Julie Strauss Bettinger

The Fight in a Farm-Her

You’ll find them at all levels, sown in the fields of Southwest Georgia: Women who are making their mark in agriculture.

Their stories are as diverse as the crops they yield. Wiregrass Land & Living decided it was time to celebrate their strengths and determination, plus showcase the beauty they bring to the world of agriculture. These story portraits offer a glimpse of what it’s like to be a female in farming communities today.

Ragan Fretwell, Relationship Manager

“All the women I work with that are successful don’t sit around comparing themselves to men. They just get out and work hard because they have families to take care of, and that’s all they know. I had no idea about agriculture when I started 18 years ago. I didn’t even realize that a center pivot went in a circle. But I can go out and work with my peers and it doesn’t bother me that I’m usually the only woman around. At the end of the day, I know I’m giving my customers more than what they’ll get from my competitors.”

Billy Billings, Relationship Manager

“My mother, Lindy Savelle, has a citrus grove and nursery, Georgia Grown Citrus, LLC and also helped start the Georgia Citrus Association. She’s found more varieties of citrus that can make it in this climate. If you ask my mom’s husband, Perry, or me who we work for, we’ll tell you it’s her. (I’m an unpaid employee.) And I have many women-owned, women operated farms and ranches in just about every agriculture sector I cover. Women play a huge role in every good, successful farm.”

Mike Harris, Relationship Manager

“My wife Sara and I bought a farm in Lee County and manage 50 head of cattle. We’ve run as many as 200. We both have full-time jobs; she works as a Farm Loan Specialist at USDA/ Farm Service Agency. The reason we work so hard is because we want our three kids to be involved in agriculture. Our 11-yearold daughter took to the horses right away. Being a money man, it’s hard to allow that dream to keep draining the account, but I know that’s one thing she’ll stay with. What I want my daughter to know is that she can do anything in ag she wants to do; she does not have to be behind the scenes. Right now, she wants to go to vet school at Michigan State and intern with reality TV star ‘The Incredible Dr. Pol.’ That is her plan.”

Jan Jones

”Fifth generation farmer Jan Jones says she tries to learn from her dad and others to be a good steward of the land and her family’s legacy. “And leave my corner of the world better than I found it.”

I’m a fifth-generation farmer and our family’s been on the same land for 100 years. I work with my father, Jerry. My operation is Jan Jones Farm, and Dad’s is Jerry Jones Farm. I recently grew my acreage to 170, all non-irrigated, so I generally grow peanuts and cotton. This year I decided to grow corn, which is a pretty big risk.

I also have a herd of 30 commercial beef cows, and I’m very proud of them.

When I first began this career about eight years ago, I was very dependent on the relationships my dad has cultivated throughout his life, and I still am. Choosing to be a farmer was a big step into the unknown for me and having this supportive network of agricultural professionals has been crucial to my farm’s success.

I have branched out a bit and made a few additions of my own. In particular, there’s a local machinery and welding shop nearby whose owner has always taken an interest in what I’m doing on the farm. Mr. David was one of the first people to accept that I was a “real” farmer without any questions or skepticism.

Both of my grandmothers helped on their family farms. Witnessing their life-long hard work and dedication to helping their farms succeed has always inspired me to put the same amount of effort in whatever I do.

There have been many male farmers that have encouraged me. One that stands out is one of my neighbors, Mr. Kerry Dean.

There’s a dirt road that connects our farm to his, and there’s rarely a day that we don’t stop and “speak a while.” It would have been easy for Mr. Kerry to leave me out of those exchanges, but he never has; he’s always made me feel like an important part of the conversation.

I definitely had chores on the farm growing up. My sisters and I were the heads of the “Pigweed Pulling Crew” every summer, and we always picked, boiled, and sold peanuts at my uncles’ meat market, Jones Country Meats. I don’t remember helping with the day-to-day care of the livestock, but I do remember bottle-feeding a few calves whose mothers either couldn’t or wouldn’t nurse them. All of those chores and jobs—with the exception of weed pulling—were lessons in responsibility and dedication. (The only thing I learned from pulling pigweeds was that they were evil, monstrous weeds, and they still are.)

