Meet Donna, the Midlife Farmwife from Illinois

I love seeing farmers blogging and more and more are taking to tapping away on the keyboard. In Australia and the US, it seems to be becoming more popular as farmers use it to educate consumers, particularly against the increasingly popular videos and scaremongering regarding cruelty on farms. It’s hard to believe, as farmers, that some consumers don’t realise that potatoes are grown in the ground for example let alone where their meat and milk comes from.

I’m starting a new series here on the blog – it’s not necessarily going to be weekly or monthly, I’ll post them as time permits and as I connect with other farmers but this is going to be focusing on female farmers all over the world. Partly to help blogging farmers connect with each other, partly to share farming stories from all over the world and maybe to put some misconceptions to bed too.

First up is Donna from Illinois.

Donna1. I first met Donna via her blog and then got to know her better on Facebook. A busy farmer and a keen blogger and writer too, we have lots in common and I can’t wait to meet her in person when she visits Ireland next year. ?I’m going to let Donna introduce herself and tell you about her farm in Illinois, US. I love the name of her ranch!
Donna Marie?O’Shaughnessy, married 21 years to Keith Parrish. Co-owners of South Pork Ranch?LLC, a certified organic dairy, pork and beef farm. We own just 10 acres and rent another 40 which is adjacent to us so we have 50 total acres to raise our animals. We milk 10-12 mixed breed cows at any given time and generally have about 30 other cattle (all ages) and 50 Red Wattle Hogs (all ages) on our property. The numbers go up and down.
2. Donna, you weren’t from a farming background at all. What perception did you have of the farming life in general before you started farming and was the reality very different? In what way was it similar / different to your ideas?
?I was raised in Chicago by Chicago parents and grandparents but I was always drawn to animals. We moved to the suburbs when I was 8. Bought my first pony for $25 at the age of 12 (without my parents knowledge) and convinced them to let me keep it in our tiny yard until we moved into the country two weeks later. I wanted to be a vet but got sidetracked into nursing. I was 34 and divorced raising two teens when I met Keith. We met through hospice. His wife of ten years was dying of a terrible brain tumor. They had two tiny boys. A year after she died Keith called me. Our first date was of course…delivering bull semen to another farmer. Keith asked me “does my car smell like cows?” I lied and said no. Now we both smell bad so we cancel each other out!? I adopted those lovely baby boys so together we raised 4 kids. The first ten years of our marriage I worked full time as Hospice Director then came home part time. I knew my husband worked hard but I never knew HOW HARD until I was home full time on the farm. I worked another 10 years part time staff nursing and came home full time to the farm in 2010.
Now I know that farming is a never ending job that only the truly insane choose to do!
3. I think a lot of people perceive American farms to be huge ranches with thousands of acres, thousands of cattle and huge machinery – maybe even helicopters and cowboys. Do you know what percentage of American farms are less than 100 acres. Are these farms considered viable, ie are they dying out?
Sadly this perception is correct in that most farmers in the US are large farmers and the small family farms have been dwindling for decades. There is a dairy just two hours from us that has 40,000 (yes, 40,000) cows! They are also expanding into confinement hogs. As these big “factory farms” as we call them continue to pop up, more and more small farms close. Now in the west, Nevada, Texas, South Dakota there are large family farms who indeed use mounted cowboys and helicopters, four wheelers just to get around the vastness of their ranches but they are not factory farms as their livestock still graze outside primarily. Here is a great link to American Farm Statistics.? You’ll see that growth of large farms increased and small farms decreased plus we lost women farmers but both organic and direct to consumer sales increased. Our own farm lost money for many years and was supported by my nursing income but when I quit and came home full time our bottom line turned more positive each year as I could spend time doing the direct marketing.
south pork ranch
4. Donna, that last point proves what I’m thinking – that women, for the most part, tend to be better at marketing (which includes using social media) to promote their farm products. ?Now to challenges – what is your biggest challenge in farming?
