‘Farm girl’ connected to soil

Most young children drift off to sleep under the spell of lullabies and their mothers’ soothing whispers. But not Amanda Bell.

As a farm baby, she preferred relaxing to the rumble of a diesel engine and the smell of fresh dirt.

“Any opportunity I had to be with my grandfather, I would be there,” said Bell, from Covington, Tenn. “I don’t know of too many people who could say they fell asleep on a Caterpillar D8 bulldozer because they wanted to be with their granddaddy all day.”

As Bell grew up, fascination with her grandfather Jimmy Wood’s way of life grew stronger even as the rest of her immediate family became less interested in farming. At 11, she was operating a bulldozer dragging logs and driving an old Ford pickup pulling a water tank.

“I remember thinking I was the thing. I was really doing something. I wanted to show my grandfather that I could hang with him.”

At 13, she put her first disk in a ditch, although she managed to extricate the rig without her grandfather noticing. Or at least, he never mentioned the injured ditch bank to her.

“I was a girl who would get all dressed up for church and conduct myself as a young lady, but I have a true farm girl heart,” she said. “It always intrigued me how much my grandfather knew. He had to multitask, wear a different hat for equipment, inputs and marketing. It always amazed me that he could look at a piece of equipment, know what the field needed to look like and figure out what modifications needed to be done.”

Even as she grew up and entered high school, Bell couldn’t pull herself away from the lure of the field. But she didn’t want to just be around farming. She wanted to be a farmer.

Her dream would not have to wait for long.

Through school, Bell was involved in her local FFA chapter, and showed horses and cattle. “I was big into preparing speeches and parliamentary procedure.”

As a senior in college at the University of Tennessee, Martin, she continued her involvement with FFA and worked for the boll weevil eradication program as an airport recorder in Covington, Tenn., and occasionally ran traps on a four-wheeler.

After college, she got a job with Cargill in Memphis as a sales customer service representative and started learning the marketing side of agribusiness. “The last year of college we had a class on grain marketing and the teacher was very interesting. Marketing a crop was one thing I never really thought about until I started working there.

“When I got into Cargill, I found that the people were very much a family. Everyone was willing to help you learn. William Wilkinson at Cargill was truly an inspiration to me and still is to this day. He took the time to break everything down to give me a good understanding of marketing and the background of the business.

“I really enjoyed the hustle and bustle there, and knowing I had a lot of things happening, and I was helping farmers. You get to learn so much about farmers’ lives and their families, and at the same time you’re helping them understand marketing. Most farmers are so busy with day-to-day tasks that they don’t have the time follow the markets and world trade.”

Bell worked in grain merchandizing at Cargill for a little over two years, building her knowledge of pricing strategies and tools.

One day, a co-worker at Cargill challenged her to follow through on her dream to farm. She took him up on it and in 2006 she officially became a part-time wheat and soybean farmer, while continuing to work at Cargill.

Her dream had a few bumps in the road.

“The first year I planted wheat, it didn’t get planted until Dec. 16. I was waiting on another producer to harvest beans off the field. I had already booked it, and I was starting to get stressed. We finally got it in and I averaged only 39 bushels. Mine was heading out when we had a really bad freeze.”

Her 2007 double-cropped soybean crop fell short of the 22-bushel yield Bell booked. “I knew better than that from being in the marketing business, but as a farmer I had the mentality that I could make the yield. My grandfather says I needed to go through the experience myself — because I’m hard-headed.”

In 2007, Bell didn’t plant wheat in the fall and went instead with full-season beans. At harvest in the fall of 2008, she averaged about 42 bushels per acre.

While she knew the mechanical side of farming from her experiences around her grandfather’s farm, she depended on Tipton County Farmers Co-op for expert consulting. “Wyatt True and Joey Caldwell helped me with advice on seed and chemical and developing a farm plan. Tipton County Farmers gave me the opportunity with some credit.

“I’ve also depended on a few local farmers to help harvest and haul. Most of them are friends of my grandfather, and have seen me grow up running around with him.”

For young people just starting out in farming, the local co-op is often the first place they look to for assistance and advice. “We don’t necessarily always look at the dollar first, or what a customer has to offer from an economic standpoint,” said Caldwell, manager of Tipton County Farmers. “We also know we have to have new blood in the industry, or our business is not going to be sustainable.”

Caldwell says Bell’s biggest strength is her family. “She has farming in her blood. She’s very outgoing, and she has a very positive outlook, which makes her so easy to deal with.”

Bell also has drawn knowledge from other women she’s met in agriculture through Annie Project, based in Jonesboro, Ark. “One of the women was a nurse in her 50s who lost her son and husband (both cotton producers) in the same year. She quit her job so she could harvest the cotton, which was between 2,500 and 3,000 acres. Her story touched my heart. In farming, the family is so close-knit, and neighbors are always there to lend a hand. They are some of the best people on earth.”

The stories she heard from women in Annie’s Project encouraged her to “grow my farm. I’d like to say one day that Amanda Bell farms around 500 acres. I gave myself five to seven years to do that.”

That dream didn’t change when in July 2008, she was promoted to be a part of Cargill’s new venture into crop insurance. Her territory, which she works with fellow farm marketer Chris Finan, includes Mississippi and west Tennessee.

The crop insurance job “is an opportunity for me to have a personal working relationship with local farmers. Most of the people I talk to are gentlemen who have been farming all their lives. Some of them may have been in the field since they were children.

“I can work with them on a marketing plan that ties in with crop insurance. We can provide a floor with crop insurance where they can start the marketing process.”

Bell farms about 92 acres today, not quite enough to make a living at it, but enough to keep her connected to the soil. “There are not a lot of girls that have had the opportunity that I have had to be around agriculture. What I’m doing is more hobby farming right now, but I’m learning. To me, if you’re not learning something every day, you’re not enjoying life.”

When asked to explain her love of farming, Bell said, “Farming is the backbone of this country, and I’m very proud to have a history of farming in the family and to be a part of it.

“It’s not the same business it was 10 years ago. You have to stay current on technology, be computer literate, market savvy and willing to accept change continuously. I’m very thankful for the opportunities the Lord has blessed me with. I hope that my experiences and willingness will be an inspiration to other women in business.”

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