Barlow is Farm Woman runner-up

Published 9:46 pm Monday, December 15, 2008

Shelley Barlow can’t find a reason to dislike her job.

She’s her own boss. She never punches a time clock. She gets rainy days off. And the commute?

“I just walk across the ditch,” she said.

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Barlow works and lives on her family’s farm in Possum Hollow, a rural community in Suffolk, just south of the Isle of Wight County line. She and her husband, Joseph Barlow Jr., and her father-in-law, Suffolk City Councilman Joe Barlow, do all the work on the family’s 800 acres, which includes other properties in Suffolk and Isle of Wight.

Barlow recently was named the runner-up for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation 2008 Farm Woman of the Year. Janet Kline of Linville won the award.

Barlow didn’t start out to be a farmer, although she studied agriculture at Virginia Tech. Her initial plan was to be a veterinarian. However, she apparently always had farming in her blood – at a recent class reunion, a person she hadn’t seen since seventh grade told her “I always knew you’d be a farmer.”

Now, she says, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Barlow does most of the bookkeeping and financial records for Cotton Plains Farm from inside her restored 18th-century home on the farm. She also helps with fieldwork, especially during harvest time.

The Barlows’ main crop is cotton, although they also grow wheat, soybeans and hay. During the cotton harvest, Barlow runs the “module builder,” which is the machine that creates the huge, trailer-shaped cotton bundles often seen in Suffolk fields in the fall.

During the winter, Barlow helps her husband and father-in-law repair machinery. Come spring, it’s time to plant crops. In the summertime, she helps maintain the crops, and also tends the vegetable garden for her community-supported agriculture business.

Barlow’s CSA accepts up-front fees from about 30 families in Suffolk and Isle of Wight. In return, each family receives a basket of fresh vegetables – about 30-40 different kinds – throughout the season. The CSA is part of Barlow’s effort to contribute to the nation’s food security.

“The things we can grow here, we ought to grow here,” she said. “It makes so much more sense to have the farmer down the road grow something for you” than to ship it from out of the country, she said.

The changing seasons of the true “oldest profession” make the job even more enjoyable for Barlow.

“I like the idea of doing something different all the time,” she said.

Aside from work on the farm, Barlow also participates in the farm bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” program. She helps elementary and middle school classroom teachers teach agriculture in the classroom, which helps promote a better understanding of how much farmers mean to our society.

“If you eat or wear clothes, thank a farmer,” Barlow said.

Despite all the enjoyment, though, the job gets difficult sometimes, Barlow said. Long hours and the constant uncertainty over weather can strain the operations, but it’s all worth it, she said.

“It’s really a whole lifestyle; it’s really not just a job,” she said.

“If you’re just doing a job to get a paycheck, it makes for long days.”