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Think Pink for Women in Agriculture

Barry Schmitt’s business is growing, and his family is growing into it. Meanwhile, a promise to his daughter fulfilled is becoming a symbol for a new generation of female operators.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Cody James

17-year-old Rayelle Schmitt is wrapping up her first haying season with her own tractor and baler. You can’t miss her in the field. She’s the one in the pink—yes, pink—Fendt 828, pulling a Massey Ferguson 2270XD baler.

That baler? It’s also pink. “Bright pink,” says Rayelle, with a sly smile.

She remembers the moment she thought it up. “I was in the field one day, and I had just gone out in the tractor, riding around with my oldest brother, Tyler,” she says. “And I remember saying that I wanted to drive one myself.” She was 12, and pink was her favorite color. “I wanted to be a bright pink baler driving around amidst all the green (tractors) and red (balers).”

In fact, she put the request on the record with FarmLife five years ago, at the end of a video story about Barr-Ag, her family’s business. The younger Rayelle, on camera, says she asked her dad for a “pink Fendt and/or baler. And he said, ‘Yeah, when you do work for me, I’ll get you one.’” She pauses and smiles. “And I’ve been hoping for it ever since.” That request stuck with her dad, Barry, president of Barr-Ag Limited in Olds, Alberta.

He delivered on both.

And though the equipment is unique—“I’ve never seen another one like it,” says Rayelle—when it comes time to work, the pink combo is just another part of a massive fleet of Fendt tractors and Massey Ferguson balers that help keep Barr-Ag running and growing.

Rayelle, as the pink combo’s operator, is also becoming an integral part of the business, though she admits she’s fairly unique, as well. “I think the idea of a female farmer is still kind of surprising to some people,” she says, though she does see more and more female operators on some of the small family farms around her hometown. “Sometimes guys can make it seem like it’s more of a male job and it might be overwhelming to some, but I definitely think that it’s growing slowly” as an opportunity for women, she says.

    Family Farm, Big Business

 

Family Farm, Big Business

While Barr-Ag is decidedly a family farm, it’s not a small operation. And it keeps growing. When FarmLife first visited with Barr-Ag five years ago, the company had increased its production 10-fold in its first 11 years of existence, since 2004. It was already Canada’s largest hay exporter, built on a reputation for quality product. While Barr-Ag has shipped all over the world, its primary market is Asia; “Japan, Korea and China and the three main legs of our market,” says Barry. Japan and Korea are major buyers of timothy grass, which is where Barr-Ag became established; China’s appetite for alfalfa had added to their output and acreage by 2015.

Barr-Ag was shipping some 60,000 metric tons of hay back then. Today? “Well, we’ve increased our sales by 30%,” says Barry. Even during one of the most challenging years imaginable, Barr-Ag is shipping 100,000 tons of product. Amid a global pandemic that hit Asia first, Barr-Ag just kept focusing on their primary consumer. “Our customers get up every morning and eat three-and-a-half percent of their body weight,” jokes Barry, dairy cattle and beef cattle alike.

Barr-Ag’s focus on cows as customers has opened new markets for growth, beyond its massive hay exports. Five years ago, its wheat straw business was just getting off the ground, putting up about 3,000 bales; this year, that will be 100,000 bales. They’ll also add dehydrated corn silage to their sales offering, exporting around 30,000 tons to Asia. “We will sell anywhere in the world,” says Barry.

That kind of promise takes capacity, but also infrastructure. Barr-Ag has made excellent use, for instance, of HayCloud, an export software that runs on any operating system. Every truckload is tagged and tracked from harvest to end user, starting with a few taps on a tablet in the tractor seat. The software can even produce export documents based on the country that originates the order, and sort for variety and quality for the customer.

“It all keeps the equipment busy,” says Barry. “The tractors are always busy. The balers are busier. So that’s good.”

    Busy Family

 

Busy Family

Rayelle’s pink combo alone put up some 16,000 bales, and she stayed busy right up to time to head back to school.

“We have a text thread with the whole family,” says Barry. “We had to remember that she was in school, because we kept texting her when she was back in school, asking her where she was, if she could come run a baler…”

“Yeah, I had to tell them to make a new group chat because I was getting interrupted in my classes,” laughs Rayelle. “And the teacher told me to put my phone outside the classroom.”

Barry has three sons—Tyler, Taylor and Riley—that work full-time in the business, and a fourth, Ronan, who is taking a gap year from college and has worked on the farm during this unusual year affected by COVID-19. And while he says he won’t pressure Rayelle to join beyond her role as an operator, he recognizes the talent she could bring to the business, as well as her acumen for doing business in new ways.

Rayelle understands the business, and its challenges. “We’re having to adapt constantly to supply and demand across the world,” she says. “We have to make sure we’re producing what there’s a big demand for.” COVID-19 has stalled shipping at times, as well, she says, while making digital communication a necessity.

“I’m in my fifties, and my history is to connect face-to-face,” says Barry. “I understand our markets, I understand our business very well, but selling through the internet… the younger generation will have to drive that one.”

“Honestly, I’m not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life,” says Rayelle. “But until I figure it out, I will happily take the opportunity to work alongside my family.” And it’s an opportunity she has earned. “I get my hands dirty, and I have long hours, just like everyone else,” she says. “Some people think that being the only girl in the field, and having a bright pink tractor and baler, that I might be favored. But I see it as a badge, as a way of showing I earned my spot in that seat.”

And she loves what her bright pink tractor/baler combo represents. “My dad, once he actually made the promise and he told me a couple of years ago that it was set in stone and was going to happen… it was super exciting,” she says. “I think not only was it a good way to fulfill the wish of his daughter, but also to represent women in agriculture in general.”