Dealing with the fallout from Hurricane Michael has been the biggest farming hurdle I’ve faced so far. The hardest and most discouraging part was that I (and many other farmers) had really good crops that year until the storm blew them all away. Instead of harvesting in a dusty peanut field, I bogged through mud until Thanksgiving, and I watched all of my cotton rot in its bolls. It was heartbreaking. But if I can a make it through that harvest season, I think I can make it through just about anything!

Every spring when I plant a seed in the ground, I’m taking a risk and saying a prayer that I’ll have a decent enough crop at harvest to keep the farm going year after year. Farming is a lesson in faith and hope that your seeds will sprout and grow plants that thrive, that you’ll get rain when you need it and sunshine when you don’t, and that the Lord will hold you in the palm of His hand throughout the year.

Linda Whigham

Raised on a farm, she thought there might be something better. But Linda Whigham says now, “There’s no better life than raising your kids on a farm. They learn things and don’t even realize they’re learning it.”

Me and my husband Johnny were both raised on a farm. We grew produce and I picked okra and squash and helped take it to the market. I fed cows in the afternoon, I did errands and hauled peanuts. I told Daddy I wasn’t going to do that when I got married. Then I wound up married to a farmer.

Johnny went to work for my daddy, who farmed several thousand acres. When we got married, he ventured out on his own. I went to cosmetology school and was a licensed hairdresser. My husband told me one day, “I need you on the farm.” It was quite a big transition.

My daddy never put me on a tractor, but I wound up on a tractor. We farmed about 34 years under the name J&L Farms. We grew corn, cotton and peanuts. Then my husband got sick with colon cancer in 1999. If it hadn’t been for our community, I don’t know what we would have done. They came and helped us get our crop in; whatever we needed, they were there for us.

We had a friend show up at our house, get on our tractor, and hook up the bottom plough. My son called and asked, “Where’s Daddy gonna put the peanuts this time? Where do we turn ground?”

There’s just not enough appreciation to let them know how you feel. They’d come and talk to him, trying to do it just like he wanted. He’s pretty picky on how he’d want it done. He could plant straight as an arrow; he didn’t need a GPS.

In 2005, he cut back and we farmed 50 acres at the house and both got jobs. I went into tractor sales and have been with Ag- Pro 15 years.

I wouldn’t take anything for being able to raise my kids on a farm. Both my kids know how to work. They learned responsibility. When my daughter or son came home from school, my daughter would get supper for us and son would get on a tractor; whatever he had to do.

Johnny and me were raised five miles apart. We’ll be married 50 years this October. We always got along good. When you’re pushed for time, trying to get crops in, you might get on each other’s nerve. But you can’t take everything personally. You’ve got to go to work, got to get it fixed.

There are a lot of husband/wife teams in this community. You have to have a determined personality. You have to be committed to do it and not let the ways of the world impact you. Year after year, you thrive and you put that seed in the ground and you tend it like your babies. When things turn out and you’re able to pay your bills back, that’s a good feeling.

You’ve got to have the want to and determination; you can’t fake this; you’ve got to be strong and trust your people. Every time you put that first seed in the ground, you’re gambling and praying that the good Lord is gonna take care of you and help you through this crop.

Even through the sickness my husband’s been through, the good Lord has taken care of us. We’re still here.

Megan Verner

When she finds female role models in farming, Megan Verner doesn’t idolize or compare. “I try to figure out how can I collaborate with her, be involved in her circle. More like, ‘How do I learn from her?’”

I grew up on a horse farm in Covington, Georgia. We had chickens, cats, dogs and we bred horses. I showed hunter/jumpers and I knew I wanted to live out in the country; I knew I wanted to marry a farmer.

I went to college in New Mexico on a full equestrian scholarship. Being a student athlete, I didn’t get to come home much. The last year or so, my dad kept telling me I should “come home and just marry Adam.” Dad bought hay from Adam’s family farm; they were the largest hay reseller in the area. They also had about 300 mama cows and two chicken houses.

