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Monday, March 17, 2008

Agriculture is a woman's world, too

By Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

"Agriculture is not just cows and dirt," says Sue Bellman, owner, president and principal field investigator of Great Lakes Agricultural Research Service, Inc. (GLARS) in Delavan.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Sue Bellman, owner, president and principal field investigator of Great Lakes Agricultural Research Service, Inc. (GLARS) in Delavan.
Bellman grew up a farm girl--driving tractor, feeding calves and spending summers getting ready for the Walworth County Fair.

"I grew up in the Richmond 4-H club," she said. "My sisters showed beef and I took cooking, canning and sewing. At that time, 4-H was the center of a family's activity. There were not so many other activities. We we waited and planned all summer getting ready for the fair."

She grew up on the farm that's been in her family since 1914. It was a great place for an upbringing, but last place she thought she'd someday be when she left for UW-Madison in the late '60s.

"When I left for college, I didn't think I would ever come back to the farm," she admits.

She found agronomy (science of soil management; production of field crops) interesting. Then one professor changed her direction to what ultimately became GLARS.

"My weed science professor was very instrumental in interesting me in weed science as a profession and eventually I got a master's degree in weed science."

While that too sounds very ag, Bellman's vision was still far from the family farm.

"Even then I didn't plan to come back to the farm and worked in corporate America for many years," she said. Among the companies she worked for are Monsanto, Rhone-Poulenc and FMC Corp.

Eventually it was time for Bellman's parents to retire and ideas grew. Bellman and her two children, Kristina, now a student at UW-Madison, and son, Michael, a high school senior, took over the family farm and GLARS began.

There were plenty of challenges along the way, and the Walworth County Extension, South East Wisconsin Grazing Network--organized by Peg Reedy, agriculture agent--and Natural Resource Conservation Service became invaluable resources, she says.

That was 20 years ago. Bellman's dad's old workshop is now command central for the fine-tuned business.

Today she employs two other full-time employees--also women. Kathleen Harris, regulatory technician, grew up on her family's farm, as did Lisa Wheelock, quality assurance auditor/efficacy technician. Bellman also employs several part-time and seasonal employees, including Matthew Beals, farm manager. She also still raises beef cattle and cash crops.

"The 4-H kids are great summer helpers on the farm," she laughs. "They have a good time and really help us out." Bellman also serves as the co-leader for the Richmond 4-H club along with Pat Tierney.

Winters are spent on industry conventions, workshops and seminars, putting the finishing touches on last season and readying for this season.

What is an ag researcher?

The true answer is quite a lot. But to give it the Reader's Digest version: Each spring they fill plots with all sorts of plants, apply pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, etc. at certain points in development, record the data of what happens and send findings and specimens to laboratories to determine if a new product is worthy of patenting, producing and using.

Data categories are residue, efficacy, quality, Food Safety Program auditing and lots, lots more. Their research changes lives. For example, tests like those performed at GLARS increased crop yields 50 to 200 percent in a part of Africa suffering notably from lack of food, according to an International Conference on Women in Agriculture in 2002 speech.

Other times they just make things that are OK even better.

"I am very encouraged about the future of agriculture in this country," Bellman says.

"New technologies in the areas of biofuels, food safety and crop biotechnology are very exciting.

"Changes in the way we raise and handle our food are happening. We need young people who are trained in computers, biotechnology, chemistry and business to fill the jobs that are opening up in all areas of agriculture."

And while acreage for agriculture is declining in Walworth County, Bellman is encouraged by the trends in the industry and that women are making their marks in a place where men have traditionally ruled.

For more information about GLARS, visit www.gdmdata.com.

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