Arkansas Women in Agriculture set to host annual conference
It is a familiar story: The child follows their father’s footsteps into the family business and then grows into a leader in their field.
It is undoubtedly a true tale for Monica Paskewitz, who currently serves as the president of Arkansas Women in Agriculture, as the group prepares for its annual convention this month.
The group, some 100 strong from all across Arkansas, will meet for three days at North Little Rock’s Wyndham Riverfront starting on Monday, March 11. The meeting will have the theme “Family. Food. Farming.”
Agriculture comes easy for Paskewitz, who, in addition to her other duties, is also the district conservationist for the United States Department of Agriculture.
“I grew up on my family beef cattle farm,” Paskewitz says. “I bought my first set of cows when I was 16.”
Farming is all Paskewitz has known. “My husband I have a small operation,” she says of their current 40 head of cattle they run in Melbourne; and that life comes easy.
“It is good for your soul to be out on the farm,” she adds.
It is also good for Arkansas as agriculture, an exceedingly broad term is the state’s largest industry with more than $16 billion in annual revenue in what the Arkansas Farm Bureau defines as 13 different categories. Those range from beef cattle that range in the hill country to row crops like rice, soybeans and cotton that dominate the fertile soil of the Delta.
All that and then some, will be covered at the conference, says Lindsey Triplett, who lives in Green Forest and also grew up on a beef cattle operation. She serves as the Central Region Ambassador for Arkansas Women in Agriculture.
“We have 15 breakout sessions planned,” Triplett says of the conference. “Forestry, beef cattle production, row crop production and even information on food safety. So, there’s a little bit of everything and something for everyone.”
Providing the keynote address will be Ruth Hambleton.
Hambleton, who is now a professor of agriculture at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, founded “Annie’s Project” when she was an extension agent with the University of Illinois.
Annie’s Project is named after Hambleton’s mother, Annette Kohlhagen Fleck, and is described as “an educational program designed to help farm women navigate issues and challenges unique to them.”
In an interview with SIU’s news service, Hambleton noted she has taught the program to an estimated 10,000 women in 33 states.
Triplett says Hambleton and Annie’s Project fit in nicely with the organization’s mission, “which is to provide education” and “balance the demands of family, community and work life with your farming operation.”
Arkansas Women in Agriculture was founded in 2006 as a non-profit and this will be the group’s 14th annual conference.
“Normally, we have about 125 people attend,” Triplett says. “That counts vendors and participants. Our board is made up of volunteers, and they do it because they want to make a difference in agriculture in Arkansas.”
The conference also has two other areas of emphasis: scholarship and philanthropy.
“That is our main thing,” Triplett says. “We offer a scholarship to a female student majoring in an agriculture field, and we give that scholarship at our conference. They are the future of Arkansas agriculture, and we want to help them.”
The philanthropy comes in the form of a service project.
“We have attendees bring non-perishable food, and we take that to the Arkansas Foodbank,” Triplett says. “They collect it for their backpack food program. This will be the second year we have done this. It is something that we hope to do every year.”
Paskewitz says last year 136 pounds of food – from raisels, which are flavored golden raisins, to cans of ravioli – were collected and donated to the food bank.
“The conference is a big task,” Triplett says. “We do try to make a presence for what we do in Arkansas.”
Monica Paskiewitz lives in Melbourne with her husband Michael and their two daughters, Maddie, 6, and Maylee, 2.
Paskiewitz grew up in Evening Shade and went to college at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia. In addition to her duties on the family farm, she works for the United State Department of Agriculture.
She said her “whole life” has been in agriculture.
“I grew up on a beef cattle operation and purchased my first set of heifers at age 16,” Paskiewitz says. “I was the beef herd manager at SAU for two years. My husband and I currently run 40 head of Angus cross cattle and are still active with my parents on their farm.
Agriculture is also the family business.
Her husband is a county extension agent with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, while her father, in addition to their farm, works for the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission.
And Paskiewitz doesn’t regret a thing.
“I love the farming lifestyle,” she says. “It’s hard for me to put it into words because it’s really a ‘feel good feeling.’ I was raised on a farm, and it is part of me. It brings a family together, learning to work together in the good times and the bad. There is no better feeling than watching something, whether it be plant or animal, that you cared for grow, market and succeed.”
Her duties with Arkansas Women in Agriculture have allowed her to see the state’s diversity and, says her favorite thing about the organization is seeing the impact it has on the women involved.
“I love seeing women networking, building relationships, and learning new management techniques to better their farming operations.”
Barbie Johnson splits her time between the family farm in McGehee and Monticello, where she teaches at the University of Arkansas-Monticello.
Johnson comes from one of the most esteemed agriculture families in Arkansas and is part-owner of the Gilliam Farm Partnership.
She serves as treasurer for Arkansas Women in Agriculture and is married to Lee Johnson, and they have three children: Gena, Ashlee and Jake McKinlee Johnson.
Johnson is an agriculture lifer.
“I’ve been doing this my entire life,” she says. “I am blessed to have been raised on our family farm, and I have stayed involved in our family farm even when as an instructor. I’m very proud that our farm was recognized as an Arkansas Century Farm.”
The Arkansas Century Farm designation is given by the state to farms that have been in operation continuously for 100 years or longer.
Farming, Johnson says, is always changing. “There are more enjoyable parts of farming than others. I have to remind myself to look harder for the positive during certain parts of the farming season than others.”
She adds, “I especially like being involved in conservation projects. It’s exciting to watch a project go from planning stages to implementation and know what value it will have for future generations on the farm.”
Johnson takes great joy in her work with Arkansas Women in Agriculture.
“It provides an opportunity to share knowledge, and it serves as a support network,” she said. “I have especially enjoyed growing our mentoring program to young college women entering an agricultural field.”
Donette Spann grew up in Niangua, Mo., but now calls Cabot home. She works for the Arkansas Beef Council and serves Arkansas Women in Agriculture as Second vice president. Spann has a total of 34 years in farming.
She’s married to Jeff Spann, and the couple has two children, Justin, 19, and Katelyn, 15. She also has step-daughters Kristen and Kayla, 28, and a step-son, Brent, 23. There are also two grandchildren in the mix.
Spann graduated from Missouri State University in 1995 with a degree in Animal Science.
Her parents and sister operate cattle farms in Missouri.
“I love everything about farming and being on the farm,” Spann says. “Knowing you start with a baby calf and feed and care for it and it becomes part of your herd or you sell it and know that it will take care of the protein needs as a burger for a school lunch or eaten as a steak at a restaurant or even cooked up at home for someone’s family, I’m happy knowing that I helped feed the world.”
Spann treasures the time she has spent with Arkansas Women in Agriculture.
“I love the friendships and support that comes from knowing there are women in farming who work just as hard as men to raise animals or crops and that there are other women to provide their experiences to help the farm thrive and stay competitive in the agriculture market.”
Spann also knows the value of what farming brings.
“Agriculture is so important, not only to our state but to the world,” she says. “Without it, we would all starve. No matter the size of the farm, there is a right way to get it done. We need to adapt to new technologies to compete in the world marketplace.”