By Matt Reese
“So what’s your name? What county are you from?”
Gracee Workman, like anyone in a new role in agriculture, was asked these questions repeatedly during her first few days on the job selecting breeding gilts for Heimerl Farms and PIC.
“I got a lot of questions about my family’s name,” Gracee said. “They wanted to know where I came from and about my farm background. I didn’t have that.”
She did not have a family heritage in agriculture to share with those who asked. Her story had much different beginnings. Her parents divorced when she was very young and one of Gracee’s earliest memories was sleeping on the floor under a card table in her room surrounded by dog feces in a Columbus house that was mostly otherwise empty. Her mother had been selling everything she could find — rugs, furniture, appliances — to pay for her drug addiction.
When Gracee was around 4, her mother finally went to get help and signed over full custody to her father, a functioning addict with a good job and an ongoing quest for a good time. He moved Gracee to Millersport on the shores of Buckeye Lake and then much of her childhood was spent wondering where her father was and when he would get back home.
“I knew not to talk to the people from Children’s Services when they came into the schools,” Gracee said.
A little girl down the road befriended Gracee and would sneak her food out of her bedroom window. When the neighbor girl’s parents found out what was happening, they took Gracee in.
The situation with her home life improved some when her father got engaged and bought a house. The new woman in Gracee’s life was a more consistent presence while her father was still in and out of jail. Her soon-to-be-step mother, though, hung herself in the garage when Gracee was 8-years-old. Her dad left again and little Gracee went back to staying with kind families in the community. She got a job working the concession stand at the community pool when she was 10 and took jobs babysitting and cleaning houses to earn some money.
She re-connected with her father who was more stable, again, but still battling addiction. The stability was short lived.
“I came home one day when I was 12 and they had shut off the water,” Gracee said. “He told me I needed to find someplace else to live.”
Soon after, Gracee got a job bussing tables at a local pizza place and moved in with another kind family for two years, sleeping on their couch. When Gracee was 14 she moved into an apartment in Canal Winchester with her older sister who was 18. She worked in the office at the apartment complex and worked at another pizza place while going to high school. Things did not work out with her sister and, at 15, Gracee got her own apartment and continued to work two jobs while going to high school and taking post secondary courses.
After a couple of tough years, Gracee had a son, an absent relationship with her parents, and she was working multiple jobs while going to college to be a vet tech. A co-worker and good friend, Ashley, had her own set of challenges and needed to suddenly move out of town, leaving her horse behind and new responsibilities for Gracee that would forever change her life.
“Ashley and I would leave work and go clean stalls in the horse barn together. My mother, years ago, used to ride horses and I really enjoyed working with them,” Gracee said. “Ashley asked if I could take care of her horse after she had to leave.”
It was more than a 40-minute drive each way, multiple times a week, to check on and care for the horse where it was being boarded. Hoping, by chance, to find a low-cost option closer to home to board the horse that was suddenly in her care, Gracee stopped at the Fairfield County farm of Larry and Debbie Keller.
“If I’d never stopped that day to ask about a pasture for a horse, things would be so different for me. One decision can change your whole life,” Gracee said. “We moved my friend’s horse there and I started helping around the farm whenever they needed it. They would watch my son while I would go to classes. Larry asked me one day if I wanted to work with pigs after he’d heard about a job opportunity in the area.”
This led to a job with Heimerl Farms at a sow farm in Fairfield County in 2011. At first her new co-workers were not sure what to think of the young, single mother with no farm background.
“I’d never been around a pig in my life. There was a big learning curve there. There is a lot of turnover and it is physical work. It is a demanding job and a lot of people don’t make it long. I could tell from the beginning that they doubted me — that made me want to prove myself. With the stuff I’d been through I knew I could do it. Through that I developed a love of the care of the animals in general,” Gracee said. “I worked in farrowing so I did daily feeding, day one care for piglets, tail docking, shots. I helped in breeding and gestation and did power washing, disinfecting, castrating, weaning, more shots, and moving sows. After a few months of me sticking it out, working hard and proving myself, it started to work out. After that it was great.”
The challenges of her past, though, still haunted Gracee. Her mother passed away from an overdose in 2011. She continued with course work, got married, had a second son, got divorced, and continued to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. More opportunities in agriculture began to open up for her, though, as a result of her persistent hard work, dedication and positive attitude. She had finished her degree and taken on new responsibilities at a local veterinary clinic while maintaining a part-time role with Heimerl Farms. In 2015, she took the job selecting breeding gilts for Heimerl Farms and PIC on farms around the state.
“I oversaw 50,000 pigs in barns all around Ohio. I loved what I did — even the hard parts. I had great opportunities given to me. If all of those people didn’t give me a chance I couldn’t have done this. Ag people are just different. They are very compassionate, but I still had to prove myself, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t always pretty at first,” she said. “Some of the people I was working with had raised hogs all their lives. Who was I to tell them what to do? When they found out I started at the sow farm, I gained respect, but I still got a lot of questions about my family’s name. They still wanted to know where I came from.”
In May of 2019, Gracee took over the position of swine operations manager at The Ohio State University. She has wedding plans set for later this summer as she starts another new chapter of her life. She has also started speaking at events sharing her incredible story as she moves into her new university role.
“OSU has been a big transition. Before I was working with 50,000 pigs and now I have about 400, so it is a big change and a whole different environment. I am passionate now about getting to work with the students and helping them engage in the industry. I have a lot of students that come in and out and some who do not come from a swine background. I can share my story with them and it motivates them and helps them understand that if they are interested in something, they should not just give up on it,” she said. “Many people get to the point in their lives where everything seems to be going against them. You are not alone. You have to have faith that there are so many other people in life who are experiencing the same thing. In a year everything could be totally different. Stick it out and try to overcome the negative and find the positive in whatever horrible situation you may be going through. Great things don’t always just happen to you. Sometimes you have to find the good in the day.”
In her new job, Gracee still gets asked regularly about her family and farm background. With years of facing tragedy, toil, and overwhelming odds, all while growing stronger in her newfound faith in God and in herself, the way she answers those questions has changed a little.
“The interesting thing about where I’m at today is that I did not grow up in agriculture and did not have a family with a background in agriculture. I’m not from the country, but at a young age I moved out that way. I had two parents who struggled with addiction and mental illness. Over the course of time I veered off on my own. There is no right way I worked through those challenges. I just knew I wanted more out of life than what I had seen around me. I knew that if I were to take a different path I’d have to work for it. I couldn’t just sit back and let the things I saw around me dictate my way,” she said. “Gracee is my name.”