Women play significant role in agriculture

By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer

The classic image of a farmer shows a man getting up with the sun, feeding his animals and getting on his tractor. But what if that farmer is a woman?

Michelle Heavyside, a dairy farmer’s wife, and LaVerne Scheller, a cattlewoman and one-time farmer, are active in agriculture in different ways.

Scheller, of Causey, cares for 50 range cows because she enjoys the work.

“That’s the only reason,” she said. “I’m not willing to give up and just go sit in the house.”

With help from a neighbor or her husband, George, Scheller brands, vaccinates, feeds, breaks ice on water troughs and builds fences. She estimates she spends about three hours a day tending cattle.

Scheller leased her land when she could no longer physically handle the labor of farming.

From 1993 to 2005, Scheller raised dryland wheat in addition to cattle while handling three school bus routes. Her first husband had died, and she needed to provide for herself and two sons, she said.

Scheller’s typical work day was 5 a.m. until dark.

Scheller drove one bus route first thing in the morning, while two other drivers took care of the other routes. Then, she said, she returned home, checked cattle and rode a tractor until it was time for the afternoon bus route.

When a tractor or school bus had a flat tire, she fixed it. When one needed an oil change, she did it.

Scheller plowed and planted. Because she didn’t have the combine necessary to harvest wheat, she hired harvesters. Still, she hauled it to grain elevators herself.

“One year I took it to Sudan (Texas) to a feed lot because they were paying more,” Scheller said.

For Heavyside, involvement doesn’t mean a direct role in running her family’s 2,000-cow dairy on Cacahuate Road. She has leadership roles in dairy-related organizations, takes care of her two children and stays informed about industry issues.

Heavyside said she wants to educate people on the origin of food and importance of all farms.

As founder and president of United Dairy Women, Heavyside helps organize the annual Milk Lovers Ball, Dairy Fest and Idsinga Memorial Golf Tournament. She serves with Dairy Max promotional board, Eastern New Mexico Food Bank and Dairy Farmers of America.

Heavyside is also helping plan the Women in Agriculture Leadership Conference.

Milk Lovers Ball raises money for scholarships and dairy products for the region’s three children’s homes.

In 2005, the ball’s first year, 250 dairy farmers from New Mexico and Texas attended, she said. This year, Heavyside said, 500 people from inside and outside the industry came, with one man hailing from Holland.

“People plan their vacations around Milk Lovers Ball now,” she said.

As for Dairy Fest, it provides free meals, entertainment and information about the dairy industry. Heavyside said she started the event to meet people, show appreciation, teach about the industry and raise awareness of the food bank and hunger in New Mexico and Texas.

Two months after the first Dairy Fest in 2006, Doug and Debbie Idsinga, friends of Heavyside’s and dairy farmers, died. In their honor, the United Dairy Women conducts a yearly golf tournament to raise money for youth programs, a favorite cause of the Idsingas.

“So I thought that was going to be enough for me,” Heavyside said.

However, more requests rolled in, and she took on more activities.

On the dairy her husband, John Paul, operates with his parents, Heavyside keeps the house in order, talks over issues with her husband and reads dairy magazines. The family rarely takes a vacation and may have a night out interrupted by needs at the dairy, she said.

“It’s a different way of life, and maybe it’s not for everyone,” Heavyside said. “I admire what (John Paul) does, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”