Kristin Pyle says her dad tells a story about a cross-country drive from Boston to San Francisco “sometime in the 70s,” when he fell in love with Iowa.
“He was driving, and all of a sudden everything was green and pretty, and he just thought it was the prettiest place he’d ever seen.
“Most of my life, growing up, we heard ‘We’re going to move to Iowa,’” she says.
The farmers in Iowa know that everything is green because of fruitful black dirt, quite an upgrade (at least for growing corn and beans) from the red clay in North Carolina, where Kristin grew up on a family farm with her two sisters, her mom, Nancy, and her Iowa-loving dad, Bill Tucker. The North Carolina farm was in the family for at least three generations. Kristin remembers a big garden, a roadside stand and the family trying its hand at corn, soybeans, wheat … all put in the ground when Bill, a cardiovascular surgeon, could fit in the time. “I remember Mom would be running out to the field with coffee because he would have to finish harvesting in the middle of the night,” says Kristin. “It was the only time he had available to do farm work.”
When Bill retired from medicine, it was Iowa or bust—he and Nancy wanted to be full-time farmers. “I thought we could grow grain here and have fun,” he says, driving around the 645 acres he now owns just a few miles outside Colo, Iowa. He rents another 80 from a neighbor, and is quick to mention that they were “lucky to put this much land together.” He looks around at the mid-July corn. “Best soil in the world,” he says.
After decades of dreaming, it makes sense Bill would be driving a pickup across Iowa acreage today. What takes a little explaining is how Kristin ended up riding here with him, after leaving the farm in North Carolina for college “with no plan to come back to the farm at all … not at all,” she laughs.
“Rice University was about as far away as my mom would let me go,” she says. A self-described “math and science nerd,” Kristin studied civil engineering. “I really liked civil/structural because there’s the soil aspect, the hydrology, and I got to go out to construction sites and be hands-on, get dirty.”
Her parents made the big move to Iowa during her youngest sister’s senior year in high school and, shortly thereafter, Kristin spent the summer on the new farm helping oversee construction on her parents’ farmhouse. “I met an Ames man,” she says, and moved to the college town—home of Iowa State University—in 2009. Her now-husband, Randy Pyle, an accountant, is “the only city boy in Iowa,” she jokes.
Randy will earn his farm stripes, though, as Bill and Nancy transition the operation to Kristin. What could normally be (and usually is) a fraught proposal—generational succession—will be eased by his financial acumen, says Kristin, and by the fact that Bill isn’t anxious about passing the business to her. While her sisters have some interest in investing in the enterprise, it’s Kristin who found her home back on the farm.
Engineering jobs took her as far as Atlanta and even Hawaii, but how better for the farm girl to enjoy her love of outdoors and “getting dirty” than growing corn and beans? Kristin still works her forensic engineering day job in Ames, where she and Randy live, again following her former surgeon dad’s lead with an off-farm job.
While the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture from 2012 showed a slight uptick in young producers under 35 compared to 2007, “beginning” farmers—those, younger or older, in the business for 10 years or fewer—had dropped almost 20% over that five-year period. The number of those on the farm less than five years had dropped even more. In Canada, the trend is considerably bleaker: Between 1991 and 2011, the number of farms where the oldest operator was less than 40 years old declined almost 75%.
Kristin, who is 32 and wrapping up her second growing season working with Bill, is bucking that trend. And she’s in the vanguard of another. She and her parents make no big deal at all of her desire to be a female operator in a male-dominated industry, still the case in U.S. farming, where less than 14% of farm operators are women. It’s about double that in Canada—“Yay, Canada!” Kristin laughs—but she’s unfazed.
“Every engineering company I’ve worked for, at some point I’ve been the only female engineer in the office,” she says. “And, my engineering background gives me a different perspective on how to do things.” The message is clear: Not an issue.
“She knew she was going to have to use her [education],” says Nancy. “It is a tremendous advantage to have that mechanical ability, and she’s got it.” Farming is still a physical job, but “I think the equipment and technology has made it less of a man’s world because it takes some of the physicality out of it,” says Kristin.
Meanwhile, the soil and hydrology principles of structural engineering show up with compaction prevention techniques in the farm’s no-till fields. Loaded grain carts rarely, if ever, enter the fields, where the water table is high. “Someone told me this [part of Iowa] used to be a swamp,” says Bill, “and it’s still pretty wet.” Loaded carts travel primarily on grass roads left unplanted at regular intervals. “We’ll lose a couple of acres here and there,” says Bill, “but nothing was going to grow in those end rows anyway” because of compaction, he says.
Kristin is bringing her dad along technology-wise while learning the agronomy ropes from him. It started with autosteer, though Bill was reluctant. “At first I thought, ‘Wait, I came here because I like to drive tractors,’” he laughs, but the efficiency in eliminating overlap was too hard to ignore. Bill says yield data is telling them where tiling in those wet fields will be needed or will need to be updated, another way technology is influencing the farm now and for the future.
The two drilled soybeans while using their planter for corn, meaning the crops could be planted in their respective plots at the same time. They also use the drill to plant cover crops on their soybean land and even custom-plant cover crops for neighbors. Research shows the economics of buying a grain drill to plant soybeans vary depending on acreage and market price, but the time savings are real, and that’s important to Kristin.
“It’s up to you if you’re going to make farming your whole life. I have a husband in town, and I would like to start a family,” she says. “I would like to do other things.”
Kristin eyes growth with some skepticism, at least in the traditional sense of expansion. But, as Nancy says, “I can see her doing something really creative with the farm.”
“I would much rather stay a little bit smaller and look into alternative or organic crops,” Kristin says. “Keeping it a manageable size so I can do it myself—or possibly with my mom or a sister—is appealing to me.”
“We raised all the girls to have their own careers, to stand on their own,” says Nancy. Kristin acknowledges she still has much to learn, but couldn’t have a better teacher. “I’m living the dream,” she says, and elbows her dad. “And he’s teaching me.”
Bill smiles, lips pursed. “Aaaw, she knows how,” he drawls. Then, seriously: “She’s teaching us.”