Wendy and John Shoffner started their contract agricultural research farm in 1988 outside Newport, Arkansas. At first, it was just the two of them. Today, SFR Seed is a well-respected farm and seed producer with customers all over the world.
Written by Hallie Shoffner
Wendy Shoffner, my mom, is the co-founder and co-owner of SFR Seed, an agricultural research and seed production and conditioning company. Founded in 1988 with only two employees – Wendy and her husband and my dad, John – SFR Seed has grown from a small Mom and Pop farm to one of the most respected agriculture companies in the Mid-South with customers all over the globe.
Wendy grew up in urban Sarasota, Florida – a self-proclaimed beach bum and hippie. 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. From there, she became one of the first female product development researchers at ICI and the first in the Mid-South. She and her husband moved to Shoffner, Arkansas, to start a research farm on land cultivated by her husband’s family for nearly 100 years. John served as the farm manager and Wendy conducted pesticide research.
A mother and stepmother to four and grandmother to (soon-to-be) eight, Wendy continues to be the backbone of SFR Seed – driving excellence and innovation at an ever-growing company. She is training me, her daughter, Hallie, to take her position alongside business partner, Doug Davis.
From a daughter’s perspective, my mom is tough as nails and smart as they come. She showed me what it meant to be a woman, a wife, a mom and a professional. March is Women’s History Month and we just celebrated National Agriculture Week. I see no better way to honor women in agriculture by recognizing my mom and her successful career.
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 smart. 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.
Wendy’s idol was her dad, Ralph Hutchens, a former WWI pilot and owner of a successful sheet metal business in Florida.
As a kid, Wendy wanted to marry a farmer. Instead she became a farmer and then married one.
What did you study at the University of Florida and how did that inform or drive a career in agriculture?
By the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to study plants. My courses, early on, 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. This 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 actually 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, conducting research in the field. I applied for employment in the ag chemical industry and met a man who was kind enough to take my dreams seriously and point me in the right direction. His advice was get a master’s degree in Weed Science, at that time a growing area of research in the ag industry. I did exactly that. Since I had no money, my choice of schools was made on the best offer of a research assistantship. I was very fortunate to have landed 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 had to pay my dues in lab research as well. There is much that I am very grateful to UC Davis for; I was taught 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 drew you to work with soybeans and row crops?
The ag chemical industry focuses on the major agronomic crops. In other words, that is where the money is.
What was it like being one of the first female product development researchers at ICI?
I actually was not the first, but the third. ICI had women in the Midwest and West. I was definitely the first in the south. After three years on the research farm in Vicksburg, I accepted a transfer to product development working east and south Texas. The reaction from sales and tech service was not positive at first. Here was a member of the team who couldn’t be entertained in questionable establishments and taken on fishing trips where men are allowed to act like boys. They got used to me in time and eventually I gained some respect. My grower cooperators and university contacts were much more open to having a woman to work with but, again, it took time to establish myself as a serious researcher.
The land used as SFR Seed’s agricultural research farm was declared an Arkansas Century Farm by Governor Hutchinson and Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture, Wes Ward, in 2017.
When she isn’t farming, Wendy spends her free time (surprise) outside hiking, camping, biking and gardening.
Why did you decide to open your own research company?
I finally met and married my farmer that I had been looking for since childhood. He was working for a large corporate farm and was wanting to return home and farm for himself. Mom and Pop farming operations struggle financially, so we decided that I would contract research as well from seed and chemical companies.
What were those first few years of entrepreneurship like?
Financially, the first years were rough. We both quit corporate jobs with good salaries and great benefits to farm and try to build a research clientele. At least we didn’t pay much in taxes.
What was, hands-down, your favorite part of your job?
Working for myself outdoors. Is that 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?”
Going to work for myself was what made my career.
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 colleague 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. A woman must go a step further to gain respect and establish herself in agriculture. Once there, though, it is smooth sailing.
Wendy stays involved on the farm and in the seed business as she trains her daughter (me), Hallie, to take her role in partnership with SFR Seed Vice President, Doug Davis.