VALLEY GROVE, W.Va. — Deep in the West Virginia hills, the brisk October wind swirling through her short-cropped white hair, Suzan Smith makes the trek down to her pole barn, filled with Polled Hereford cows and heifers.
They watch placidly as Smith meanders through the pavilion, pointing out one here and there, describing life histories. She has names for some. She dotes on them and speaks with pride of her stock’s genetics.
Working this Ohio County land isn’t new to Smith, 68. She grew up here. Her family’s roots go back generations, with her parents and grandparents. But she left as a young woman. Her family continued farming.
She went into education, spending 43 years in the Hancock County, W.Va., school system, retiring as superintendent in 2015. She never planned to return to run the farm.
“I didn’t think I wanted to pitch any more hay or shovel any more manure,” she mused.
Change of plans
That changed when her brother, George Smith, was diagnosed with heart problems and late-stage cancer. He had plans. He was just getting started, having retired from teaching to return to the farm full time. He and their father, now deceased, had worked together to transition from a dairy with 30 Jersey cows to a purebred Hereford farm, calling it Smith Hereford Farm.
“He had the true love for farming,” she recalled.
Her brother didn’t want to sell the farm, so as his health declined, Smith made him a promise: She would continue to run the farm as if he were there.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” she said. “In all fairness, once I got back into it, the love came right away.”
He died at age 69 in March 2015, and Suzan Smith wrapped up her career in education in June 2015, trading the boardroom and business attire in for manual labor and barn clothes.
“I truly loved the 43 years I had in education,” she said.
In a Dec. 17, 2014, article from The Review, in East Liverpool, Ohio, announcing her retirement, Smith was lauded as a hard-working, dedicated administrator.
“I was blessed to have so many wonderful people surround me in every position that I had,” she said. “It made that career enjoyable.”
It’s hard to compare the two jobs though.
“Although this is an awful lot of hard work, there’s rewards in it,” Smith said wryly. “I haven’t had one cow file a grievance on me yet.”
Just like George
She is proud of what has been accomplished. Her brother had begun building a herd of 30 registered stock, most of which are still on the farm. He purchased a son of Revolution, considered one of the breed’s top indexing sires. Suzan Smith calls the bull, “Old Man.”
Her brother had started purchasing new equipment and even began a new fence. She has carried on, tearing down an old barn and adding three new buildings — two pole barns and a machine shed.
She also added another bull, a grandson of Revolution, to diversify her herd’s genetics. She calls him, “Buster.”
And the new fence is done.
Labor of love
Smith believes she is carrying on her brother’s legacy well. He liked Herefords, and she does too. She is keeping up with the registrations, something he emphasized.
“My brother took good care of them,” she said. “We’re taking, I think, excellent care of them.”
That “we” includes her neighbor, and George Smith’s friend, Dale Ritchea, who has become her right-hand man. Now retired after 30 years in UPS freight, Ritchea views his role as a way to honor his late friend.
They bring the cattle in every day and feed them a corn supplement. Her stock performs well with combined forage and grain, she said, and it gives them a chance to regularly look over the animals.
She and Ritchea talk about their management of the animals. The goal is ease and efficiency, using the motto, “work smarter, not harder.” They built new handling facilities and purposely select stock that have a calm demeanor when handled.
This year, Smith had two calvings: one in the spring and one this fall. They wean calves at six months. She sells privately, for breeding stock and butchering, as well as some trips to the sale yard.
Now that she has two herd sires, she plans to keep replacement heifers.
Smith owns 138 acres, about 80 acres of which are pasture. Ritchea cuts about 80 acres of hay for her, including from neighbors’ fields. This year, while the rain has hampered those efforts, the forage has grown well all season.
She flips through a catalog from a recent herd dispersal sale at Morrison Stock Farm in Jeromesville, Ohio. Handwritten notes mark many photos, recording prices and other information. She purposely didn’t take her checkbook. Her herd tallies about 60 head right now. She doesn’t need any more.
She admits she’s got the farming bug.
“You gotta love the land,” she said.
Coal mine conundrum
But it’s not without its challenges and uncertainty. Within the last two years, Tunnel Ridge coal mine began work under her property. Her new buildings have had damage, she said.
She lost her well, and only three of 16 developed springs remain. The company is bringing in water.
“That all has to be dealt with,” she said. “You can’t have cattle if you don’t have water.”
It’s a learning curve for Smith. After decades in education, she finds herself back in the role of student.
Over the past few years, she has set about learning everything she can about beef cattle genetics, nutrition and management, farming and animal husbandry. She reads copiously, attends as many workshops and seminars as possible, and participates in farm bureau and other organizations.
“I’m not shy about calling the veterinarian, and I’m not shy about calling the gentleman that gets our feed ready, because he’s got a wealth of knowledge. You’ll meet very interesting people that have been in the business for years, and I’ll pick their brain,” Smith said.
“I just try to learn from all of it.”
Advice for beginners
It’s something of a unique position: Smith finished one full career, only to start another one in agriculture. She has some practical tips for anyone looking to jump in.
“Take it one day at a time,” she said.
Know your capabilities, both in finances and workload. Farming is expensive, she added, listing the equipment, land and supplies needed.
“It’s a money pit. You have to do some planning and not do everything at one time,” she said. “Have goals, and work toward those goals.”
Learn from other women at W.Va. conference
Suzan Smith may not have taken a traditional path to farming, but as a woman in West Virginia agriculture, she plays a key role in fueling the state’s bottom line.
That’s because women contribute approximately $62.4 million to the economy, according to Jennifer Ours Williams, associate dean of West Virginia University Extension Service.
In 2017, there were 20,400 farms in the state. Roughly 30 percent of those farmers are women, a number that includes both primary operators and contributors, Williams said.
In order to offer more educational and networking opportunities, WVU Extension will host the annual Women in Agriculture conference, Nov. 2-3, at Oglebay Resort and Conference Center, in Wheeling, W.Va.
“It’s just a great opportunity for women to come together and learn and share and grow,” Williams said.
Approximately 150 women are already registered. Williams said walk-ins are welcome.
For more information, log onto extension.wvu.edu/conferences/wia. Registration fee is $115 for the full conference.
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