Women own a great deal of U.S. farmland, and one national women’s sustainable farming group aims to help these landowners learn more. Women, Food and Agriculture, a national community of women involved in sustainable agriculture, provides the information and confidence they need to take action and work with tenants to improve soil and water conservation on their farmland.

One of its programs, Women Caring for the Land (WCL), serves female non-operator landowners interested in learning more about conservation.

A recent WCL meeting in Pocahontas, Iowa, cosponsored by NRCS and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, drew 30 women from up to a 200-mile radius. They came to learn more about being a landowner, the business of farming, conservation and making informed decisions after losing or facing the loss of a parent, spouse or decision-maker for farming and renting family land.

The meeting room was filled to capacity with women aged 45-95, sharing their stories and concern for greater conservation practices on their land. NRCS speakers and a cover crop expert shared the basics of soil structure, cover crops and conservation programs. Rainfall simulations, jars of cover crop seed, printed educational materials and a bus tour of conservation-savvy farms rounded out the day. One of many resources is a handbook on writing conservation stipulations into a cash rent lease (pdf).

A bus tour of farm fields with overwintered tillage radish/winter rye cover crops and briefing from the farmer enabled them to get their hands dirty with healthy soil and explore conservation practices firsthand.

Iowa farmer Mark Korte, from Palmer, hosted the group on a prevented-planting field where he’d drilled tillage radishes, winter wheat and cereal rye last fall to capture the 150 lbs./acre nitrogen he had already applied.

All of Korte’s rented ground is strip tilled and seeded to cover crops. The idea to use cover crops came from one of his share-crop landlords, who called him with the idea. “He’s been retired from farming for quite a few years, but of course the idea is all over the farm magazines,” Korte says.

How would most farmers react to a landlord suggesting how they farm their ground? Korte says, “Farmers are resistant to change, and a lot probably would not appreciate it. But why wouldn’t you (want to conserve soil or plant cover crops)? We all want to have better yields; that’s what this is all about,” he says.

Korte was originally intrigued about cover crops when he first read about them. “No one wants to see their soil in the ditch.”

Many (farm widows) have never been to the FSA or NRCS office, and they don’t know there are other women facing the same situation, says Chris Henning, a farm landowner from Cooper, Iowa. “Women don’t have a coffee shop or hangout where they can learn from others in the same situation.” In many ways, her situation reflects the type of landowner WCL tries to help.

Henning faced a watershed moment when the 1993 Iowa flood inundated the very house she had just moved out of and washed her soil down river. Since then, she’s gradually established 26 acres of prairie buffers around three creeks, 20 acres of CRP, and wetlands; and found a no-till farmer to contour-farm her rolling corn and soybean acres.

“This is good black soil, but at one point it had eroded badly enough that you could lose a tractor into the creek if you mowed too closely,” Henning says. “I found a farmer willing to accommodate a landlady with opinions.” Slowly, she picked up the reins and provided more conservation guidance to her tenants.