Got Milk? This Female Entrepreneur Does
By Rachel McGreal
Leslie Cooperband is the co-owner of Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign. You can't tell by listening to her talk about her love for agriculture that she did not grow up on a farm, but in a very urban environment in Boston, Massachusetts. Despite being surrounded by the city, she always had an interest in nature and ecology and loved being outside.
She never felt like her gender was a barrier to her success until she found herself pursuing a PhD in soil science, where there were no women professors and she was one of few women graduate students. Being a woman in a male-dominated field presented challenges daily. Cooperband says constantly fought to be taken seriously.
“I was shocked initially because I just felt like, if you're confident and you do good work, that's all you really need. And then I quickly realized that that wasn't enough. And I had to go above and beyond to really prove myself and that I was worthy,” said Cooperband.
Cooperband didn’t feel like she had a space for her talents to flourish or be properly appreciated until her and her husband began Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in 2005. Cooperband and her husband were able to build a work environment that was inclusive and welcoming of all. In fact, Cooperband learned that females have certain strengths when it comes to operating a goat dairy and creamery.
"Goats are definitely of a scale that women can excel in - like goat husbandry and goat care. Having small hands when you're helping and assisting in the delivery of babies is a plus. I don't know if it's necessarily a female trait to have attention to detail, but that is certainly required for having both the dairy side as well as the cheesemaking side," Cooperband said.
Cooperband also said that another one of her strengths has been a huge help during this time - cleaning and organization. She said it is a crucial part of the operation, especially when it comes to crafting goat cheese, milk, and other products.
It was also on the farm that Cooperband experienced a big change compared to the environment she experienced in academia. She saw the number of women filling the jobs around her drastically increase.
Cooperband said, contrary to history, most of the dairy and creamery employees are actually women.
“It's really kind of cool to see women filling roles that historically were more male dominated in the agricultural field," said Cooperband.
She notes that this historical shift in employment didn’t take place because her and her husband were actively seeking out women employees. She said it was really quite the opposite.
“It's not like we actively just sought out women and excluded men. No, not at all. There just seems to be more women that are just embracing these kinds of job opportunities and being fearless. And that's great," said Cooperband.
Cooperband said, regardless of all of the daily challenges that managing and operating a dairy and creamery bring, it is all worth it.
"Being able to do something well and feel pride in it, having a business where we sell directly to the consumer and get instant feedback, and having people coming out here and having a great experience is enough reward for me. It makes all of the challenges worth it.”
Learn more about Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery on their website at https://www.prairiefruits.com