An interview with Wendy Shoffner, SFR Seed founder and pioneer in ag research
By Hallie Shoffner
March is Women's History Month. So, it is the perfect time to celebrate Wendy Shoffner (my mom) and her contribution to the agricultural industry.
My mom is my role model. She's a brilliant ag professional and, as her colleagues remember, the hardest of workers. I am blessed to follow in her footsteps as the CEO of SFR Seed, one of the most reputable research farms in the Mid-South. It is my honor to continue her and my dad's life work.
Wendy grew up in urban Sarasota, Florida. Her father served as a pilot in World War II before opening a successful sheet metal business. Her mom was a teacher and accountant. She received her BS in Plant Science from the University of Florida in Gainesville and her Master of Weed Science from the renowned agriculture department at the University of California, Davis. After graduating, ICI hired her as one of their first female product development researchers. She and her husband moved to Shoffner, Arkansas, to start a research farm on land cultivated by her husband's family for over 100 years. John served as the farm manager, and Wendy conducted pesticide research.
From a daughter's perspective, my mom is tough as nails and bright as they come. She showed me what it meant to be a professional and a mom myself. March is Women's History Month, and we just celebrated National Agriculture Week, so it is the perfect time to celebrate my mom and her contribution to the industry.
You grew up in urban Florida. What drew you to agriculture in the first place?
Farming just seemed to be a part of me. Maybe it was in my genetic makeup. My dad grew up on a small subsistence farm in Indiana. I remember frequent visits in the summer to see my grandmother. As a family, we spent most of our time on outdoor activities, especially camping, and, as a youngster, my dad taught me how to garden.
Growing up, did you ever imagine yourself as an ag scientist and entrepreneur?
No, I did not. Science and math were always my strong subjects, and I lived to be outdoors. I remember telling my sister once that I wanted to marry a farmer.
Who were your role models growing up?
My dad was my idol. He was so quiet, steady, and intelligent. He was an innovator and could design and build anything out of wood or steel. Dad was a small business owner but seemed to balance his work and his family with ease.
What did you study at the University of Florida?
By the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to study plants. Early on, my courses centered on anatomy, taxonomy, and physiology, but it did not take me long to tire of looking through a microscope in a lab. It was then that I moved into agriculture, striving for a degree in Plant Science. Plant Science was a very general curriculum, including fruit and vegetable sciences in addition to agronomy.
What did you learn at UC Davis that inspired you or that you found particularly helpful in your career?
My inspiration led me to Davis, not the other way around. After getting my BS, I was lost. I had no experience in agriculture since I did not grow up on a farm and the opportunities, especially for a woman in the 70s, were only in sales. I envisioned myself, at this point, researching the field. I applied for employment in the ag chemical industry and met a kind enough man to take my dreams seriously and point me in the right direction. His advice was to get a master's degree in Weed Science, a growing area of research in the ag industry. I did precisely that. Since I had no money, I chose a school with the best offer for a research assistantship. I was very fortunate to land the position at UC Davis. This graduate program and I, however, were not a perfect match. UC Davis focused on producing lab researchers and teachers, and that was not my goal. It was a struggle to include pesticide research in the field as the bulk of my experience, and I had to pay my dues in lab research. There is much that I am very grateful to UC Davis for; the school taught me to work hard and to write.
What was your very first job in agriculture?
Landing my first job took months but, fortunately, I began interviewing long before finalizing my degree. Again, surprise, surprise, ag chemical companies wanted to hire me for sales positions. "But, sir," I would state, "I want to work in the field conducting research." "But you are a woman and will not be able to handle the physical labor and heat." I had this same conversation many times until, finally, I found my break. I was soon on my way to Vicksburg, MS, to use my skills heading the herbicide research program for ICI Americas Inc, which is now a part of Syngenta.
What was it like in those first few years of entrepreneurship?
Financially, the first years were rough. We both quit corporate jobs with good salaries and excellent benefits to farm and build a research clientele. At least we didn't pay much in taxes.
What was, hands-down, your favorite part of your job?
I loved working for myself and being outdoors. That's two things.
What's the hardest thing about working in agriculture?
The weather can make you or break you.
Do you think there is one moment in your career that you can identify and say, "that was a turning point" or "that changed everything?"
Being my own boss. That was the best decision I made.
What advice would you give women entering the field of agricultural research or in small business, in general?
Agriculture, even 40 years after my career began, continues to be male-dominated. To gain my place, I felt like I had to work harder than my male colleagues, and, I am sorry to say, the same is true today. Maybe it won't be that way forever, but right now, my advice is the same as it was to myself. As a professional and as a woman, go that step further to gain respect and establish yourself. I hope the industry sees you as a fantastic farm operator in your own right one day; no feminine qualifier is needed.