LIVINGSTON, Tenn. – Katie Lehnert lifts herself expertly up and over the high plank-board fence enclosing about 30 cows. She and her team of three other current and recent TTU ag students – all young women in their 20s – have just sorted part of the 600 or so herd, given vaccinations to some and will ready others for sale.
As assistant manager of the Oakley farm in Overton County, Lehnert, 22, oversees an impressive operation. The 1,800-acre farm, owned by Millard Oakley and his wife J.J. Oakley and leased to Tennessee Tech University, supports what is believed to be the state’s second-largest beef cattle herd of mostly brood cows.
Lehnert began working this January as assistant farm manager of the Oakley Sustainable Ag Center after completing her bachelor’s degree in animal science in May 2009.
If the responsibilities of daily farm operation aren’t enough, Lehnert and her crew – Sasha Blaylock, Ashley Parks and Jennie Alexander – know that they have much to prove.
First, some might question whether four young women can handle the physical demands of such a job. They can and they do. From herding the cattle, giving vaccinations, managing late night calving duties, operating the farm equipment, maintaining the house, barn and pastures, they do it all.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says women are now the principal operators of about 14 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms. The numbers are growing, for sure, and the TTU students training now at the Oakley farm hope to become part of that statistic.Lehnert grew up on a family farm in Lawrence County that supplied beef for her family’s restaurant. This type of work is what she knows best.
“The work can be a real physical strain, but you learn how to improvise,” she said.
The most difficult aspects of running a farm of this size aren’t physical. “The hardest part is the economics of a farm. The farm has to make money. It pays our salaries,” Lehnert said.
This critical aspect of the job is much more intellectual: The decisions they make every day have a direct impact on the bottom line. The work these women do supports not only their own salaries, but every aspect of the farm’s operation. In an era when many TTU academic programs are considering budget cuts, the farm simply must support itself on the revenue it generates.
“We’re unique among university farms in Tennessee in that we live on generated revenue,” said Jim Ligon, who is TTU’s farm manager for the Oakley Farm as well as the much smaller Shipley Farm located about two miles west of TTU’s Cookeville main campus. “These cows are paying the bills. This is a commercial, real-world farm that lets students perform under real-world conditions.”
According to the Tennessee Historical Society, the Oakley farm has been a fixture in the region since 1792, when Gilbert Christian was deeded 1,208 acres in a land grant from the state of North Carolina in return for his service in the Revolutionary War. Christian is an ancestor to Millard V. Oakley and his brother, R. L. Oakley.
“This farm has been in my family as a livestock operation for almost 220 years. The relationship with Tennessee Tech and all the students working and learning at the farm has been most satisfying to us. J.J. and I could not be any happier or more proud of our relationship with Tennessee Tech,” Oakley said.
TTU began operating the farm about a year ago via a $10 annual lease with the Oakleys. The property is actually in two tracts – about 1,350 acres east of Livingston near Monterey and another 450 acres near Roaring River in Putnam County.
“When I think of the donation of the farm by the Oakleys, I still have to pinch myself so I know it’s really happening,” said C. Pat Bagley, dean for the College of Agricultural and Human Sciences. “Millard and J.J. Oakley have been absolutely wonderful to partner with in this exciting operation that gives students hands-on experiential learning opportunities that they will only receive at Tennessee Tech.”
In the student cafeteria on the Cookeville campus, Chartwell Dining Service is serving ground beef, tenderloins, sausage, bratwurst and pork loins produced on TTU farms, marketed as a “Tech Pride” product. Those products soon will be available to other retail outlets in the Cookeville area, Bagley said.
“Where else in Tennessee can students go to a university where their foods are being produced right on campus, using commercial processing plants. Combine that with the organic foods being produced at the Waters’ Organic Farm also operated by the university, and you provide students a broad education from conception to consumption of foods that provides them experiences that will leave them trained and ready for many job opportunities,” he said.
“Earlier this semester at the School of Agriculture Scholarship Banquet, we had several high school seniors here on campus who are accepting scholarships to attend Tennessee Tech. These students are some of the best and brightest we have in Tennessee, and several told me they chose Tech because of the opportunities to gain real-world training in a major livestock operation,” Bagley said. “One young lady informed me that she had been offered larger scholarships to both the University of Memphis and to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, but knew that Tennessee Tech would offer her the best well-rounded education.”
Sasha Blaylock of Rinnie, who is also a May 2009 graduate in animal science, began working on the farm in August and lives in the old farmhouse just steps away from the main barn. “I really love it here, just walking across the back yard and being here,” she said.
Soon, the Oakley farm experience could become accessible to more people interested in Tennessee agriculture. Ligon says plans call for developing orchards, walking trails and wildlife observation posts to attract agritourists. “We’re very much in start-up mode now. We want to expand.”
Getting there takes work, and the Oakley farm hands say they are up to the task. Ashley Parks of Lincoln County, an August 2009 graduate in animal science, wipes her hands clean and admits, “What we do isn’t for everybody. It’s more a way of life.”
Jennie Alexander agrees. She’ll graduate this May, also with a degree in animal science, before moving home to Gallatin to work for her parents. She plans to have her own cattle some day.
“I’m excited because I’ll be out of school soon. But I’ll miss the farm. This has been my best Tech experience.”