The rise of women in agriculture

Lisa Keeler prepares to introduce a bum lamb to a ewe that recently lost its baby. Keeler runs her own sheep ranch near Buffalo (Photo by Jennifer Burden, Buffalo Bulletin)

By Jennifer Burden

Buffalo Bulletin

Via Wyoming News Exchange

BUFFALO — For generations, a woman's role in society was forged in tradition and defined by necessity.

Women's roles have been no less important than men's, but it's been a role that has put women behind the scenes. Caretakers. Homemakers. Mothers.

This has been the way of the world, particularly in agriculture, for generations. Until now. Quietly, women are ushering in a new era in agriculture redefining their roles, thinking outside the box and finding success in the process.

Every breath Lisa Keeler takes is visible in the frosty air. She's oblivious as the cold bites at her fingers.

Keeler grabs a pocketknife and starts cutting the skin from the breathless lamb. She cuts and pulls. In a few minutes, she has what looks like a pair of wool pajamas.

"It will be like putting a size three on a size 10, but we will make it work," she said.

Keeler calls this "jacketing" a lamb. It's the process of tricking a ewe who has lost a lamb into mothering a bum lamb. Keeler picks up the motherless lamb. He's skeptical but ultimately succumbs to the ruse. She shimmies the lamb into the "jacket" and finds twine to tie it around the neck, similar to a pair of overalls.

"I learned to sew because I had a couple of dogs that were a little aggressive," she said. "The sheep noses would get cut up, so I had to sew them up so my uncle didn't get mad." 

She turns the lamb's butt to the head of the ewe and the lamb starts to suckle. The ewe smells the lamb's rear. 

"She hasn't noticed that her lamb has died yet," Keeler said. "So what we want to have happen is for this lamb to latch on and for the ewe to sniff its butt. That way she doesn't smell the head, and if it goes well, she won't notice." 

Keeler watches the lamb and the ewe for a few minutes, but she can't stay there for long. With a flock of 200 ewes, she doesn't have time to baby the babies. She is tough, and she expects her flock to be the same. 

Keeler is running on about four hours of sleep. She and her business partner, Erasmo Garcia, are lambing in frigid temperatures. That means that Keeler is up every two hours during the night. 

At 7:30 a.m. on weekdays, she heads to work at the vet clinic in Kaycee. On the weekends, Keeler pumps wells as part of a contract she holds with oil companies. As a side job, she also helps minerals owners sell their minerals on the open market. And she also does accounting and title work on the side.

Sleep this time of year is a luxury because Keeler does whatever it takes to keep their operation going. Getting it off the ground took a lot of sweat and long hours, and at the end of the year, it's the bottom line that counts.

Keeler's land follows the Powder River as it snakes its way toward Sussex. Even in the frigid Wyoming winter, the land clings to its beauty.

It's a familiar sight to Keeler.

She grew up in northeast Wyoming.

She went to college at the University of Wyoming and earned degrees in ag economics and accounting. After she graduated, she went to work on the family ranch.

Keeler hoped to take over the family ranch but bigger things lay ahead for her. She made all the right choices, earned the degrees, learned from the old timers and put in the work. But Keeler said “old school beliefs” kept her from that dream. She was accepted as a hired hand, but she was never seriously considered to take over the ranch. So she went out and started a ranch for herself.

“Going out on your own as a woman hardly ever happens,” Keeler said. "Women weren't the head of ranches unless their husbands passed away. To start from scratch just isn't common."

While there have always been women ranchers, the Census of Agriculture didn't start tracking them in numbers until the late '70s. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, only 5 percent of U.S. farms were operated by women in 1978.

So Keeler did what she does best. She dug in. She started building her own herd, using what she'd learned from her mentors and years working in the industry. She already knew that it was going to be an uphill battle. Starting from scratch isn't easy,

but Keeler had already spent years making sacrifices.

“Everyone has to make sacrifices, and quite often the women take three part-time jobs,” Keeler said. “Virtually everyone in ag has to subsidize with a different enterprise. That's the nature of the beast, to ride the waves of good prices and bad prices.”

Keeler was also looking for a challenge. She started researching breeds. She went to the Royal Highland Show in Scotland looking for a hearty breed for a friend. Keeler and Garcia did their own research.

They found a hearty breed by mixing English sheep with Western Suffolk sheep. In the process, they got the best of both worlds.

“These ewes produce hearty black-faced sheep with an efficient feed conversion,” Keeler said. "It's 5 pounds of hay to 1 pound of gain. Typically, it's 10 pounds of hay to 1 pound of gain. And we are lambing a few 12-year-olds.”

Through the multiyear process of building and strengthening the flock, Keeler learned that being atypical in her industry was a benefit.

“One of the positive things about being atypical is that you think outside the box. We can adjust as the market trends change, as the conditions change,” Keeler said. “And invention sometimes comes from desperation. Women aren't as strong physically, so we have to improvise, no matter the adversity.”

Keeler and Garcia defied the odds. They had no financial backing when they started. They didn't assume an operation. They worked hard, penciled it out and made it happen.

According to the USDA, the share of U.S. farms operated by women nearly tripled over the past three decades, from 5 percent in 1978 to 14 percent by 2007. That number is likely higher today as more ranches are sold or handed down.

Today, Keeler is one of more than 969,000 women farmers in the United States operating 301 million acres.

Keeler is one of the women leading the way in agriculture, but that was never really her goal. Her goal was to create a hearty, sustainable flock that at the end of the year improved her bottom line. And seeing the results at the end of the year has helped her weather the hardships.

“The challenge is to achieve the highest lambing rates, highest market prices and do the best with every animal I can,” Keeler said. “I want to manage as efficiently as possible and see at the end of the year whether it was enough.”

Keeler is proud of the efforts she and Garcia have put forth. She has a pragmatic approach to the operation – work hard and you will see the results.

“We have to have backups,” Keeler said. “Women in ag always have backups. We're not all-time optimists.” 

More and more women are also earning degrees in agriculture. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a little over one-third of all degrees earned in ag science were awarded to females in 1980. Nearly 40 years later, women make up more than half of the graduates.

That's not surprising to Keeler. Women do so many things and leading the way in agriculture might as well be one of them.

“They bear children, they do the laundry and the dishes, they build the house, they do the cooking. Sometimes they have outside income, and then they come home and do ranch work alongside their spouses to keep the ranch going,” Keeler said. “A lot of times, they are doing three times what everyone else is just to keep it glued together. Women throughout history have always had to do whatever it takes – not just the ranch work.”