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Michelle Miller Michelle Miller
Michelle Miller, a.k.a., “The Farm Babe,” was the keynote speaker at the 23rd annual Women in Agriculture Conference in Tucson, Ariz.

Women farmers fuel ag's resiliency in desert

Arizona has nation’s largest percentage of female growers.

A lot of the traditional green and yellow machinery found on Arizona farms and ranches is acquiring a greater shade of pink as more and more females get involved in farming.

“Arizona has the largest percentage population of women farmers and ranchers in the country,” says Michael Simpson of Farm Bureau Financial Services. And USDA statistics back him up, showing 14,000 farms in the state (representing 7.4 million acres) with female producers --- of which 11,000 have a female as principal producer.

“Agriculture in Arizona is a $23.3 billion industry, bringing in more dollars than tourism in the Grand Canyon State,” says Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse, herself part of a fifth-generation farm/ranch operation in Pinal County.

As a sign that the numbers of involved women continues to grow, the 23rd annual Women in Agriculture Conference held recently in Tucson drew a record 144 female attendees with the theme of Resilience in the Desert.

“There is no better metaphor for resiliency than talking about where we live, the harsh environment of the desert, with nothing but dry ground and yellow creosote awaiting the rains.  We’ve continually and successfully faced that environment with its adversity and challenges --- all prerequisites for building an ability to do things wiser, faster, and more efficiently,” says Smallhouse.


None of the full day of speakers has displayed more resiliency than Hickman’s Family Farms, peddlers of protein in the shape of an egg since 1944. Now in its 75th year of business, the farm is still owned and operated by third and fourth generations of family members,

“We have over 12 million laying hens and 1,100 dedicated staff,” says Sharman Hickman, outreach manager (read: marketing), who describes herself as a spatula pro who can serve up an omelet in under 60 seconds. 

Matriarch Gerdie Hickman, co-founder of the business, was honored as the first recipient of the Resilient Women in Arizona award, a cactus trophy made of ironwood as a desert symbol of resilience.

Scheduled to speak, but called away for Congressional testimony, was Sara Place, Director of Sustainable Beef Production Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Her prepared remarks centered on the production of beef while balancing environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and economic viability. 


“Today’s farmers and ranchers produce the same amount of beef (18 percent of worldwide product demand) with one-third fewer cattle and one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world. Greenhouse gas emissions from cattle only account for 2 percent of U.S. GHG emissions, a 16 percent lower footprint using fewer natural resources thanks to improved efficiency. Cattle fit into a sustainable food system by acting as upcyclers.”

Keynote speaker was The Farm Babe, Michelle Miller, a former big city girl and Gucci employee who now keeps an eye on a sheep farm in Iowa where she works to debunk agricultural myths in the food industry.

“I AGvocate for agriculture because people don’t want to hear just one side of a story, and fear sells when it comes to opposition voices.  If you’ve farmed for six generations and you want a seventh, you, too, will do everything you can to make that possible.  There are currently 970,000 women farmers nationwide with one in three farmers being female.  If we don’t tell our story, who will?  If you can reach one, you can teach one, and while we might not be able to change the world, we can change the world one person at a time.  Find your voice and AGvocate for agriculture.”


With mini-sessions at learning stations discussing cotton, beef, bees, and water availability in a drought-plagued state, the afternoon centered on Resilience at the Ground Level with six panelists representing different areas of the ag industry explaining day-to-day problems and their capacity to adapt, bounce back, and recover quickly.

“There’s no ‘average’ day.  You wake up each day and decide which is the biggest fire that needs to be put out first,” says fourth-generation Tombstone cattle rancher Fred Davis, who lives 25 miles from the Mexican border and cites illegal immigration as his biggest problem.  “It’s been a mess and still is. Studies have shown it costs 50 percent more to operate if you live within 50 miles of the border.”

“Each day is unpredictable, but we start each one with optimism,” adds third-generation Casa Grande cotton/alfalfa farmer Nancy Caywood.

We’re all running around trying to stay ahead,” says Yuma produce farmer John Boelts, who notes: “It’s always challenging to the point of being close to demoralizing at times.”

“Agriculture is a process that relies on luck and you have to learn how to cope and respond on the fly,” notes Southern Arizona cattle grower Frank Krentz, to which Fred Davis adds: “The future is scary because there’s so much that needs doing faster and more accurately to produce more on less ground all-the-while under constant attack by the grass eaters and treehuggers.”

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