By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm
One of my earliest memories is sitting on an old Paint gelding outside of Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t have been more than three or four, but from that moment on I was obsessed with becoming a “cowgirl”. Despite growing up on quarter-acre lots in suburbia, where the only cows I saw were on old Bonanza reruns, my passion to own my own cattle operation never wavered. Completely ignorant of all things agriculture, I knew educating myself would be the first step towards owning my own cattle farm.
At 19, I enthusiastically enrolled as an animal and dairy science student at Mississippi State University. Week one, I was informed by a seasoned Delta farmer and distinguished alum that “people don’t ‘become’ farmers—you have to be born into it.” Discouraged (I was one of the only students not hailing from a multi-generational farm), I was determined to pursue my education and find a way to make my farming dream come true.
As an undergraduate student I began to recognize the immense market potential many “traditional” farmers were overlooking. The agriculture industry seemed oblivious to the inevitable evolution of consumer demands, driven largely by millennials and their purchasing power. Organic and natural products, community supported agriculture (CSA) and reformed animal husbandry techniques, etc. weren’t even on “those old Delta farmers’” radars until the GMO debate began making headlines. The industry was teaming with opportunity.
After I fell in love with a cowboy-turned-army officer, my professional path required several “modifications” to coincide with the demands of my spouse’s war time military service. Confident I could find a way to farm, I opted to invest the time during which my family was at Uncle Sam’s beckon call into completing my masters of business administration (MBA). While my undergraduate education provided me with the knowledge and hands-on experience to competently raise livestock, I recognized that I lacked sufficient business acumen to truly seize the potential of the agriculture industry. First semester, a professor encouraged me to incorporate my farming dreams into the program’s curriculum, drafting the original business plan for what is now known as Willow Springs Farm.
The U.S. Army introduced my family to the great state of Kansas, courtesy of Fort Leavenworth (the military base—not the prison!), and it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with the Flint Hills. We bought a 15-acre, undeveloped property that was covered in so much brush that we were unable to even walk the property lines prior to purchase. Armed with an old chainsaw and Ford truck, we spent the winter clearing the property, installing fences, and building a barn—all with repurposed building materials and a shoestring budget.
Today, I work two jobs—marketing consultant and adjunct instructor—in addition to farming. My husband left active duty to pursue his own entrepreneurial dreams, and he is working hard to grow his own bootstrapped business. Due to limited resources, my husband and I trade “free labor” between our two startups. I manage his company’s marketing and PR campaigns while he helps me clear brush and fence the next pasture.
Things can get a little hairy; we’re certainly not strangers to 20+ hour days and seven-day work weeks. I wouldn’t have to work this hard if I didn’t have student loans, nor would I have so little to show in terms of the size of my business if I wasn’t saddled with hefty payments on my education.
If Congress ignores young farmer’s pleas to add farming to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, they would inadvertently encourage aspiring agriculture professionals to forgo higher education. A recent high school graduate I was speaking to commented on how much he admired my innovative marketing strategies and business skills; however, aware of my inability to secure outside financing (due to student loans), he stated he was skipping college so that he’d be able to receive funding to farm. Do we really want the professionals responsible for feeding our nation to have minimal educations?
It’s my hope that elected officials will recognize how essential farmers are and how important it is to the agriculture industry that they receive the education and experience they need. Until then, I’ll continue to juggle my multiple responsibilities and reinvest every extra dime into my farm until it has grown into the thousand-head herd I’ve dreamed of since the age of four.
In the words a fellow cattleman (and U.S. President), Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort. “
Well, this farm will be worth it!