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RancHER: Sydney Wilkinson: Passion for ag, both in the field and in the classroom

Published on 24 May 2021
Sydney Wilkinson

Sydney Wilkinson works as an instructor of animal science and livestock judging coach at Oklahoma Panhandle State University. Although she doesn’t work on the family ranch full time, she still considers it an integral part of her life and goes home as often as possible to help out.

Her work at the university includes teaching several animal science courses, coaching the livestock judging team and serving as the interim head of the Agricultural Education Department.

How have your experiences working on your ranch influenced your growth, personally and professionally?

I believe my experience growing up and working on the ranch has overwhelmingly influenced all aspects of my life. It has shaped me into the person I am today. Growing up on a ranch teaches you a lot of things that are applicable in all walks of life. My experience has not only helped with the obvious areas like my knowledge and applicable skills, but it also taught me how to deal with situations like appreciating the little things such as seeing a calf run around for the first time, dealing with heartbreak like losing a calf or suffering through yet another year of drought. Learning how to deal with all types of situations has made me tough and prepared me for real life.

What roadblocks have you run into, and how have you overcome them?

Being a female in a male-dominated industry can always be challenging. My father has always treated me like he would a son, in the way that he never doubted my abilities. From an early age, I was his partner. He always asked my opinion and still does today. In addition, he treats my mother in the same way. They are partners and make decisions together. My biggest challenge was when I got to college and realized that not everyone had the same mindset as my dad. I had to work a little harder to prove myself, specifically as a member of the livestock judging team. While I doubted myself at times, I am thankful for that experience and think I understand so much more what it means to be a female in this industry.

Who has influenced you in your role as a rancher? Why?

My parents are an incredible influence on my role as a rancher, both in different ways. My dad grew up on a ranch and has been part of the industry his whole life. I am always learning something from him. He’s progressive and always trying to improve our operation. He’s tough and resilient, but he has also taught me this way of life requires understanding and appreciating your emotions.

Not too long ago, we had a newborn calf that died right in front of us – and I walked away, ashamed there were tears in my eyes. This is part of the job, right? When I came back, he looked at me with emotion on his face and told me, “I love this job, but things like this will never be easy.” He taught me it’s ok, even important, to have emotions about this way of life.

Secondly, my mom is an incredible role model as a rancher. She grew up in town and was first introduced to the ranch way of life when she married my dad. She dove right in and learned all she could. She went from not even knowing there was a breed of cattle called Gelbvieh to serving on the board of directors for the American Gelbvieh Association. She didn’t have to embrace this way of life, but she went above and beyond and is just another example of an incredible woman in this industry. She continues to inspire me daily.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I have learned from other females in this male-dominated industry that sometimes, as a woman, you have to learn to how to deliver your opinions and thoughts in the best way to be received. My dad has always told me to never forget about the male ego and learn to work with it. It’s always been kind of a joke, but also a serious piece of advice. That also lends a way to understanding how to deal with all types of personalities and learning to change your approach depending on what you’re working with.

What advice would you give to other women in your field?

I always tell women involved in livestock to just be confident in your own experience and knowledge. Being a woman doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve all the goals you have for yourself. Don’t feel the need to fit into some picture someone else has of you. To be a female rancher, you don’t have to be Calamity Jane, but you also don’t have to be Ree Drummond. You get to choose who you want to be and let your hard work speak for itself.

Who are other female role models you look up to?

My mom – for not growing up around agriculture to becoming a decision-maker in it; my aunt Barb – for an incredible career in the industry and impact on ranchers all over the nation; Dr. Sterle – a former professor of mine; Joelynn Rathmann – for being brave and taking something she had a passion for and turning it into an incredible and respected career; Dr. Sam Cunningham – it is obvious the impact she has on her students and the passion she has for the industry. There are so many more, but it would take forever to list everyone out. It also doesn’t really need to be said, but all women [who] have thrived in male-dominated industries continue to inspire and push me.

What inspires you to come to work each day?

I love the industry I am involved in and am so passionate about educating the students in an area I love so much. My students are my true passion, and I love being able to help them along their way to a successful career. I also am surrounded by an incredible bunch of people [who] believe in me and push me to improve. I feel heard and respected and like we are a true family. All these things put together make it easy to get up each morning and come to work.

When I am at home on the ranch, it’s simply the chance to be outside and be around cattle that inspires me. Sometimes the work might not be very fun, but it is necessary, and sometimes hanging out with a bunch of cows is the absolute best day you can have.

Tell me about a time you were most proud of being a woman in ag.

I really feel proud to be a woman in ag all the time. Some of my proudest moments come when I have my opinion or knowledge validated by someone else. When my dad is talking to another producer and attributes some piece of information he learned to me, or when my co-worker won’t proceed with a management decision at the university farm until he gets my opinion. It’s not specifically about being a woman, but it is nice to feel like you are appreciated by others. end mark