanted to bottle his own milk, and she said, ‘Well, what’s stopping you?’ Together, they built a milk processing plant in their first year of marriage and got a state license to sell milk.”

As a fifth-generation dairy farmer working alongside her father, Earl, mother, Cheri, and husband of two years, Manjit, as well as their seven employees, Bhatti says family is an integral part of life on Cruze Farm.

“Growing up on the farm, I never realized how much I would miss it until I went to college and moved away,” Bhatti says. “Now, I can’t imagine a better job than caring for cows, bottling milk and making our own ice cream.”

Bhatti’s love for ice cream is what brought her back to the farm after earning a degree in agriculture science from the University of Tennessee. She recognized an opportunity to build the business her parents had started with the processing plant, and she began by hiring some female classmates who were interested in working on the farm.

“It is an interesting atmosphere to have a group of girls working on the farm,” Bhatti says.

After the employees came the uniforms – gingham shirt dresses with handmade aprons and red head scarves – which simultaneously channel both her grandmother, Louise, and the women’s rights icon Rosie the Riveter, who, according to the Cruze Farm website, “told the world that ‘we can do it!’”

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“At first, I hoped the uniforms might help our booth stand out so more people would sample our milk and hopefully buy it too,” Bhatti says. “It worked!”

Affectionately dubbed the “Cruze Farm Girls,” the young women who are employed on Cruze Farm come from various backgrounds – some never having set foot on a farm.

“Since that first season after college, we have had a lot of girls spend their summer at the farm,” Bhatti says. “Of course, we have men working too.”

Cruze Farm baby and calf

A former Cruze Farm girl, Elisabeth Spratt is a graduate student in the agriculture, food and environment program in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, just outside of Boston. She has hopes of working in agricultural policy.

Spratt worked at Cruze Farm from January to August 2015 as she finished up her undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee, studying as a college scholar and taking an array of agriculture and animal science courses.

“Working on Cruze Farm was a blast. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had, but in all of the good ways,” Spratt says. “Every day on the farm I was reminded that I wasn’t living in a man’s world. When I was faced with a task I’d never done before, I had to stop for a moment and say, ‘You know what? There is no reason I can’t learn to do this!’ And then I would work my way through it.”

Although Spratt had no previous experience working with cows or on the farm, she came into the Cruze Farm Girls team as dairy manager, working in all areas of the farm, from processing to churning ice cream, to delivering milk, to lending a hand in the milking parlor and with heat checks.

“There was an enormous amount of work, but I never questioned why I was there,” Spratt says. “Colleen [Cruze Bhatti] inspired all of us to sort of think about and discuss gender roles and the perceptions people had of women running a farm.”

Spratt recalled a particular opportunity she had to share her inspiration with others, when a local girl scout troop asked to learn more about Cruze Farm.

“It felt so amazing to be able to talk to those girls about what I do, and about what they could all do one day,” Spratt says. “The work may be physically exhausting and mentally draining, but it is so worth it.”

Bhatti plans to continue inviting agriculture newcomers into the Cruze Farm Girls family.

“Our gingham dresses make people think of farming as this fun and glamorous lifestyle,” Bhatti says. “Because of that, so many women have worked on our farm who might have never even visited a farm. Once they get here, they see what being a dairy farmer is all about.”  PD

Callie Curley is a communications student at Penn State University – Berks campus.

PHOTO 1: The uniforms at Cruze Farms – gingham shirt dresses with handmade aprons and red head scarves – are meant to simultaneously channel both Colleen Cruze Bhatti’s grandmother, Louise Cruze, who milked cows while wearing a dress, and the women’s rights icon Rosie the Riveter.

PHOTO 2: Pictured here are two other Cruze Farm Girls, Amery Frances Bhatti, daughter to Colleen Cruze Bhatti, and a Jersey calf. Photos provided by Cruze Farm.

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