After witnessing the recognition of an esteemed woman of agriculture at a conference, Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese had an idea.
“He wondered how many more deserving women were in the audience, who may never be recognized or nominated for their contributions, but who were making tremendous differences in their communities,” says Deputy Commissioner Betty Thompson of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF). “We began brainstorming a way to recognize those women.”
So, in March 2017, ODAFF launched its Significant Women in Agriculture project, which acknowledges prominent women in agriculture in each of the state’s counties. Thompson says that, to date, they’ve recognized more than 50 women.
We really want to find these women in their communities, whether they’re a volunteer with a youth organization, involved in financial assistance for farmers or a veterinarian,” Thompson says.
Once chosen, the recognized women are interviewed and an article is written about their agricultural story, then distributed to media across the state. The program has picked up a lot of attention throughout Oklahoma, and recipients often express their gratitude with just how much the recognition means.
“It has been just amazing to hear all these stories, and it’s inspiring for young people in agriculture, or those who feel like they’re dedicating their whole lives and have never been recognized,” Thompson says.
The following four stories of inspiring Oklahoma women have been shortened. To see the full versions and more stories, click here.
Emily Oakley, City Girl Turned Organic Farmer
Emily Oakley has brought a world of passion for organic foods to Cherokee County in northeastern Oklahoma.
Oakley, a city girl from Tulsa, never planted a seed before school courses grew her awareness of global environmental issues and their connection with agriculture. Attending Oklahoma State University’s Science Academy gave her a desire to work with small-scale farmers to build sustainability.
That desire blossomed into a drive to become a small-scale farmer herself. She attended graduate school at the University of California-Davis, receiving a master’s degree in International Agricultural Development, which emphasized policy-making over hands-on farming, but Oakley saw her future differently.
She returned to Oklahoma and eventually bought land east of Tulsa in Cherokee County where she and her husband grow a variety of vegetables on 3 acres.
Oakley has an amazingly unselfish attitude when it comes to sharing her love for agriculture with her neighbors – and Oakley’s neighbors span the world.
Take her involvement in the Farmer-to-Farmer Program. This program promotes sustainable economic growth, food security and agricultural development worldwide. Volunteers help developing countries improve productivity, access new markets, build local capacity, combat climate change and more. Oakley has served as a Farmer-to-Farmer Consultant to Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Ghana and Nigeria.
“We actually still do the Farmer-to-Farmer exchanges through USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in our off-season,” Oakley says. “Every other year we tend to do them and we actually took our daughter to Guatemala. We still try to maintain that connection with Farmer-to-Farmer because it is a big part of why we do what we do. It is a big part of what brought us to farming in the first place and why we chose to become farmers.”
So, just inside the Cherokee County line, Oakley pulls on her work clothes each day and heads to the field. Her hands swiftly harvest organic vegetables for the Cherry Street Farmers Market in Tulsa.
In spite of the challenges, they have created a loyal base of 120 subscribers to their family farm. The subscribers come to the Cherry Street market to select their supply of vegetables. Oakley finds that many people are willing to go to farmers markets because they care about meeting farmers as much as they care about taste and just-picked flavor.
Growing vegetables for more than a decade on Three Springs Farm is only one of the ways Oakley benefits those around her. Her service on the board led to the market’s move from a small parking lot to filling two blocks of Cherry Street and expanding the market to over 70 vendors. She was also one of the first board members of the National Young Farmers Coalition and later served as the group’s president. Oakley was also a founding board member and co-president of Global Gardens, a Tulsa organization that facilitates school gardening in low-income areas. She currently serves on the National Organic Standards Board as a producer representative.
“Agriculture hasn’t just provided a livelihood for Emily, but is Emily’s life work and passion,” her husband says.
Oakley nurtures that passion in Oklahoma and then shares her love for agriculture with a world full of neighbors.
