Harper: When the farm calls you home

By Tiffany Harper in the Register-Guard, February 27, 2019

Leaving the family farm for more stable and lucrative opportunities is nothing new.

As a young farmer, I knew that many people leave the farm to find more promising jobs, but I also had other reasons to question my future in agriculture. Not only was I female, I was a biracial female who did not fit the stereotype of a “traditional farmer.”

But all of my ancestors were and always have been farmers. My mother was raised on a cattle, vegetable and tea farm in Kenya, and I am the fifth generation on my Caucasian father’s family farm in Junction City.

Despite my deep roots, underrepresentation of my race and gender accompanied by the uncertainty of farming created self-doubt and gave me awareness of barriers I would face.

Fortunately, my involvement in Future Farmers of America, an agricultural youth organization, helped me find a passion for agriculture beyond the family farm. This led me to Oregon State University, where I earned a degree in crop and soil science with a minor in horticulture. Additionally, I interned in entomology, researching native pollinators, organic farming, soil and water quality and viticulture.

Even though I finished my degree, I dropped out of school twice. This was due to family struggles, lacking a sense of belonging among peers, being bullied as a biracial student, and experiencing sexual harassment. With the support of my Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences advisors and other faculty members, I finished my program and retained my passion for farming and agriculture.

To help gain skills as a community educator for the industry, I later began a master’s program at the University of Kentucky in community and leadership development with an emphasis in agricultural education.

I conducted research and worked on special projects related to plant science curriculum evaluation, food systems and food justice curriculum development, and completed a thesis on implicit bias between African-American and Caucasian students in a college of agriculture.

After completing my degree, I became the first African-American female agriculture and natural resources agent in Kentucky Cooperative Extension history and was later recruited to work for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Despite all of my accomplishments and access to higher paying jobs, my family farm never left my heart and soul. While away from home, my mother passed away and my father was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma cancer which he continues to fight today. I could no longer ignore that the farm was calling me home.

I recently moved back to my family farm and am using the invaluable skills that I have gained to positively impact my farm and community.

Since moving back home, I met my soon-to-be husband, a local farmer, and we recently found out that we are expecting a baby, the sixth generation of the family farm.

I hope that my story and experiences will add value to my monthly columns. I welcome readers to ask me questions about farming and agriculture and I will do my best to provide unbiased facts and multiple viewpoints on compelling and relevant issues.

Tiffany Harper writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard, and is a former Oregon Seed Association scholarship recipient.