Michele De Waal didn’t choose the ag life. The ag life chose her.
She was raised in a family of farmers in rural Kansas. “My grandfather served in World War 2, and came back after the war and built his farm from scratch,” she says. “He was my childhood hero. His love for the land and for helping others stays with me today.”
From the time she was a small child, she has been involved in agriculture – from harvesting the crops and helping move equipment to making meals. When her grandfather reached retirement age, he handed off a small acreage to her parents.
Still, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that she would continue down the agricultural path. She studied psychology and art in college. Michele is a mom to four kids ranging in age from 13 to 22, and stayed at home for many years before beginning a successful career as an insurance agent and district coordinator for Aflac. “During my time as an insurance agent, many of my policyholders and accounts were farmers or in ag-related industries such as grain elevators, feedlots and implement dealerships.”
She began working more directly in agriculture after her husband, Ian de Waal, purchased their Valley dealership. “My original commitment was for one year. I thought, ‘I’ll whip it into shape and go back to insurance.’ Eight years later, I’m still whipping it into shape,” Michele says with a laugh.
Coach and Conservationist
No day is ever the same for Michele, and she would describe herself as the hub of their business’s complex wheel. “We own Tri-State Irrigation, Precision Ag & Water Management Solutions in St. Francis, Kansas, and sell and service irrigation equipment. We’re also advocates for water conservation and moisture probes, and farm managers for over 1,000 irrigated acres. As the hub, everything within our business travels back around to me.”
She works in many different facets of the business, from marketing, business development and strategy to data management, time management and accounting. But Michele thinks the most important role she plays is coach: “Agriculture is an emotional roller coaster at times; there are so many highs and lows. Devastating crop losses, variable market prices, not enough rain or too much rain, long hours in the summer spent working in the heat … during those times, my coaching job kicks in. I’m in there encouraging people to stay positive, supporting them and sometimes ‘tough-loving’ them through it.”
Expanding Roles, More Recognition for Women
“Traditional farming is still about the planting and harvesting, but today it’s also about marketing your business, strategies for contracting and data analysis, tracking and storage,” she says. “Women contribute to agriculture in roles from being a stay-at-home mom helping her husband all the way to corporate agriculture.”
Michele sees change coming to the landscape of agriculture, and increased roles for females to play. “I feel with the fast-paced changes we are seeing in agriculture, women are a great fit for those changes that are coming. By nature, women tend to be very detailed and insightful strategic planners.”
The De Waals’ area of northwest Kansas has noted an increase in female agronomists, and they are seeing more women working in the area of agriculture technology and water conservation. “As the agriculture industry continues to change, I believe there will be many more opportunities.”
The road to recognition has not been without some bumps. Six years ago, the De Waals attended a large industry conference where every female attending was listed as a guest of their male spouse. Michele expressed her feelings – that many of the women attending had significant roles in the businesses and should be listed as such. Her observation brought about change. “Since then, we are given the option to be listed as guests or as our specific role in the business.”
Team Effort and Passion
Michele says her husband, Ian, is supportive and repeatedly champions the often-overlooked contributions women make to agriculture, advocating a place at the table for them. “It has taken time for us learn how to communicate and work well together as a team, but there are examples of that teamwork that mean a great deal to me.”
Six years ago, the De Waals attended a water conservation seminar that focused on the declining aquifer table and how it was affecting river flow and the resulting effects of that on the fish and land. “I was moved deeply by this presentation. During the hour-long drive home, I laid out for my husband why we had to get on board with this and be leaders in our area for water conservation and help educate people to be stewards of our natural resources.”
For Michele, it was a matter of tradition and heritage. “If we didn’t start helping farmers to make these changes, there would be an end to the life as we know it. The small towns in our area are ag-based, with most of this being irrigated crops. Without water, the economics of this would be devastating.”
A Future … Together
According to Michele, it took more than that initial plea to get Ian’s passion for the cause stirred up, but he agreed to run with her platform and passion for this. “Fast forward to today, and my passion has turned into a mission and purpose for our business and for our family!” she said.
Michele has helped Ian write speeches to speak at water and agriculture meetings throughout the state of Kansas. Last year, he had the opportunity to speak about water conservation to the Kansas House Legislative Water and Environmental Committee. Also in 2017, the De Waal family was awarded the Kansas Banker Award for Water Conservation.
“It is my hope that our family and business can be an inspiration to others for water conservation and leave behind a lasting impact after we are gone: a legacy to our families and future generations of farmers.”
That hope seems to be paying dividends. Their youngest daughter, Bree, has signed up to become a Kansas youth water advocate and is inspired to help educate for water conservation. Their son Coy was a youth water advocate and a Kansas State Water Ambassador. He was member of FFA and his SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience) platform was water conservation. Last year, Coy was awarded the DeKalb Agriculture award for superior accomplishments in agriculture. Currently, he is a freshman in college and majoring in agriculture technologies. Michele says he would like to work in water and natural resource conservation.
The De Waals son Clay came back from college and works with them full time. “He has a love for agriculture like his father,” Michele says. “I love watching them work together side by side and seeing their passion for agriculture and water conservation.”
Farming is part of Michele’s roots and a culture where she feels at home. “There is something about the quietness of the land, the ability to grow something, and most importantly a tradition. Living in rural farm country, everything is connected to agriculture. It’s a way of life.”
Editor’s Note: If you have a story about an amazing woman who contributes to agriculture, please comment below to let us know.