Best friends Robyn Ollerton and Melissa Campbell of Pinal County, Ariz., are picture-perfect examples of rural women who cherish growing up on family farms, attending college to study agriculture, and returning home to land successful agricultural jobs in their hometowns.

In an economy still impacted by recession, Ollerton and Campbell are grateful for their new career paths. Some of their friends from college are less fortunate; still seeking good career opportunities.

Both women credit their success to their farm families, local agricultural communities and a strong, loyal friendship. “It’s great to be back in Casa Grande, a community which gave so much to me,” said Ollerton, a fourth-generation farmer. The 25-year old earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Arizona, followed by a master’s degree in agricultural communications from Texas A&M.

Last November, Ollerton landed her dream job as the marketing coordinator for Casa Grande-based Fertizona, the largest fertilizer company in Arizona.

Ollerton was born and raised in Casa Grande. She is the daughter of Paul (Paco) Ollerton and Karen Geldmacher. Paco owns and operates Tierra Verde Farms, a leased 700-acre cotton, wheat, barley, and alfalfa operation. Geldmacher is a plant and soil science professor at Central Arizona College.

“At Fertizona, my responsibility is to market the company’s dry and liquid fertilizers and chemicals, plus seed for agriculture,” Ollerton said. “I am developing a marketing strategy for the turf grass and landscape industries and working to enhance company relationships with customers and the general public.”

Ollerton’s career path was far from a given. Agriculture was not always her first choice to study in college. During high school, she wanted to attend beauty school. After college, Ollerton’s plan was to leave Casa Grande in the “rearview mirror.”

“I laughed when I left for Texas A&M because I did not want to come back to Arizona,” Ollerton says.

Melissa Campbell’s maiden name is Bagnall. The Bagnall family owns and operates Morning Star Farms, a 3,500-acre cotton, grain sorghum, wheat, barley, and alfalfa operation on leased land in Florence.

The family includes Melissa’s parents Dennis and Deborah, plus siblings Michael, Nicholas, Wyatt.

After high school, Bagnall trotted off to Arizona State University to study agricultural business and earned a bachelor’s degree. Bagnall, a third-generation farmer, met the man of her dreams, Michael. The couple was married in the middle of a Bagnall farm cotton field in November 2011. Ollerton served as a bridesmaid.

As the new Mr. and Mrs. Campbell returned from their honeymoon and landed at the Phoenix airport, Melissa’s cellphone rang. Her father encouraged her to report the next day at the River Cooperative Gin in Coolidge to start a new job.

Agriculture privilege

Campbell initially performed office work and quickly learned the ropes of the gin operation. When long-time gin manager Steve Straussner retired, the gin’s board of directors early last year offered the position to Campbell.

Campbell was shocked and excited, but then had to level with the board. She was three-weeks pregnant with the baby due Oct. 1, the beginning of the ginning season.

The somewhat apprehensive board of cotton producers hired Campbell. She is the second female gin manager in Arizona.

After almost a year on the job, Campbell enjoys her new challenge. She said, “One of the people I conduct business with calls me the gin managerette.”

The successful ginning season ended in mid-January with 60,000 bales of Upland cotton grown by 41 grower entities on about 25,000 acres.

Last fall, the nine-months-pregnant Campbell attended the Calcot cotton cooperative annual meeting in Tempe. This journalist sat at the table with Campbell. Her face said it all — delivering a bundle of joy was by far Campbell’s top priority over cotton.

Baby Stella was four-months young when Western Farm Press interviewed the women at the gin in January.

As gin manager, Campbell created the River Cooperative Gin website. She helps conduct public tours of the gin property.

Campbell laughed, “During one tour, a group asked where the animals were that the cotton came from.”

With the first ginning season under her belt, Campbell feels extremely blessed.

“I am very fortunate to work in an industry which I love, with the people I love, near home, and with the ability to help support my family,” Campbell shared.

“I’ve respected the local cotton growers my entire life. I now have these guys on speed dial,” she chuckled. “They are highly respected people. It’s a privilege to work with them.”

Campbell and Ollerton first met while showing livestock at the Pinal County 4-H Fair in Casa Grande. Their focus then was watching each other in the show ring as competitors. The term “friends” back then would have been an oxymoron.

Their mutual involvement in the FFA led to friendship which blossomed quickly. Robyn participated in the Casa Grande chapter; Melissa in the Coolidge chapter. Both women held all chapter office positions.

As young adults, the women participated in the National Cotton Council’s Producer Exchange Program, or PIE tour. Ollerton visited cotton operations in North Carolina; Campbell visited Texas.

Dirt in the veins

Today, Ollerton and Campbell, with professional new careers intact, are best friends. These farm women epitomize the idea that one can leave the farm and come back home, and find success.

Each shares a deep love and appreciation for deep roots in agriculture.

“I feel very blessed,” Campbell shared. “I have the best family and friend. Pinal County is God’s country. I love the people and the land. I am proud of our county, state, and the cotton industry. I can see Robyn and I giving back as 4-H leaders in the future.”

Ollerton hopes to farm a few acres in the future while implementing successful marketing strategies at Fertizona.

“I have dirt in my blood veins,” Ollerton grinned. “I could never envision my life without agriculture. It is a great lifestyle and its hard work. My blood, sweat, and tears are on the farm. This is where I learned my work ethic.”

As she reflected on growing up, Ollerton’s voice briefly cracked.

“When I was a small child, home was sitting on my dad’s lap in the tractor cab. Home is being in the middle in a cotton field at 8 at night freezing when the cotton picker is backed up again.”

“Agriculture is in my heart and soul,” she said. “One day, I want my kids to grow up like I did.”

Today, the best friends still get together for “Taco Tuesday” dinners, a tradition started when they were students in college. They don cowgirl hats, jeans, and boots to attend several country music concerts a year.

Ollerton concluded, “When people asked me growing up what my dad did for a living, I’d puff up and say, ‘My dad’s a farmer.’”

Proudly, Robyn and Melissa both have dirt in their veins.

cblake@farmpress.com