Gaye Pfeiffer, Family Farmer with a Passion for Agriculture
The gray late-winter morning with its cold air doesn’t seem to bother Gaye Pfeiffer of Mulhall. She is focused on the topic of agriculture.
Recently, salesmen from a foodservice distribution company visited the northern Logan County farming and ranching operation Gaye and husband John have built.
“We showed them around, took them out to the cows, everything. They are always amazed that there’s so much science involved,” she says. “With a tour like this they see what you think and care about. Communication is so important.”
It seldom fails that during wheat harvest in June, the temperature is hovering around 100 degrees and wind is blowing that heat right in your face.
“When you are out there and you are binning wheat and it’s hotter than heck,” Gaye says, “that is actually the time that I feel like, ‘You know, I am really feeding the world, this is going to be somebody’s food down the road.’ On top of that, you feel like all these other things you do, involvement in ag groups and organizations, help you make sure that we can continue to feed the world.”
Gaye has and continues to champion agriculture through her actions and her words. Her ties to agriculture run not only through her childhood in Oktaha, and her family farm production with her husband and sons, but also through involvement in numerous agricultural groups.
When they married in 1981, Gaye and John owned one quarter of land, leased another quarter and had about 30 registered cows. Today, they farm about 2,300 acres, have 200 registered Angus cows and 100 commercial cows. They also lamb out 70 ewes and son Andy has 24 sows to farrow.
Because she realizes the importance of conveying agriculture to those off the farm, Gaye has been quick to give of her time. Several years ago, through the Oklahoma Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers program, she made her way through the state competition and represented Oklahoma in the American Farm Bureau Discussion Meet where she was a finalist. She was appointed to an Oklahoma Farm Bureau task force in 2000 to make long-range planning recommendations. Gaye has served as a 4-H volunteer at the local, county and state levels. She has also served as the Logan County Farm Bureau women’s committee president and has hosted tours for the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, OSU Extension, Oklahoma Farm Bureau and Certified Angus Beef. She also served as the editor of the Oklahoma Angus Challenger from 2006 to 2012 and as secretary/treasurer of the Oklahoma Angus Association from 2012 to the present.
Gaye has a passion for agriculture she loves to share.
The Pfeiffers love helping others and helping agriculture. Most of all, they love doing this together.
“Being able to work every day alongside your husband and sons is what makes farming so fulfilling to me,” Gaye says. “John and I both feel that we were meant to be caretakers of the land. The fact that we could work together to build an operation that is worthy of being passed on has made a very satisfying life for us. Our sons know the work that comes with a farm and I think it is a compliment that they have a desire to be fifth-generation agriculturists.”
Anita Van der Laan, Oklahoma Dairy Farmer
Growing up in Holland province Fryslan, Anita Van der Laan never imagined she would one day have an 8,000-head dairy in Oklahoma.
Van der Laan’s love for dairy began at a very young age on her family’s 90-head Holstein dairy back in Holland. She is a fifth-generation dairy farmer, with farmers on both sides of her family.
A defining moment in Van der Laan’s life occurred when she was graduating high school. Because she was a woman, the family dairy went to her brother, and her father told her it was time for her to find somewhere else to work.
“It really hurt,” Van der Laan recalls. “It still hurts 30 years later. But it made me want to encourage other women to go into the dairy industry.”
Van der Laan made the decision to move to the United States and start dairying here. Her life took another twist when she attended a Thanksgiving dinner in Texas with neighboring dairy farmers. A young man named Pieter Van der Laan had a birthday on Black Friday, so the friends decided to decorate his house for his birthday.
Little did Van der Laan know, Pieter grew up about 30 miles down the road from her in Holland, also on a dairy farm, though the two had never met before.
“I met him that day and the rest is history,” Van der Laan says.
After the two were married, they started their dairy with 40 cows. Both kept their other jobs to pay off loans so they could buy more cows. Their herd steadily began to grow. Today, they have grown to 8,000 head of dairy cattle.
