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.

Landowner concerns

Now, she reaches out to others lacking the knowledge or confidence to stipulate conservation practices on the family farmland, through WCL. Their comments below, from a WCL meeting, reflect their conservation concerns about the farmland that’s now their responsibility:

  • “My husband died in 1991; he did not teach me a thing about the farm, and I want to learn more about it.”
  • “I used to be my dad’s helper as a girl, but he never told me why I was doing what he told me to do. Now he’s passed away, and it’s been a long haul learning which seed to buy, which fertilizers, weed control, etc., to buy. It’s now my land, and I want to make intelligent farming decisions.”
  • “My brother and I inherited the farm; now he’s passed, too. So I am starting over. We have a great renter, but need to know more about the decisions he’s making.”
  • “I’ve been married to a farmer for 62 years. I’d like to know more about soil testing, and how to know the health of our soil.”
  • “I’ve been a farm girl all my life, but I don’t know much about farming; my chores were always indoors. We are blessed with good soil, but I hate to see it blowing and floating away. I’m here to learn more about conservation.”
  • “I grew up on a dairy farm, but farming today has changed a lot since then. My in-laws have passed away, and now my husband and I are part owners of the family farm. I came to this meeting to develop some contacts and to learn.”
  • “My husband and I have four adult siblings who disagree about what to do with the family acreage we are about to inherit. Most of them want to sell it, and my husband and I want to rejuvenate the land but need to learn more.”
  • “Growing up, my two brothers did the farming, then my husband; I never knew much about farming. At age 64, he died and left me with the livestock and all of the land. I sold the livestock and crop-shared it for a while. When I switched over to cash renting, things got so much easier because I don’t like the bookwork. But still, I’d like to learn more about soil health, cover crops and soil testing.”
  • “I like our tenant, but every year the grass waterway gets smaller and smaller. I’m afraid to bring it up because he is so very helpful in so many ways.”
  • “I am one of six siblings in a family with a lot of land. I grew up being told to ‘put the lever at 6,’ but not knowing why. I love my farm heritage, but it has limited decision roles for women. I want to make informed decisions for our land. Recently I had one tenant play chicken with me on cash rent, and he was surprised when I did not play ball with him on that.”
  • “When you crop-share, it’s your farm, you’ve paid for the inputs, you watch it grow, and you need to market it. So my sisters had to learn how to market grain, and a few of them just say, ‘Yeah, whatever you think is best.’ For years their husband did it, and then he dies.”
  • “One of the worst experiences of my life was seeing my farm fields out my kitchen window, knowing I was responsible for that, but not having the knowledge to manage it responsibly.”

There are no stupid questions, says Carol Schutte, WCL program assistant. “We are here to connect women landowners with learning resources to make educated decisions.”