Our biggest challenge is always TIME. Never enough. Never.
Donna's farm5. What do you love most about farming?
I love most the partnership with my husband. The ability to do a good job together.
6. What’s a typical day for you?
A typical day…you know there are no “typical” days :)? but I would say:?
? ?I am up at 7 (I’m a night owl) Need 30 minutes for my pot of coffee!???7:30-9:30?Spend two hours on my computer (facebook, emails, and blogging) Because we use?Facebook?for all our advertising I spend good time there answering customer questions. Rest of the morning is feeding pigs, calves, bedding animals, whatever needs to be done.?Noon?we lunch if time. Afternoon is lots of customer time in our farm store, cleaning store, reordering, restocking, fence fixing, mowing etc…we eat about?6:30. Then Keith does all evening chores and I am back on computer until 10.
In between we care for grand kids 2-3 days a week, run errands, visit an elderly parent, sell livestock, move animals through pastures. You’ll note that I don’t list housework. It is rare that I get much of that done unless company is coming!
7. See Donna, that’s why we get on so well. We will sit and have countless cups of tea, all the more relaxed as the washing up piles up behind us. I don’t include housework in my typical day either! Now, you have a lot of changes ahead, from selling your 40 acre farm and moving to the 10 acre Poor Farm, going back to college. You’re obviously the type to embrace change but do you think it will be a challenge?
I love change. I create chaos and then…I complain about it! We are in the midst of the biggest changes of our life right now. The impending move, trying to arrange housing on the new farm (we are going to live in a camper, then build ?a grain bin house before we build out tire house!) all while going to school ?full time. I have no one to blame but myself. 🙂
8. ?What kind of farming will you do on the new and smaller farm? Will it provide you with a decent income?
Our smaller 7 acre farm which we call The Poor Farm will be just that… poor. We plan to build our new home with the leftovers from this farm sale. But what will be left over after all debt is paid will be less than $60,000. Meaning $60,000 to build the two houses (the grain bin house will be used for interns who want to learn about sustainable living from us)?and provide all our living expenses .??So we must do the majority of labor ourselves. We must also still build shelter for our few animals we will bring BEFORE WINTER. We will take only enough livestock to feed ourselves. One cow, 2 steer, 2 feeder pigs. 50 chickens, we will buy rabbits.. We plan to grow all our own veggies and live on less than $15,000 per year. Sources of income will be honey and soap sales and my free-lance writing I do for a couple of?ag. magazines. The goal is to live on a tiny amount!? Have no idea if we can do it so I will keep my nursing license active in case we get into trouble.
South Pork
9. Why do you enjoy blogging so much? How do you see blogging benefitting farmers? I know you use it to educate other farmers and consumers re the legislation for selling raw milk.
I blog because I am opinionated and blogging saves my family from having to hear me say the same things over and over.
??? I blog to relax.
??? I blog to improve my writing skills.
??? I blog because I am. 🙂
10. If you were to give a young female farmer one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be prepared to lose your shirt and gain your soul.
Do visit Donna’s blog at The Midlife Farmwife and her facebook page and you will see exactly what I mean. ?Her humour, her realistic take on farming, her passion for the right to sell raw milk and keep everyone informed, her soap making and of course, their journey to the Poor Farm! Donna is in college now too, the start of another exciting journey.

3 thoughts on “Meet Donna, the Midlife Farmwife from Illinois

  • M T McGuire

    Lose your shirt and gain your soul…. That is a fantastic statement. As someone who also does a happy soul empty wallet job (albeit a different one) I can really identify with it.



  • Donna OShaughnessy

    Lorna, thanks so much for the shout out and please accept my apologies for not commenting sooner. I think one day has gone by and its one year! Anyway can’t wait to see what other female farmers you focus on next. I’ll be sure to link to your blog so more of the USA folk can see what’s happening in Ag across the globe. Your hard work, and social media expertise always dazzles me and I am so impressed with all YOU do. Lets meet up soon for that overdue vacation in Italy soon shall we? Take care!



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