Fifth-generation farmers Elizabeth Lunsford and Dore Hunt are changing the operations on their family farm and changing the faces of the farming industry.
Written By Christine Fellingham | Photographed by Kylene White
While the word “farmer” may conjure up images of Old MacDonald, over a third of American farmers are female. These women are just as likely as their male counterparts to be hands-on in the daily work of farming – riding tractors, fixing valves, milking cows – and they are among the lead decision makers in a majority of all farm businesses. “It’s a public misperception that women aren’t as influential as we really are,” says Dore Hunt, Herd Manager at Chaney Farms, a fifth-generation farm and third-generation dairy farm in Bowling Green. “I milked cows in college and my boss and coworkers were female. My Dairy Science program at Virginia Tech was mostly female. There are plenty of old men in overalls who own and operate, but farming is certainly more of a woman’s world than people realize.”
It’s certainly a woman-friendly world at Chaney Farms, where female family members have been instrumental in moving the business forward to meet the changing realities of declining milk consumption and the rising cost of staying afloat. Dore’s cousin, Elizabeth Lunsford, introduced a new phase of production to the family empire with The JR Chaney Bottling Company, which opened in 2017. Elizabeth and her husband, Chase – college sweethearts from the University of Kentucky – had moved back to Bowling Green just a few years before from Murfreesboro, TN, where they had moved for his career. Her parents were deciding whether to invest in robotic milkers and wanted to make sure that the farm would continue into the next generation. Once they moved back, Elizabeth went all in – devoting time to working every role at the farm.
“I had to reacquaint myself with the staff and the daily routines,” Elizabeth says. “So, I worked in the barns, scooped ice cream, cleaned; I was just making sure that I didn’t step on any toes and that I was making up for lost time.”
“I think a lot of people don’t associate an entrepreneurial streak with farming, but you have to be an incredibly astute business person to pull this off, especially with all the changes in the industry.” — Elizabeth Lunsford, owner of JR Chaney Bottling Company
It didn’t take too long for the agricultural econ major to also make the decision that in order to remain profitable, the family would have to start bottling its own milk – a process that would require adding machinery and storage to their facilities, but would allow them to sell direct to customers and be more in control of their own pricing. “First and foremost, I got the support of my husband. And he agreed,” she says. “I’m not sure any of us really, honestly knew what we were signing up for. I talked to my parents about the amount of work that it would require of them and all of us and we all decided to move forward. So, I started J.R. Chaney Bottling Company in late 2017.”
It was a decision that changed the nature of their business – allowing Elizabeth to cultivate clients like Kroger and IGA, while, at the same time, bringing the not-so-glamorous work of bottling the near constant flow of milk and maintaining a bottling plant. “I had to learn to fix valves and machinery, because if it stops, you don’t have time to call someone … And I’m not a detail-oriented person, but I did it,” she says. Shortly afterward, she and her husband invested in his dream — purchasing a herd of longhorns. “We are very good about supporting each other’s goals,” she says. “Fortunately, neither of us is afraid of hard work.” She learned that kind of determination and grit from example.
A few decades earlier, she had watched her mother take the lead in implementing her father’s vision of venturing into retail and agrotrousim in 2000. She was instrumental in supporting his plan for Chaney’s Dairy Barn, a charming local ice creamery where the family produces and sells ice cream made from the butter far and protein-rich milk produced by their Jersey cows. The pair also decided to open the farm to tours and events – which was a boon to the family during the pandemic when people were looking for safe, outdoor activities and spaces. “My mom was a seamstress here for years – and she really just went headfirst into supporting this idea, this family vision with my dad,” says Elizabeth. “I was 13 at the time, and I was part of that decision and the changes it brought for all of us. To be a part of witnessing a startup for my parents, you know, and they’re doing something that is unconventional and no one really knew how it was going to go. But they had a vision and they pursued it together. It was transformational for me.”
From startups to roundups, life on a family farm is hard and constant, and both women agree that growing up as part of one has made them the strong, capable women they are today. “It was really a great environment for me to grow up in,” says Elizabeth. “Because as soon as I could stand on a milk crate, I was milking cows. Just as soon as you can get down there and get boots on and be helpful, you were welcomed to work and to be a part of it. So, it really was an excellent way to grow up.”
“There are plenty of old men in overalls who own and operate, but farming is certainly more of a woman’s world than people realize.” — Dore Hunt, Herd Manager at Chaney Farms
It’s excellent enough that Dore is continuing the tradition with her 7-month-old son, Lee, who accompanies her to work at 6 a.m. most mornings. “I was literally raised in a barn,” she says. “And since he was a preemie, I would rather have him with me and the cows than in daycare right now. So he will learn how to take care of the calves and what to do when a mamma is not feeling good and he will learn to drive a tractor, but whether or not he will become a farmer will be his decision.”
As for Dore and Elizabeth, the decision to stay and work the family farm for another generation is one they are proud to have made. “I would say that what I’m most proud of is what we’ve created,” says Dore. “You talk about multigenerational farming, and it is really hard to be first generation. But it is maybe harder to be second, third and fourth generation. There is a legacy that you want to build off of and respect, but you also have to keep changing. I’m proud of the legacy that we are continuing. I’m proud that we are able to make it to the next generation.”
If you want to know more: Go to ChaneysDairyBarn.com for information on tours, events and the Dairy Barn ice creamery.