My senior year when I came home for a visit, Dad let himself run out of hay, so that’s how I met Adam. We’ve been married 10 years and we’ve been together 12.

When Adam’s family farm sold, we bought cows out of our dispersal. We’ve got 25 acres and lease property. Our VF Livestock is mainly cows, registered Hereford and registered angus. We have four donor cows right now that we’re flushing and putting in embryos. Adam and I are really particular about our cattle, we only want to push out the best.

I’ve had a lot of part-time jobs. One of them was selling twoyear- old bulls. The guys started calling me directly and after a
while, they didn’t even come in anymore, they just let me pick out their bulls.

A group of us cattle producers had a sale together. The gentleman handling it wanted to retire, so Adam and I decided we could do it. We had 60 bulls we were in charge of for six months, with the sale in November. The next year, Adam took a job away from the farm and I had to learn on the fly about taking care of all these bulls by myself. These were all male producers and here I am the only female, taking care of all their bulls. There was a lot of testing and a lot of tears along the way. But I did it through perseverance.

I learned that from an early age. My fifth-grade year, I could no longer hide my learning disability. I feel like my whole life’s been hard because of it, I don’t know how to do it any other way. If it wasn’t for horses and my parents, I would not be who I am today.

Right now, I teach at a career academy and do bookkeeping for another farmer and do all the books for a tractor dealership where Adam is managing partner. And we have two little girls, a six-year-old and three-year-old. My husband jokes that he never knows on a daily basis where to find me.

My grandmother was an Iowa State Senator into her early 70s. My mom is also a super strong female. She’s made her mark helping nonprofits around the country. She’s 71 and still working full-full time, easily 16 hours a day.

My Dad also encouraged me growing up. If you talked to him for five seconds, he’d be pulling out the phone to show you pictures of me and my favorite horses.

I was involved in every aspect of the horses, including vet care. I practice on the cows what I learned from them. One thing we’ve found is if cows are more comfortable, we get a better embryo. When I noticed some were lame (joint pain), I told our vet, “We inject horse stifles, why not inject cow stifles?” It worked.

The way I look at it, these ladies give their all to us, we should give back to them.

Traci Erickson

So many in the current generation don’t understand how much agriculture drives the world. Traci Erickson believes farmers and ranchers deserve better. “I can’t imagine living a life where I don’t pass that on and instill that in our children. It’s up to us.”

My husband Marty and I both work full time jobs in ag. He’s a feed production manager, doing custom mixing, and I work full time as a finance manager in the ag division for Flint Equipment Company.

We launched our own cattle operation, E3 Cattle, last year. We own about 20 acres of land now with 10 head. I look back and think, How crazy are we, starting in a pandemic? But it was now or never.

I came from an extended farming family in the Moultrie area. Marty grew up in cattle, went to the University of Florida and has a degree in animal science. He’s worked at a dairy; all he’s known is cattle.

When we got married, we knew what we wanted to do— it’s our passion. We wanted to build on it to pass on to the next generation. We have five boys, twins age 24, a 20-year-old, one thirteen-year-old and one nine.

With our cattle operations, Marty and I have always had that mutual respect between us. We talk about everything that goes on with it. We know our goals, we know where we’re headed. My husband is probably my biggest encourager. And with my positions at work, he’s constantly been my backer, “You can do this.”

My parents were not farmers, but I grew up a country girl in the Albany area. I knew I wanted to do something that involved ag. That’s who I was, that was my passion.

I came at a young age into the ag world. I started (at Flint) when I was 28. We have a lot of older generation farmers and even with the younger farmers, I was a newbie. It’s like two strikes: a young ‘un and a female.

Both the cattle operation and ag finance are a man’s world. You’ve got to fight to find your place in there. It takes a strong-willed person to live and make it work and gain respect.

