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Women’s work: Operating equipment isn't just for the boys

Jennifer Bradley Published on 02 April 2015

Lori Butler

Jennifer Warner from New Holstein, Wisconsin, may have spent five years in the U.S. Air Force, but on her family farm is where she is most comfortable and can be found today. She isn’t afraid to drive a tractor alongside her male counterparts, either.

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“I just loved working outside,” she says. “I missed being around my family, working with them. They still had room for me, so I came back.”

A couple of years later in 2004, she was brought in as part of an LLC and named calf manager at Lisowe Acres LLC, a fourth-generation farm that milks 700 cows and has approximately 1,200 acres.

Lori Butler is only 26 and laughs when she explains how she usually makes people glance again when they see her driving a tractor down the road or through the yard.

“Feed representatives or different people tend to stare a lot,” she says. “Right now we're building a grain center, and these guys have been here for a few weeks; every time I go by, they keep looking at me.”

Butler is the feed manager at her third-generation family farm in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, Paul Dotterer and Sons Dairy Farm.

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This central Pennsylvanian operation milks about 900 cows and raises slightly more than 3,000 acres of crops each year. Butler went to college for environmental biology and studied abroad in France. After graduation in 2010, she moved back to the farm and sent out resumes.

“I started back on the farm just to have a job until I got a ‘big girl’ job,” laughs Butler. “The longer I stayed, the more responsibilities my dad gave me. I think it was a trick up his sleeve the entire time, and it worked because I haven’t left yet.”

Day-to-day tasks

Butler moves feed carts every day and can be found there or on the loader. She says her dad was always involved more on the crop side of the farm, so it was a natural progression for her.

"If I'm in the milking parlor, that means something is wrong," Butler says. In the summer, she drives the merger behind the tractor in the fields and is one of the main operators. She also likes to drive tractor trailer, hauling silage.

Butler’s brother taught her to merge rows, and she says it took her a while to get the hang of it. The following season, however, the main merger operator left the farm, and she was making fewer mistakes than the new guy.

“He made me look really good,” she jokes. “Now it’s just a challenge to be more efficient every time I drive in the field.”

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What’s her goal when it comes to equipment? The chopper, of course. “The combine is my brother’s thing, and I don’t think we’ll ever be able to kick him out,” Butler says. “But we have two choppers, and only the higher-ups get to run them. If I ever graduate to chopper, that would be the cream of the crop!”

Lori Butler and tractor

Warner says she’s been behind the wheel since the days before she could drive a car, at 10 to 12 years old. She started on a little tractor raking hay or driving the stone wagon, then hauling loads of silage. She says all of her aunts knew how to drive a tractor, and it's the way her family grew up too.

“We all just help wherever it's needed,” Warner notes.

These days, she cultivates fields, cuts hay and, like Butler, operates the merger. She also crushes rocks in the fields, a process that, in addition to reducing the size of rocks and minimizing damage to equipment, mixes the soils together with the crushed rock to allow for better drainage.

She is the "watchwoman" for the manure pumps during irrigation season and in charge of bringing seed and fertilizer to her dad on the corn planter.

She also does hauling, but not on the 18-wheeler quite yet. “My next goal is to be a semi driver, but I’m not that far,” Warner explains. “We always have enough people, but if the need arises, I’m sure going to learn pretty quick!”

Stories from the field

Operating heavy equipment comes with its challenges too. Warner says a wagon jack-knifed on her once while going downhill, and while it was scary, she learned what to do or not do if it ever happens again.

This incident only drives her to learn more about the equipment, so if something breaks, she doesn’t have to rely on someone else to come fix it.

“I’d like to step up and prove myself a little,” she says, but explains she also has to come home and feed calves, and worry about the other tasks in her main job description.

“Then I think, ‘I already have enough on my plate; if something breaks, they can fix it,’” she laughs.

Hills are a challenge in Pennsylvania too. Butler says her truck was acting funny while going uphill, and then it just stopped on the road. This was after her dad said she’d have plenty of fuel to get back.

“I was just so scared and didn’t know what to do and was hollering on the radio,” she says. “Someone did help me coast down. Yup, it was out of fuel! My dad didn’t think it was a big deal, and here I am almost crying.”

Jenny Warner and children

A woman’s world

Regardless of the learning moments, both women agree that being a part of a family farm and working in the fields is a big deal, an awesome way to be a role model to other women and just a lot of fun!

Both of their husbands are not farmers, and that’s just fine with these farm girls. Warner’s husband is an insurance adjuster for American Family Insurance, and she says he doesn’t mind his wife working so hard, but the long, sometimes unpredictable hours can be a challenge.

Butler says she knows a handful of women who operate equipment, but the topic doesn't come up a lot in her circle of close friends.

“They don’t really understand what I do,” she says. “They just know I live and work on a farm.” She feels proud to be working alongside the men on the farm and earning their respect too. “Not only am I running the equipment, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” she says.

Warner echoes that sentiment. “It makes me feel like I’m part of the team,” she says. “I love being outside in the fresh air with the sun shining.” She believes women don’t have to settle and should try new things. “Step up and say, ‘Give me a chance.’ I don’t think a lot of women do that,” she says.

So, this is the message she’s committed to living out for her teenaged daughter, who is very proud of her tractor-driving mom. Warner has a teenaged son as well, and both help on the family farm.

“I don’t think anyone ever says, ‘Let’s not consider Jenny because she’s a woman.’ More likely, they are thinking it doesn’t matter; just get someone out here,” she concludes with a laugh.

Heading into spring, you can find these women getting ready to help in the fields. It’s just another day of work on the farm. PD

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

PHOTOS
PHOTO 1: Lori Butler farms with her family in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, and spends most of her days feeding animals.

PHOTO 2: Lori Butler is the feed manager at her third-generation family farm in Pennsylvania and helps with merging and hauling silage.

PHOTO 3: Jennifer Warner and her children work together at the fourth-generation family farm, Lisowe Acres, in New Holstein, Wisconsin. Photos provided by Jennifer Warner and Lori Butler.

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