Cheryl Walsh

Cheryl Walsh does a variety of jobs at the Cowser family farms in northwestern Illinois. That includes making sure the trucks that transport pigs are clean.

BRADFORD, Ill. — Like many farmers, Cheryl Walsh’s days involve a lot of different moving parts. On this particular spring day, she was buried in farm bookwork, cleaning the hog transport trailer, advocating for agriculture and spending time with her two young daughters.

It was a fairly typical day for Walsh, who grew up on a family farm in Laura, Illinois, in Peoria County.

As she cleaned a pig hauling trailer she said she always thinks of her dad telling her: “If it’s not clean enough to eat off, it’s not clean enough.” Biosecurity is always a high priority.

As one of six owners of Cowser Inc. with her dad, brother and three uncles, she said it’s never really been an issue being the only woman in the company’s ownership team. Sometimes the family meetings are interesting with “six different personalities, she said. But “at the end of the day, we do what’s best for the business.”

Farming and family

Walsh knew farming was her goal before graduation from Black Hawk College with a focus on animal production. She worked full-time on a hog farm in Indiana before graduating from Western Illinois University’s agriculture science program in Macomb in 2002. She has always liked both the livestock and crop sides of farming.

After her time away, she was welcomed back to the home farm to be in charge of the custom nursery at a time when they had 1,200 sows on site. They also had some finishers.

In 2005 the operation grew to 2,250 sows and they converted the nursery to farrowing crates.

The Cowsers also have a commercial cow-calf operation and grow corn, soybeans and hay.

When Walsh married, moved and became a mom of two, “I was more involved in crops and kids,” she said.

After she divorced, she moved back to the Illinois farming community with her two little girls and started doing the company books again. By 2014, she was back to full time on the family farm, focusing on crop and livestock data reporting and analysis. She’s also out of the office washing trucks or during planting and harvest seasons.

“It’s not any different around here. I still get dirty and do everything,” she said with a smile.

Her daughters Reagan, 11, and Rylie, 10, experience farm life and see all their mom does for the family, community and agriculture.

“My oldest is interested in the farm,” Walsh said.

D.C. lessons

Walsh shares her passion for farming with others. Eight years ago, she got connected with Ag in the Classroom and took a piglet to a school. March was “Pig Month” for the Peoria school. She is also active in ag fairs in Bureau County and other events that connect kids, animals and agriculture.

She also found herself getting more involved in the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Young Leaders program.

Last year at the IFB’s annual leadership experience in Washington D.C., she had lunch with USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue and talked issues in agriculture, said Adam Nielsen, Illinois Farm Bureau’s director of national legislation and policy development.

“She is an advocate for Illinois agriculture and the livestock industry,” Nielsen said.

She wears many hats working with crops and livestock, and has expertise with trade policy, he said. She is well-versed on regulations regarding transportation of animals.

“She can communicate clearly and tell our position,” Nielsen said. “She’s a great leader.”

The Illinois Farm Bureau leadership trip to Washington D.C. in September 2018 made a big impression on Walsh. Corn, soybean and pork prices were low.

“It was a trifecta,” she said, and a bumper crop was almost ready to harvest pushing grain supplies larger and prices lower. “A bumper crop is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem.”

She talked to some legislators about the challenges of what to do with the huge harvest. With burdensome steel tariffs, farmers couldn’t afford to build more grain bins; elevators were filling up. One legislator said, “Just put the beans on the ground.”

At the same time, trade issues with China, Canada and Mexico were all up in the air and tariffs were in the news. She had an opportunity to hear from the Chinese attaché. She said it was interesting to hear his point of view.

It was also a time when the 2018 farm bill was being negotiated. At that time, dicamba was also a hot topic before new recommendations were released.

Speaking out

She brought home a new passion for creating awareness about agriculture and confidence in her ability to tell the farmer’s story.

Once at home, she heard about a pig farmer in Princeville, Illinois, who wanted to build a wean-to-finish operation. Eleanor Basehour has four daughters, with the oldest back from college and wanting to be part of the operation, and Basehour wanted to expand for the next generation.

But Walsh said opposition is trying to stop the effort. The group wants a rewrite of the Livestock Management Facilities Act to get more local control and change the rules, Walsh said.

“The sad part is that it tore our community apart a little,” she said.

However, those supporting the farmer began to speak out. At a public meeting, “any person with livestock was there. We packed the meeting,” Walsh said.

“I am very proud of the community I live in,” she said. The goal is to stop the resolution in committee. Walsh is hoping facts win over fear, she said.

While Walsh works at making a difference for farmers in her community, state and nationally, the impact comes back home: Her family is also working hard to build the farm for the next generations.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.