Torrington woman farms for livingWritten by Saige Albert
Torrington – Lois Van Mark didn’t grow up thinking she was going to be involved in the agriculture industry.
“I never intended to be a farmer,” she comments. “I went to college outside of Wyoming and got a degree in art with an emphasis in print-making.”
With a slim job market when she graduated, Van Mark looked at pursuing graduate school. But her path brought her straight back to the family farm in Goshen County, where she maintains a farming operation today that focuses primarily on dryland wheat.
Van Mark currently runs her family’s operation, which was started by her great-grandfather.
“My great-granddad homesteaded the main 160 acres that we have. My granddad farmed, and he added to it,” she says. “My dad Jack took it over, and he continued to add more land. I’ve also added just a little bit. This farm has been in the family now for quite some time.”
Dryland farming today
Van Mark farms under a no-till system on her family’s operation today. While she has maintained the dryland operation, Van Mark also notes that she has made changes to continually improve the farm.
“When I got started we were about three-quarters no-till,” she says. “Today we are 100 percent.”
She has also diversified their crop rotation.
“In the last couple of years, I’ve planted safflower,” Van Mark adds. “Safflower is an oil seed used for cooking.”
“We’re always looking for new options,” she says. “Because we are dryland, our opportunities for variety in crops are limited, and we have to be able to rotate crops.”
Crop rotations provide the opportunity to control both weeds and insects that impact crops by interrupting their lifecycles.
“By rotating crops, I am able to break the weed cycle or bug cycle and overcome some of the obstacles that can become entrenched from doing the same old thing all the time,” Van Mark explains.
Role of technology
Van Mark has also embraced technology in her operation and keeps up with the latest gadgets available to improve yields on the farm.
“When GPS and steer assist technology for tractors was starting to get well-known, my dad and I were watching it. We thought it was pretty cool,” she explains. “We never thought it would work here, and we didn’t think it would pay.”
However, in 2009 when she returned to the family farm the last time, she ordered a GPS system for her tractor and had it installed.
“I can keep track of and measure the chemicals I’m spraying so much better,” Van Mark explains. “It definitely pays. The first year we had it, it paid for itself.”
While predicting the future of technology is a difficult task, Van Mark says she will continue to utilize new technologies as they become available, commenting, “I’m not going to be the first in line. I want the bugs worked out a bit, but for the most part, I step up to the plate and give things a try.”
Advice for others
In reflecting on her career, Van Mark says, “The biggest piece of advice I have is to be firm but flexible. It is easy to say, but it’s a lot harder to do than one might think.”
Getting too engrained in a pattern or tradition “because grandpa did it that way” can be a real weakness, she says, even though it is easy.
“We decided that we had to be really flexible, but firm in what we did,” she says. “We have to look at a scenario, make a decision and then go with it. We also need to be able to take the results of our decisions, learn from them and make the necessary changes to overcome whatever obstacles come up.”
Reflecting on a career
Van Mark looks back on her career noting, “I think people need to broaden their skillsets. The best way to do that is to circulate and network with people in the industry – both agriculture in general and in a specific area of ag.”
She credits the Wyoming L.E.A.D. program with much of her success, noting that the program provided her the knowledge and opportunity to develop many skills.
“The Wyoming L.E.A.D. program was great for me,” she says. “It really takes the rough edges off and takes people who have potential and educates them. The program hones their edges and gives them good experience in communicating the good story about agriculture.”
After her participation in the L.E.A.D. program, Van Mark became more active politically, serving on the Torrington City Council, as a Goshen County Commissioner and later as the state executive director for Farm Service Agency (FSA) under President George W. Bush.
“That job took me to every nook and cranny of this state, and I learned so much about the diversity of agriculture in this state,” she says. “It was phenomenal, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
While she worked at FSA, however, Van Mark continued to stay involved on the farm, commenting, “Once I got involved on the farm, I decided agriculture was a really important job, so I hung around.”
Focus on women in agriculture
USDA’s Alyn Kiel comments, “From the classroom to the farm to the boardroom, women in agriculture are helping to pave the way for a better future. As leaders, it is our responsibility to make sure the next generation of women is educated, encouraged and empowered to take on the challenges of meeting the world’s growing food, fuel and fiber needs.”
In Wyoming, 35 percent of farmers are women. These 6,745 women create $81.2 million in economic benefit for the state on 12,151,085 acres.
In recognizing the important work of women in Wyoming agriculture, the Wyoming Livestock Roundup featured four women from across the state in the month of October – Darcy Axtell, Dixie Guild, Molly Meyer and Lois Van Mark. These women have made various contributions to the agriculture industry and represent just a few of the strong females who support the industry.