LUBBOCK, Texas — When you think of a farmer or rancher, what comes to mind? Lubbock is home to a number of them, who churn out products sent all over the nation.

But did you know that women are behind some of the South Plains’ well-known agricultural empires?

For Lacy Cotter Vardeman, agriculture is all in the family. She’s the owner of Cotter Key Farms and Cotter Ranch Limited, as well as a partner at Vardeman Farms.

“Every now and then, I’m so impressed I still have 10 fingers,” Cotter Vardeman said, laughing.

She’s not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty, whether it’s working in the field, handling heavy equipment or even standing up to an angry bull while pregnant.

“Being nine months pregnant, I got in there and kicked [the bull] in the nose and he backed down,” she said.

Cotter Vardeman will be the first to tell you: women work all over agriculture, and there are a lot more of them than you think.

“I’ve never thought of myself different from any of the guys around me … You just kind of learn to use leverage and other things and more science to be able to move some things that some of the guys don’t have to worry about,” Cotter Vardeman said.

For men and for women, agriculture is undeniably hard. Only two percent of Americans choose this physically and financially exhausting career.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than a third of American farmers these days are women.

“Most everybody associates farmers as being old white dudes,” Cotter Vardeman said.

In addition to being a cotton farmer, she is a fifth generation rancher on the South Plains. Breeding cattle is in her blood.

“I have three kids, and I don’t think I’ve worried about my kids nearly as much as I’ve worried about my cows,”Cotter Vardeman joked.

Lately, she’s seen more women getting into agriculture as more people move away from big cities in the pandemic. It’s a trend that’s also been spotted by Dr. Jane Dever, a cotton breeder at the Texas A&M Agri-life Research and Extension Center in Lubbock.

“When I left the [family] farm, I never expected to be in the cotton field pulling weeds again,” Dever said with a laugh.

The researcher is developing drought and disease-resistant cotton for farmers. She’s worked with a growing number of women over her career. But it wasn’t always easy. She recalled an incident when she met a past CEO of Cotton Incorporated many years ago.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘you do not look like a cotton breeder.’ And I said, ‘what does a cotton breeder look like?'” Dever said.

But as hard as it can be for these women, agriculture has helped them find their fulfillment.

“Ag is my life. I’ve never done anything else … Land has always been what makes me happiest,” Cotter Vardeman said.