By Krin Mims
When I caught up with Donna Leavell, she was just leaving “cow day” at her family farm. She was checking her boots and pants as she walked in the door and apologizing because “you just never know what you’ll bring back from the farm.”
I explained to Donna the concept of this column — for people to see the other side of agriculture because farming doesn’t just happen in a field. There are many hands involved, which often go unnoticed.
Most readers wouldn’t have guessed that just an hour before our interview, Donna was working with her husband and son holding down calves, helping give shots and a few other less-desirable tasks. A farmer’s wife has many roles — sometimes it’s helping with the books, and other seasons, it’s in a field on a combine. The ladies in this article were genuine and candid about their love for their family and the farms that span generations and interests.
“Growing up, did you see yourself as the spouse of a farmer one day?”
Donna Leavell: “Goodness no! My parents are looking down laughing! I had a garden when I was growing up and I hated it. I don’t think anyone could have ever foreseen this lifestyle. I worked in banking for over 20 years and never imagined that I’d be as active as I am on the farm today.”
Sandy Hancock: “Well it’s all really my Daddy’s fault. He worked on a big dairy farm one year and we moved out to the farm. I started attending a different school, got involved in 4-H, met Kenneth and we started dating. When my family moved back to town, I remained active in 4-H and as soon as Kenneth got his license we started dating again. I always loved the farm so it’s never been a surprise that this is where I ended up.”
Ashley Smith: “Ummm … No! I graduated college, got a job at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and moved to Nashville never to return. Then I started dating LeeJay. My role is mainly a supportive one. I keep the other areas of our life running—especially during planting and harvest seasons. I also take dinner to the field, help move equipment and get parts from town if needed.”
Bailey Leavell: “No, I was raised primarily in the country but never on a farm. When Foster and I started dating, it all came so naturally. I fell in love with the farm and always looked forward to seeing things come to life.”
“What challenges go along with being a farming family?”
Bailey: “We’ve certainly seen a lot of those challenges in the past few months as Foster and I have become parents. This is not a 9-to-5 job with a predictable schedule—he doesn’t get to have “off” days if he’s not feeling well. Even when everyone was snowed-in this year, the farm was still running and Foster was out there taking care of his cows and plowing roads and driveways. It’s also financially frustrating. If you have a bad year, you don’t get paid. A lot of people have second jobs in addition to farming to pay the bills, and I know my paycheck has been a security blanket for us a few times.”
Donna: “The farm owns you — you do what it says and when it says it. It’s so difficult to makes plans for vacations, reply “yes” to a wedding, or even plan a family meal. Weather can make things very unpredictable and there are times that you just can’t make it happen. Farming is a big gamble too. You never know when the prices of commodities will rise or fall. We operate by the mindset of finding a price where we’re making a profit we can live with and then sell without ever looking back.”
Sandy: “It was always very difficult to plan events with certainty. I know that Kenneth missed a lot of regular activities like church and school functions and that was sometimes disappointing to him. For me, the greatest challenge is seeing the hard years — regardless of the hard work and endless hours. It’s difficult for me to see his disappointment. Kenneth always worked for the fire department as well — sometimes it takes the entire family.”
Ashley: “For several years it was very hard for me to get used to the number of hours LeeJay worked. During busy times, not seeing him for days and days at a time was a huge challenge, especially after we had kids. Farming is so unpredictable and so is our schedule. Mother nature controls so much of our life.”
“What triumphs do you cherish as a farmer’s wife?”
Ashley: “Going hand in hand with my greatest challenge, I’ve had to learn to go with the flow and accept that God will provide for us despite the unpredictability of farming. I’ve developed a deeper trust and understanding of sufficiency. That has been my greatest triumph.”
Donna: “We are very fortunate to run a family operation. I see a dynamic between my son and husband that not many mothers are fortunate enough to experience. I’ve raised two beautiful children on a farm and never had to worry about what they’d be exposed to, hear or see. They’ve learned the meaning of hard work, earning their way and getting dirty. I truly think it has helped to mold them into the adults they’ve become today.”
Sandy: “No matter how bad it looks this year, there is always a beautiful hope for next year. There is an unparalleled optimism on the farm (that) you simply won’t find it anywhere else. There is also a generational connection here. My husband was actually born in the master bedroom of our home. Our children were raised here without a care in the world. One summer, my son was literally stained from the knees down from spending so much time in the pond. I can remember a time when tragedy hit our family and other local farmers just showed up in our fields. They brought their combines without being asked and got our crop in. There is a distinct thread of unselfish nobility flowing through a community of farmers. They know at the end of the day, this is not just some big business.
Bailey: “Farming really is beautiful. Watching the land produce and seeing creation never gets old — even for someone not raised with this appreciation. I know my children will learn so much on the farm. They will see true work ethic, dedication and responsibility hands-on. I don’t know many people who truly love what they do. I can’t imagine my husband doing anything else. The relationship he has with his father is remarkable. They are so much more than just coworkers.”
“What would you like our readers to know about farmers and their families?”
Donna: “This is hard work and it doesn’t ever end. But we have a lot of fun and we know we are very fortunate to do what we love. Farmers are very smart and they don’t just grow things. One minute they are required to be a mechanic, the next a vet, and the next a chemical engineer. Don’t ever learn to drive a combine. Once you’re on it, you’ll never get off!”
Bailey: “I hope people have learned to have a better appreciation for farmers and have gained a new view on our struggles as a family. There is good and bad to farming. It’s hard to see some of the smaller farmers struggle. Sometimes it can become such a game of politics, and that is really unfortunate. On the other hand, I have learned over the past few years that the farming community can really have your back. We had a fire a few years ago and within minutes, we had a field full of Amish and surrounding farmers working to put out the fire. That has always stuck with me. It’s quite a profound relationship we all have.”
Ashley: “Our family’s business is just that — family. My father-in-law moved here from Tennessee 25 years ago and farmed side by side with LeeJay until he died eight years ago. Now during harvest season, my husband’s family from Tennessee comes out for a week or so to help out. Our girls love to spend time with LeeJay doing whatever it is he’s doing on the farm. It’s very common for them to be in the shop with him or ride in the combine. The guys who work for us are quite used to two little girls tagging along. I hope my girls grow up to have wonderful memories of growing up on a farm. There aren’t many professions where your kids can be such a big part of what you do on a daily basis. I feel very blessed to be married to a farmer, and I am so glad we are able to give our girls this way of life.”
Sandy: “Farmers are not hay-seed rednecks. They are actually very intelligent and adapt to new and developing technology each day. We have been tasked with taking care of the land and preserving a legacy that has been passed down through generations. Also, please be patient on the road. If you see us, please slow down. I promise we’re moving as fast as we can, and we’ll do our best to be out of your way as soon as possible.”
I consider myself to be very fortunate to have spent time learning from each of these ladies. I’m grateful for the time they took to share personal stories, laughter, frustrations and even some heartache as they allowed me to enter their world for a moment. Whether they are helping in the field, running meals out to their husband or making sure the house stays standing at home, these women are valuable assets to their family operations. The age-old saying stands true, “Behind every great man, there stands a great woman.” Sometimes she’s just behind him driving a combine.