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Jenny Rhodes embraces technology, giving back to fellow farmers

Slideshow: This 2019 Master Farmer owns a 500,000-broiler operation in Centreville, Md.

Success was never handed to Jenny Rhodes. She’s had to work hard at being a successful farmer, overcoming personal challenges to raise a family and build a successful business.

But it all comes down to one thing: Farming is in her blood.

“I just wanted to farm, and I just wanted to figure out how I could get there,” she says.

Rhodes is the owner of Deerfield Farm, a 500,000-broiler operation in Centreville, Md. She is also an Extension agent with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

She bought the farm in 1987 with her then husband, and they quickly started growing broilers.

“I remember going to settlement and being scared to death, signing the dotted line for all that money,” she says. “But for me, that was the way that I could get into farming.”

Rhodes grew up in Centreville on a grain and beef farm with her parents, Temple and Pat Rhodes, and four siblings. She says her parents taught her the importance of hard work and dedication, lessons she’s applied to her own business and life over the years, and something she’s passed down to her two sons, Chris and Ryan.

Going it alone

But Rhodes had to apply those lessons quickly in her own life. In 1995, after eight years of working together on the farm, she and her husband divorced.

She thought about selling the farm to raise her two children, then 8 and 10.

“But I refused. I said to myself, ‘I grew up on a farm and I want my children to grow up on a farm,’” she says.

Rhodes ended up buying out her ex-husband and she continued farming and raising her two boys with help from her parents and other family members.

At the same time, she always kept her eye out for the latest technology or innovations in broiler production. One of the first changes she made was taking out a $20,000 loan to install new nipple drinkers in the chicken houses.

“I think that was a lesson learned. My dad has always told us this: ‘You have to spend money to make money,’” she says. “In any business you do, you have to be top performing and you have to have the correct technology.”

The four chicken houses, which originally had open-air sidewalls with 36-inch fans hung up in the center, were refurbished with tunnel ventilation one at a time.

But a potentially devastating setback happened in 1995. In the middle of the night on St. Patrick’s Day, one of the chicken houses burned down. The house had recently been cleaned out and had all new shavings put in. She says the cause was electrical.

Just a month earlier, Rhodes got a new insurance policy for loss of income. She says she was able to move on without much of a financial impact.

But the fire got her thinking of other improvements she wanted to make. The house was rebuilt with tunnel ventilation, which at the time was a state-of-the-art method of raising broiler chickens.

Eventually, the other three houses were also refurbished.

The systems were manual at first, but as technology improved Rhodes wasn’t far behind. A controller was put in each house that allowed the tunnel ventilation system to operate automatically.

Eventually, all the houses were connected remotely to a computer in Rhodes’ house, allowing her to monitor each house and control things via her smartphone.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t check in on the house, but it allows me to be away when I need to be,” she says. “I think it really makes us better managers.”

Learning from others

Technological innovations continued into the late ’90s. Rhodes decided to get involved in industry organizations to try to stay on the cutting edge.

She became a member of the Delmarva Poultry Industry’s Grower Committee, where she met other growers to see how they were raising birds.

She got to see the latest technology on other farms and formed relationships with technology suppliers.

“I learned about relationships with my vendors and how important that was to grow as a manager,” she says.

Environmental regulations changed, requiring poultry farmers to make changes inside and outside of their houses. Rhodes planted miscanthus and switchgrass around the house fans to reduce noise and odors. Heavy-use pads were placed at the end of the houses and a manure storage building was put up.

Rhodes says she got energy-efficiency grants to install new insulation in all the houses and to install LED lighting.

So, what are the results of all the improvements she’s made? Rhodes says her birds are healthier and have better air to breath, which matters a lot when it comes to the money she gets from her integrator, Allen Harim.

“When you compete at settlement time, whatever that edge is, you have to figure out what it is, and every time we get our settlement I look at it and compare things to see feed conversion, energy used,” she says. “I look at it as if you're not changing something every flock, you've got to look at things to try to change something.”

Giving back

Being involved in organizations is something she takes pride in.

She first got involved by joining 4-H and FFA when she was young. As an adult, the list of organizations she’s involved with is almost the size of a small book. Among those, she’s been an adult leader of 4-H; a board member of her county’s conservation district board; board chairwoman of Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit; and a 2006 graduate of LEAD Maryland, where she travelled to China.

She’s also given back to farmers as a county Extension agent, something she’s done since 1996. She went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 2002 and a master’s degree in agriculture and Extension education in 2006.

In 2007, she became the agriculture and natural resources Extension agent for Queen Anne’s County. One of her biggest projects was helping develop ag programs for women. She and a fellow ag Extension agent in Talbot County developed risk and farm management training programs. They also helped start the Mid-Atlantic Women in Agriculture Regional Conference, which attracts 175 attendees each year.

Proud grandmother

Rhodes’ sons, Chris and Ryan, are both married and have five children between them. They also each have their own farming operations.

At 58, Rhodes says the farm is still a big priority, but she wants to spend time with her grandchildren, too.

The poultry industry is tough, she says, as the market for chicken is saturated and integrators are signing up less growers. Along with that, environmental regulations in Maryland, especially on the Eastern Shore, are stringent and getting stricter by the year.

Awards are important to Rhodes, but she says what’s more important is leaving a good legacy for her children, grandchildren and others.

“Hopefully I can set an example and other people will say, ‘Well Jenny did it, I can do it,’" she says. “I love what I do. As long as I have my health, I'll be doing this. There is no better life than growing up on a farm.”

Jenny Rhodes at a glance

  • The farm. The 11-acre farm includes four chicken houses with a yearly capacity of 500,000 broilers. A separate 99-acre irrigated grain farm is located on the other side of Centreville.
  • Family. Rhodes has two sons, Chris and Ryan. Chris Rhodes is married with three children and Ryan Rhodes is married with two children.
  • Education. Graduate of Queen Anne’s County High School. Associate degree in business administration from Chesapeake College. Bachelor’s degree in agriculture and master’s degree in Extension and agriculture education from University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
  • In the community. Rhodes is a member of numerous ag and non-ag boards. She is a board member of the county’s conservation district board; chairman of the MidAtlantic Farm Credit board; member of the boards of the Maryland Ag Commission and Maryland Ag Council; board member of Compass Regional Hospice; and an adult leader with the county 4-H chapter.
  • Notable achievements. 2015 winner of the J. Frank Gordy Sr. Delmarva Distinguished Citizen Award; 2015 Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Proclamation Award; 2014 Service to Agriculture Award by the Queen Anne’s County Chamber of Commerce; 2011 National Association of County Agricultural Agents Achievement Award.
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