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Research agronomist finds niche in chips
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Research agronomist finds niche in chips

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series featuring women members of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation; it's the first part of a two-part article featuring Lynn Leahy. She's a research agronomist at Heartland Farms, which specializes in producing potatoes for the potato-chip market. She manages the farm’s potato-research plots and data analysis. She also chairs the Young Farmer and Agriculturist program for the Waushara County Farm Bureau and serves on the board of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau.

When and why did you begin farming?

Leahy: I was raised on an 80-cow dairy farm in southern Wisconsin. By sixth-grade I knew I wanted to work the rest of my life in agriculture, but not on the family dairy farm. That’s because of the extreme amount of debt that would have been involved in modernizing the farm. My family transitioned in the mid-2000s from a stanchion barn to a tiestall barn. I decided to earn a degree in dairy science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and see where that would take me.

I accepted an internship on a potato farm in central Wisconsin the summer before graduating. The rest is history. I’ve been working as a research agronomist since April 2010 at Heartland Farms near Hancock, Wisconsin. I manage our small research plots – about 0.3-acre plots – and collect and analyze data. I analyze incoming potato seed, emergence, leaf canopy, potato-bulking curves and bruise-free samples during harvest. We compare data from year to year to make better decisions. We’re trying to be as efficient as possible in growing the best potato crops possible.

What do you produce on your farm and why?

Leahy: We produce potatoes mainly for potato chips. Production requires major capital investment in irrigation pivots, storage facilities, washing facilities, and specialized equipment such as potato harvesters, windrowers and hilling equipment.

Much of our other land is traded with or rented to other central-Wisconsin growers who specialize in corn or other vegetables. Land-swapping is a common practice in Wisconsin’s Central Sands region.

Does your family help with the farm?

Leahy: Only one of the people I work with at Heartland Farms is my relative. But we have a saying at the farm – “We’re not related by blood. But we’re related by sweat.”

My husband, Mike Leahy, works as an irrigation technician and a supervisor in the water-resources department. He also supervises seed-cutting and harvest as well as storage-filling lines when the irrigators aren’t running.

There are about 120 full-time employees working in many different specialties across Heartland’s farm operations, shipping operations, the storage department and more. Many people with different knowledge bases and skills are needed to make the farm run smoothly and efficiently.

What do you think are the best online resources for women who are farming or who are looking to start farming?

Leahy: The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s websites are a great place to start. They provide information on how to secure a loan and other farm resources. The Center for Rural Affairs also is a great resource. I recommend looking at community colleges with courses for beginning farmers.

I also recommend thoroughly researching the crops you intend to grow. A simple Google search reveals dozens of organizations that have been started by women to help other women farm. And it’s so important to become acquainted with individuals -- especially landowners and farmers in the community where you want to farm. They know about farmland that may be available. They also understand what markets would be available.

Whom do you admire as setting a good farming or lifestyle example and why?

Leahy: I admire farmers who continually try to improve their farm, working hard to preserve and improve land and water for future generations. I admire farmers who realize how lucky we are in Wisconsin to have the land we do to produce plentiful food. I also admire farmers who work hard yet know they also need to take time for themselves off the farm.

Visit heartland.farm and wfbf.com for more information. 

To be continued ...

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation represents farms of different sizes, commodities and management styles. The organization is comprised of voting members and associate members. Members belong to one of 61 county Farm Bureaus, which are run by a board of directors comprised of people working in production agriculture. Farm Bureau is a grassroots organization. Each year county voting members set the policy that guides the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation on local, state and national affairs.

Agri-View is looking for a sponsor for our Women in Agribusiness page in each weekly edition. Contact agriview@madison.com for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.

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