Diann Prechel-Shearer left her family's cotton farming behind and was creating her own path when her father's illness brought her back to the fields. Now, nearly 15 years later, she embraces the farming life, as partner with her father in Cotton & Baily Farms, and with her brother in Prechel Farms, both in Coolidge, AZ.
Heading into Women's History Month, Prechel-Shearer's story is especially notable, for she's something of an anomaly – a woman in a traditionally male-dominated profession. Women as cotton producers is a modern development, and one that brings with it modern changes in the industry. Not only are women like Prechel-Shearer looking to balance their personal lives with the obligations of the farm, they're also balancing farming and eco-consciousness.
Women's History Month celebrates the diverse and significant historical accomplishments of women. As female farmers like Prechel-Shearer adopt environmentally-friendly techniques and technology, they are becoming part of the exciting new chapters being added to U.S. cotton's enduring story.
Prechel-Shearer's road back to the farm was winding. She went to the University of Arizona for business degrees in finance and personnel management. Her first job out of college was as an assistant buyer for Elizabeth Arden, where she worked until 1993. That's when she got the life-changing call: her father had become gravely ill.
"I didn't like my job much and thought I could help him out while he was recovering – and I've been on the farm ever since," says Prechel-Shearer, now 38.
The idea of a woman managing a cotton farm is a modern innovation and not the only thing that has changed about cotton farming in recent years. Growers like Prechel-Shearer are melding time-honored agricultural processes with technology in eco-conscious moves that benefit the industry and the environment.
For example, Prechel-Shearer employs precision agriculture techniques that detail soil conditions in exact areas of the field. This way, she can vary the application rate for fertilizers, herbicides and water, resulting in significant reductions in their usage. Genetically-engineered cotton seeds further reduce the frequency of herbicides and pesticides.
These changes mean that, compared to just 25 years ago, Prechel-Shearer's farm requires 45 percent less irrigation to grow a pound of cotton. In the past 15 years, the number of pest control applications has been cut in half.
Prechel-Shearer is part of a movement that has produced high-yield crops that require less land. Today's farmers produce 18 million bales of cotton on just 14 million acres. In the 1920s, 44 million acres were needed to produce the same yield volume. Cotton farmers that work cleaner and greener have also contributed to a significant reduction in carbon emissions – comparable to the permanent removal of more than 27,000 cars from the road.
Prechel-Shearer is also active in the cotton industry at large, acting as Vice Chairman of the Global Strategies and Implementation Executive Committee of the Cotton Incorporated Board of Directors. She was also the first and only woman on the Arizona Cotton Growers Board of Directors and County Farm Service Agency (FSA) committee, and president of the Casa Grande Valley Cotton Women.
By shepherding such substantive change, women farmers like Prechel-Shearer are rewriting history in this centuries-old agrarian business.
"I love farming," she declares. "I love the freedom, the wide open spaces, the challenges and the people. Farmers are some of the best, most honest and hardworking people I know. They say that whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, and farming has definitely made me stronger in every aspect of my life."
Cotton Incorporated, funded by U.S. growers of upland cotton and importers of cotton and cotton textile products, is the research and marketing company representing upland cotton. The Program is designed and operated to improve the demand for and profitability of cotton.