But no success story is without its trials.
One morning when Van der Laan was out feeding calves, a calf named Gemma butted during feeding, causing the bottle to painfully bump Van der Laan in the chest. A very tender lump appeared, and after several weeks of no improvement, her fears were confirmed when the doctor diagnosed her with breast cancer. Van der Laan says if it had not been for Gemma, the cancer would not have been found.
“I really believe that God doesn’t send angels in the way that we think of them,” Van der Laan says, “He sends them in the way we need them. I really believe she was my angel.”
Gemma passed away during Van der Laan’s chemotherapy treatments, but she will forever hold a special place for Gemma in her heart.
“She saved my life,” Van der Laan says. “You would never imagine God would send an angel like that – but He did.”
Dairying is a tough business – it never stops. Van der Laan simply laughs and says she understands it is not for everyone.
“I love the industry, I love the people, I love promoting our wonderful product,” she says. “That’s just what I love to do. It doesn’t matter where you are – in the grocery store, talking to a stranger, we have to promote our product.”
The Van der Laans have three children, Eric, Wilma and Liza, who have all come back to work and help with the family dairy.
“I wanted to raise my daughters to know there is no difference between them and brother – they can dairy too,” Van der Laan says.
Van der Laan says working with their three children is very special, and describes it as a beautiful life.
Lynda Lucas, Oklahoma Cattle Farmer
Being thrown into the fire isn’t always a bad thing. Lynda Lucas has been running the Lucas’ cattle operation in Cheyenne since her husband, congressman Frank Lucas, first took office in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1988.
Lynda recalls the challenges she faced as she transitioned into running the operation on her own. Even before congressman Lucas was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, he was gone during calving season. Luckily, her dad raised cattle, so she asked him a lot of questions.
Upon high school graduation, and after some push from her parents to pursue a degree and career in education, Lynda spent seven years teaching in Texas and Colorado. While she was away from ranching for a while, she was no stranger to the agricultural industry. Lynda’s father and grandfather both raised cattle while she was growing up, and she showed cattle through 4-H.
She cherishes those memories with her dad and granddad, and says she really learned a lot about life during that time.
After getting married in 1988, she moved to Cheyenne and spent some time as a substitute teacher. Her husband was elected to the state house that same year. After realizing it was not economically feasible to continue substituting with her husband frequently gone, she decided to take care of her children and the cattle full time. Little did she know he would soon be spending his time 1,500 miles from home.
She laughed and pointed out that while she handles things throughout the week, she saves the jobs she really doesn’t like for when her husband is home.
When congressman Lucas is in our nation’s capital, Lynda’s primary duties vary with the season, but consist of feeding and counting cattle, checking the cows that are about to calve and keeping up with her various roles within the community.
“There’s been a learning curve. He’s been really good to understand that I’m here five days a week and that I actually do kind of know what the cattle are going to do and that they know me,” she says.
Lynda has served as president of the Roger Mills County Cattlemen’s Association for nearly 12 years. She organizes an annual educational event for local cattle producers, organizes the annual meeting, and puts on a bull sale of typically 45 to 50 bulls each February.
She’s also on the Roger Mills County Free Fair Board of Directors and serves as a trustee on the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Foundation. Additionally, she is on the Oklahoma State Shorthorn Association Board of Directors. In November 2017, she was elected Oklahoma Shorthorn Association president and also helped with the Shorthorn Junior Nationals.
When asked what agriculture means to her, Lynda says, “It is the lifestyle of being able to be in a rural area, to be in a community that shares the same values.”
It’s lasting friendships, banding together and getting things done, she says.
Lynda is thankful to have built a life in Cheyenne and says “one of the real pluses of marrying Frank Lucas was that I got to come home.”
She recalls her mother telling her husband to move away and get a real job. She says her mother didn’t understand that “this old red dirt not only stains everything; it’s pretty permanent.”