Like many young people, Stephanie couldn’t decide what she wanted to do when she grew up. As a little girl, she wanted to be a farmer. Her grandparents had started Weil Dairy Farm in 1951. Later, Stephanie’s father, Dan, joined in the family business along with his wife and Stephanie’s mother: Shauna. But, for years, it was not clear if there would be a third generation of Weil farmers.
Stephanie says at 5 or 6, she was “a natural farm kid. I loved working beside my dad, helping him milk and feed the cows.”
As Stephanie grew older, the dream faded. In middle and high school, she fancied music. She took piano and percussion lessons and sang in the church choir. She was busy, and as for the farm? “Dad didn’t really need my help.” Her 2 older brothers were more likely to spend time working on the farm.
As her brothers grew older, however, neither chose farming as a career. Nick Weil works at Michigan State University in geo-spatial analysis used in map making. Brother Drew is at UCLA on a fellowship in health care administration. The family farm looked as though there’d be no more family to run it after Dan and Shauna retired.
In middle school, Steph wanted to become a graphic designer. Later, working on the high school yearbook, she decided she wasn’t creative enough. In 11th grade, she held an internship with an occupational therapist. That didn’t suit her either. “It was unsettling not knowing what I wanted.” As a senior, she got the go ahead to intern with her dad. The next summer, her dad suggested she haul wagons of haylage, a form of feed for the cows. “I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. But I still didn’t think I could be a farmer.”
In college, she began to wonder if agriculture wasn’t her destiny after all. “I was nervous about it,” she says. “There’s so much you have to know, both about technology and how to work with animals.” Nevertheless, she dove in and is now almost finished with her ag studies at MSU.
For instance? “The use of precision ag. We plant every field with variable-rate seeding. We take into account 5 years of previous yields from our fields, as well as soil types. We plant higher rates of seed in areas that will have a higher yield and lower rates in poorer areas.” Before adopting precision ag, she says, they planted one rate across an entire field.
Now, they use the same approach for applying nitrogen to corn and when spraying herbicides. The result? “We better manage our applications and support environmental stewardship.”
Stephanie has worked full time on the farm the last 3 summers. “I love being outside with our animals, and seeing the sunrise, and working with my dad. After that first summer, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a farmer.”
Weil Dairy Farm is in Goodrich, MI, about an hour north of Detroit. The only dairy farm in town, Weil has 190 dairy cows and about 500 cattle in all, including calves. Male calves are kept for beef; females for milking. Alfalfa, soybeans, corn and wheat—much of it to feed their livestock—are grown on farmland of about 1200 acres.
Having recently watched “Charlotte’s Web” with my grandchildren, I wonder if Stephanie ever becomes attached to their animals. “Our oldest cow was 11. I celebrated her birthday with her. I made her a ‘cake’ of her favorite feed ingredients and served it to her on a bucket lid and wished her happy birthday. I was sad when she got shipped. But it had to happen. It’s part of the cycle.”
Stephanie, an animal lover, would like to eventually take over the cow side of the farming operation and free up her dad, now 57, to concentrate on crops. Stephanie hopes to someday be able to afford a system of robots. Presently, cows are milked by farm workers using standard milking equipment, twice a day, at 5am and 4pm. Each session takes about 4 hours, including time to clean equipment and clear the manure. The process could be done by robots, she says—but at a cost for the equipment of about $1 million.
While thinking about her future, Stephanie had “many” talks with her mom, whose support encouraged her. Her decision was further reinforced by a discovery she made on her mother’s bookshelf. She came across 5 little books she’d created as an elementary school student. Printed in the school’s publishing center, the books contain Stephanie’s illustrations and stories about her dream of someday becoming a farmer.
Women comprise a growing minority in farming. In 2007, women were 30% of the 3.3 million farm operators in the U.S., according to a government survey. That was up 19% from 2002, significantly beating the 7% increase in overall number of farmers.
Now 21, Stephanie graduates in May. About her decision to join her father, she says, “I think my brothers are excited for me. They’re happy there’ll be a farm to come home to.” Her grandmother, 89, still lives on the farm. “My grandma’s the most proud. She brags to everyone that the farm’s going into its 3rd generation.”
Thanks, David Crumm, for introducing me to your niece. Thanks, Stephanie, for sharing your story. May your cows’ udders runneth over and your fields abound.