That Lewis Rone's rice consultant likes to belly dance to stay in shape hardly matters when blast or sheath blight could be creeping up a rice stalk. He's interested only in an accurate report and a recommendation, in hand by day's end.
Rone, who farms about 1,000 acres of rice in Pemiscot and New Madrid counties, is a client of Amy Beth Dowdy, a rice consultant from Dexter, Mo., who for the past 16 years has made her living in what is mostly a man's world. She is the only Mid-South female independent rice consultant listed in the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants 2006 directory.
The distinction doesn't matter much to Dowdy, or her clients either, for that matter. To them, Dowdy is a capable, energetic, independent consultant who understands that when rice needs looking at, it needs looking at right then.
Invariably, this means squeezing two weeks worth of work into one. During the season, she'll work six days a week, Saturday through Thursday, from dawn to dusk. On Friday, “I'll do oil changes, banking, stuff like that. I get a lot more accomplished on Saturday and Sunday. Also, a lot of my farmers want their reports on Monday.”
When Rone first considered growing rice in 1997, he asked around for the go-to person in the area for rice consulting. The name that kept popping up was Amy Dowdy. He never thought much about the fact that she was a female. “She works hard and I have confidence in her reports. The proof of that is in the rice yields.”
To get in shape for the grueling summer grind, Dowdy walks a couple of miles every day during the winter. During the season, she can end up alone in some pretty desolate places, one reason why she started taking lessons in Tae Kwon Do in 1992. She competed in several tournaments in the 1990s, once winning a national medal, and earned her black belt in 2000.
Last year, Dowdy took up belly dancing because the Tae Kwon Do tournaments were a little too rough and the risk of injury was high. “It tones your core, which you need because it's hard to walk in a rice field all day long. You have to be in good physical condition.”
No matter what kind of shape you're in, rice consulting is not a job for the faint-hearted. The 5-foot, 3-inch Dowdy has spent many a 14-hour day slogging through sweltering rice fields in size-7 hip waders rolled at the waist, fighting mosquitoes and the heat. Once, under a tree line, something slimy and alive fell into the waders. She reached in for what she thought was a tree frog and pulled out a snake, which she quickly chucked away.
Her father, David Dowdy, who farms rice, corn, soybeans and wheat, once told her that she could walk up and down a cotton middle a lot easier. “But she was never interested in that.”
In fact, in her early days of consulting, she was anything but cautious, often scouting rice fields in her bare feet. After several encounters with water mites, barbed wire, glass and a few metal shards, she donned the waders, but only at her father's insistence.
Dowdy earned her scouting stripes beginning in college, where she interned as a cotton scout for BASF and as a rice scout for Terra. After graduating from Mississippi State University, Terra offered her a full-time job.
After four years there, she was transferred to a sub-location where her scouting duties were cut substantially. The experience at Terra was invaluable for Dowdy — she established a wide network of contacts and friends. But she was ready for the outdoors again. In 1990, at the tender age of 24, she started her own company, ABD Crop Consulting.
The move was immediately met with some skepticism. “Daddy was not happy that I gave up a company vehicle and a 401-K plan. But I was young and not married and I don't have kids. I knew that if I fell flat on my face, I could have still got a job. That first year, I consulted on about 6,000 acres. It was a cut in pay, but I liked it. I liked being in the field again.”
Her business grew substantially in the 1990s and 2000s. “Daddy still has a hard time believing that I do as well as I do. Yes, he's proud of me, but you'll always be 12 years old in your parents' eyes.”
“It's turned out well for her,” David Dowdy said. “We're really proud. She tries to keep herself updated on all the diseases and technology by going to all the meetings. I've talked to people she's worked for and they say she does a good job. She has a lot of people who depend on her.”
Dowdy prefers to work alone and often turns down requests to add acres to her rounds. “I'm a bit of a control freak,” she admits. “I couldn't handle something going wrong and me having to tell a farmer that somebody else, not me, scouted that field.”
Dowdy does hire a part-time driver during the season to take her from field to field, while she sits in the passenger seat to enter data on a Toshiba laptop computer or scarf down a quick bologna sandwich and a slice of watermelon. Her 2006 Jeep Rubicon is a rolling office.
Sometimes, during the offseason, when she's put up her waders and work clothes for the winter, she thinks about getting married, settling down and having children. “But I think it will take somebody special to adapt to my lifestyle. If the person doesn't have an ag background, it would be harder.”
She's never regretted not pursuing a more traditional job. “I get to call my own shots. I get to work with people I want to work with and like to work with. This job gives me a good sense of accomplishment. You see the results of your work day-to-day and week-to-week.”
She likes to tell people who ask her what she does for a living that she gets paid to tell 40 men what to do. She knows there's more to it. “The first year you work with someone, you have to figure out if he's the type of person who doesn't want a weed on his farm no matter what the cost, or if he will allow some things to go. You have to learn about them and work with different personalities. You have to get to know your farmer.”