Tennessee women are contributing to the state’s agriculture sector in major ways, taking leadership roles on family farms and inspiring the next generation to follow in their footsteps.
“Agriculture is a field that’s truly wide open,” says Jennifer Houston, a livestock market operator for Houston Farms Inc. at East Tennessee Livestock Center Inc. in Sweetwater. “Attitudes toward women have changed dramatically since I first began.”
After growing up on a cattle and hog farm in West Tennessee, Houston attended the University of Tennessee where she graduated with a degree in animal science. She then worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture full time while working part time for the East Tennessee Livestock Center Inc. which her husband’s family owns. She began working full time at the livestock center in 1987.
“I’ve really been involved in the agriculture industry my whole life,” Houston says.
Houston also serves as the chairman for the Policy Division of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The role is well deserved as Houston has been involved with beef checkoff and membership programs in Tennessee and nationally for about 30 years.
“Agriculture is a passion for me,” Houston says. “It’s a lifestyle that I grew up in and wanted to raise my children in.”
Cultivating Careers in Row Crops and Produce
Kim Kee, who now helps manage her family’s farm – Renfroe Farms in Carroll County – with her father, brother and uncle, left her profession as a high school biology teacher to pursue a career in agriculture eight years ago.
“I always loved being on the farm,” Kee says. “When they had grown large enough where they needed more help, they asked me to come back, and I was thrilled.”
Renfroe Farms, which is a 5,500-acre row crop operation that grows corn, soybeans and cotton, was established by Kee’s grandparents, Garvin and Virginia Renfroe, in 1953. Kee says her role on the farm involves “whatever needs to be done that day,” such as delivering products to market and sowing and harvesting crops.
“I love it,” Kee says. “It’s physically and mentally challenging, and there’s a lot of variety in what I get to do. I’m not doing the same thing every day; it’s a lot of fun.”
Across the state in East Tennessee, Renea Jones-Rogers has also built a career on her family’s farm. Located in Unicoi, Jones & Church Farms was created by Jones-Rogers’ father and his business partner in 1975. Today, the farm covers 600 acres, and it produces fresh-market tomatoes including round tomatoes and Roma tomatoes.
“I grew up on the farm, so I knew from an early age that I wanted to make my career in agriculture,” Jones-Rogers says. “I always thought I would work for a pesticide company in research and development, but I’m an only child and decided I wanted to come back and continue my father’s legacy.”
Jones-Rogers’ main role on the farm involves post-harvest grading, quality control, packing and shipping to customers, such as Publix, Subway, and Panera Bread, and ensuring the produce meets the latest food safety requirements.
Her son, who is working on his master’s degree at Clemson University, plans to return to the farm after graduation, continuing the family tradition.
“We are good stewards of the land, and we’re very active in our community,” Jones-Rogers says. “We’re proud to be a family farm.”