After I work all day with men, I go home and am with my boys. All I had was a sister. I went from one sister to nothing but boys. But we have chickens and they’re my girls. It’s just, “Can I please get a female in here somehow?”

My biggest role model was my mom. This year, she’s four years cancer free. Watching her go through that and seeing what she did and the attitude she had. All her life she’s been a fighter and an encourager. She is absolutely a role model.

In my finance job, I see numerous farming women or farmers’ wives. We’re almost like this community; we all respect each other and have each other’s back. We know what we’re going through. We’re more like family. With each individual female, you can see different strengths and weaknesses, but as a whole we make it work.

My boss has been a huge encouragement. I was initially hired as an assistant, then assistant finance manager and was promoted under him to be finance manager. He’s supportive when I need to get time off to go to a cattle sale. Or, “The neighbor just called, the cows are out.” He says “Just go take care of it.”

I have a passion for our farmers. I know that during the day I can help these farmers get what they need to be successful in their environment, produce a row crop, raise cattle. I work every day to help these guys and girls do what they need to do, because I’m on that flip side going home.

And it’s really not a job, it’s a lifestyle. It’s your lifestyle, it’s what you live and what you love. Day in and day out, you’re not coming in and punching a clock to get a paycheck. It’s making a life that’s worth living.

Jennifer Blount

Georgia born, Jennifer Blount purchased a ranch in Wyoming and struck out on her own. Now she’s bringing ideas back to SW Georgia. “I would love to see some kind of a co-op processing and finishing facility for cattle. We can pull from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and have it centrally located.”

Through Down Time Ranch, LLC, we operate a cow/calf operation, hay and timber. We have two farms, 1,250 acres total; 225 of that is irrigated. And we have 250 head of cattle.

We’ve been running a commercial cow herd and getting into the F1s. We bought registered Brahma bulls, and it’s our first-time breeding with them. We AI’d 100 cows. What we’re trying to do is breed some of the hair off and make them more heat tolerant. The F1s are a demand out west.

Before this, I was in Wyoming. (My business and life partner) Coleman Massey and I have been together 20 plus years. He has a trucking company that runs from Georgia to Wyoming and back. We had a 7500-acre ranch and ran a cow/calf operation. We had an irrigation pivot and raised alfalfa hay.

I was born in Stone Mountain, Georgia and grew up in Dalton. I’m adopted and my father’s family had a dairy. I have wonderful memories going to the dairy and watching the cows being milked and loved the smell of the feed mill.

Mom and dad started a semi-trailer repair business and leasing business in Dalton.

Coleman and I wanted to get back closer to home and we looked all over the state for property. When we got to Edison, we pulled into the drive and we knew that’s where we wanted to be. I could see through the trees and see what it could look like.

We bought our properties in 2015. Our south farm had been in the Killingsworth family for 100 years. But nobody has lived on the property since 1967.

We own all of our cleaning equipment and we just got going. Where do you start? Anywhere makes a difference. We started cleaning and clearing, putting in new fencing.

Everyone opened their arms to us and made us feel welcome. They’ve made us a part of the community and we’ve done things around here to be a part of the community.

The FSA, NRCS, and Diverse Power have been very, very helpful. They’ve made numerous trips to the farm to work with us. James Miller is our ranch foreman.

When Hurricane Michael hit, just like everyone else, we were devastated. We worked so hard and everything crashed down on top of us. You wonder, How am I going to clean it up? What am I going to do with the loss of timber?

We lost a lot of old hardwood and pines in what I call the Way Back Farm in the northern part of the county. I had planned on leaving it to more of a recreational piece, more of a habitat. I had to take a step back. It took a few months to realize all would be OK and to look at things totally different on the north farm. We came to the conclusion it’s going to be a beautiful place to raise cattle.

I always try to look at the upside of things: Don’t look back, look forward. And make things better. Every day in ranching presents new challenges. No matter where you are. You wake up in the morning and have a plan, walk outside the door, come back in the evening, and realize, I started out to do this, but other things took precedence to get things done.

Life is a risk, but you have to just get out there and do it.

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