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Of farm and family; women's organization is devoted to promoting and protecting the American farmer.

The image of the farm wife has evolved just as the agriculture industry itself has evolved.

Gone are the days of the quiet, reserved wife patiently awaiting her husband's return from the fields at the end of the day.

Now, more likely, she is working the fields right alongside her husband, doing more than her fair share of labor that at one time was reserved for hired help.

Not to imply that that is the only contribution women are making. Farms across the country are managed thoroughly and productively by women. Many farm wives serve as bookkeepers and business managers, shouldering the burden of financial responsibility just as their husbands shoulder responsibility for the crops.

WIFE (Women Involved in Farm Economics) is an example of how the woman's role on the farm has changed.

The national, non-partisan agricultural organization was established about six years ago in Sidney, Neb. Today, it has chapters in 21 states, including Arkansas. There are some 5,000 members nationwide.

Committed to promoting the American agriculture industry, WIFE is not an auxiliary group, Arkansas chapter President Diane Relyea points out. It is a grass-roots organization, devoted to preserving the family farm system as well as improving the industry's financial profitability.

"It's our time and our energy that we give to WIFE for the agricultural industry," says Relyea, taking a short respite from unloading grain carts in the midst of harvesting her farm's rice crop.

Along with her husband, two sons and father-in-law, Relyea attends to a 500-acre farm one mile south of Almyra in Arkansas County.

Relyea and her husband, David, will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary this week. It's also the 18th anniversary of her initiation into the farm industry.

She remembers well her introduction to life as a farm wife. She had to cut short her honeymoon to return home to harvest her new husband's rice crop.

"How we |got married~ during harvest, I don't know," Relyea says with a laugh.

She has been a member of the state WIFE chapter since its formation 11 years ago. The need to educate both the public and political leaders on the plight of today's farmers led Relyea and others like her to form the group.

The Arkansas WIFE chapter provides educational materials to schools and serves as a lobbying force in the state Legislature. Writing letters and making telephone calls are vital tools in the campaign of WIFE members against legislation they think threatens the American farmer. Members of the organization testify before U.S. Senate and House committees when the need arises, while the national president, Joyce Spicher of Montana, serves as the chief lobbyist.

WIFE also sponsors an annual legislative breakfast in Washington each June, during which members communicate their concerns to those on the House and Senate agricultural committees.

Five Arkansans attended the most recent breakfast. They met with their respective legislators to discuss matters such as environmental safety and rural health care.

"One of our goals is to educate not only ourselves but the public to the importance of agriculture to our economy," Relyea says. "|Farm wives~ do a little bit of everything. When you're actually out there working in the fields and then you go into the grocery store to make purchases, you understand things a little better."

Coming To Little Rock

A good example of the strength of WIFE will be shown Nov. 18-22 when the group holds its national convention in Little Rock. At least 250 members of the group are expected to attend.

Relyea says more would attend were it not for their responsibilities to their farms and families.

"|Farming~ is our nation's No. 1 industry and it is surely our state's No. 1 industry," says Yvonne Rodgers, vice president of the Arkansas WIFE chapter and the wife of a DeWitt grain farmer. "It's more than just food. The list gets to be very long."

She explains that the agriculture trade, from production to distribution, creates more jobs than other industry in Arkansas.

Rodgers traces her background in farming to the general store her father and grandfather ran at St. Charles in Monroe County. The store owners extended lines of credit to farmers buying supplies and offered small loans.

"If the small farmers made it, my father and grandfather had a good year," Rodgers says. A bad season usually led to the store taking out a loan from the local bank.

Although the Arkansas chapter is concentrated primarily in southeast Arkansas, the group has at-large members in cities outside the region such as Pine Bluff, Berryville and North Little Rock.

When not busy with the chores of running a farm, Rodgers, Relyea and other members of the organization can be found at civic and social gatherings throughout the year. It's there that they spread the word about the state's farmers, their battles against foreign competition and cost overruns.

WIFE members think one can never be too young to learn about the importance of agriculture. Rodgers joined a few of the organization's other members last September -- which just happens to be National Rice Month -- in demonstrating the economics of applied agribusiness.

The group visited several elementary schools in Stuttgart and DeWitt, treating the students to a sampling of simple rice dishes that amounted to little more than boiled white rice with a variety of toppings. Cinnamon and sugar proved to be the favorite, says Rodgers.

The large pot of rice, enough to feed an entire class, cost $2.25 to produce, Rodgers and her associates told the children.

"We made the point to ask them how much a |McDonald's~ Happy Meal cost," Rodgers says. "They knew how much a Happy Meal cost. Then we told them that for just a little bit more we could cook that much rice."

Foreign trade, environmental restrictions, insurance and legal constraints are just a few of the unsettling questions today's farmers must face. As WIFE points out, they don't face them alone.

"The farmer's wife is a partner," Rodgers says. "She's just as liable as he is for anything that happens in the business. So, you can say that she's definitely involved from that standpoint."
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Title Annotation:Women Involved in Farm Economics
Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 7, 1992
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