Gracie Lee grew up in a small rural community in eastern Indiana, the kind with farms all around it.
But she lived in town. Her parents didn't farm. One of her grandfathers did, but that was long before her time.
“Growing up in a rural area, I saw it happening all around me and I took a liking to it,” said Lee, 18.
That interest turned into a dream of becoming a farmer. She loved being outside, working with plants and animals, and tending to the earth.
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But growing up, she never really thought it was a possibility. She didn’t have the family connections. She didn’t come from a multi-generational farming family. And, she was a girl.
“In our area, specifically, lots of families have been farming for a long time,” Lee said. “And most of them are male.”
The extent of that gender divide struck her one day in fifth grade. Lee still remembers how it went. She'd worn a John Deere sweatshirt with that classic green and yellow logo of deer mid-jump. It wasn’t long until one of her young classmates took issue with her clothing choice.
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“A boy in my class told me ‘girls can never be farmers,’” Lee recalled.
For Lee, however, that only made her interest stronger.
Still, she struggled to find like-minded people when she was younger. Lee didn’t have many women-on-the-farm role models. But that changed with her introduction to women working in two different youth farming organizations: Future Farmers of America and 4-H. That's when she really started see a path to agriculture.
“What I needed when I was younger was women in agriculture to look up to,” Lee said. “Once I got older and saw other women doing it, it showed me I could, too.”
All she needed was a chance, which came working on a teacher's dairy farm in high school. She also showed dairy cattle. Those experiences helped convince Lee she could do farm work. They also helped inspire her to be confident and speak up for herself.
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Now she is doing a different kind of farming — she is raising ideas and awareness before heading to Purdue University to study ag education. She is finishing a "gap" year between graduating high school in 2022 and going to university in the fall. During this time, she's working as one of seven state reporters for the Indiana chapter of Future Farmers of America.
The reporters live together at the FFA Leadership Center in Trafalgar, about 30 miles south of Indianapolis. Their job is to help with social media for the state organization, and document FFA activities with photographs and articles that often are provided to local media.
“It’s a year you spend giving back to FFA and to agriculture,” Lee said. “It’s been a big act of service, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
In essence, Lee and her colleagues want to show that agriculture in Indiana is more than plows and cows. They also work to show that there is diversity not only in the types of agriculture opportunities in Indiana, but in the people who work on farms. And that includes women, despite what that fifth-grade classmate told her.
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All she needs to do is look at the people around her. Many of Lee’s fellow reporters and FFA officers, as well as the organization’s administrative officials, are female. In her role, she's also had the opportunity to tour many different agribusiness companies in the state, and she said it has been eye-opening to see how there are women who are chemists, agronomists, professors and more.
The growing variety of people and perspectives she's encountered in agriculture present opportunities and new ways to provide food for the world, Lee said, “and that’s important.”
When Lee started her position with FFA last year, she picked a motto. It was intended to be a reminder of how she wanted to live: "Be who you needed when you were younger.”
That’s also why Lee plans to attend Purdue University to study ag education. She thinks back to the ag teachers in her schools in seventh and eighth grade. Most were male. They were great teachers, she said, but she wants to be the role model that she didn’t always have.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Agriculture student strives to be a role model to other young women