Nearly half of Iowa farmland is owned by women, who also have strong attitudes toward soil and water conservation because of their concern for future generations. However, reaching women with the education, information and tools they need to more actively manage farm operations has been a difficult task for service providers and government agency personnel.
The key is social support, according to an evaluation of Women, Land and Legacy, an outreach project that has touched the lives of an estimated, 1,500 women landowners in Iowa since it began in 2002. An evaluation of 17 locally-led programs across 28 counties in Iowa was conducted by Corry Bregendahl, an assistant scientist at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She is the lead author of the report and a WLL state team member.
Lois Wright Morton, Leopold Center interim director and an ISU sociology professor, says women bring unique perspectives to agriculture.
Social connections key to reaching women farm owners
"Social support is essential to the risk management strategies that women use to understand and validate their experiences, gather information and gain confidence. Our work with women landowners needs to strengthen the connections women have to each other, the land, their families, and the providers of resources that are available to them," says Morton.
The core of WLL is the local planning or coordinating team. Twenty-three teams covering 37 Iowa counties work with local leaders to host listening sessions with women farmland owners about their vision and goals for the land. These listening sessions then are used to develop facilitated learning sessions on topics identified as important to the women in each county or county cluster. The local planning teams are led by local women in cooperation with "anchor partners" from the local USDA Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and ISU Extension offices.
Evaluations were conducted in 2009 using surveys returned by 300 participants and local planning team members, and telephone interviews with service providers and agency personnel.
Change in attitude by those who participated in learning sessions
The evaluation found monumental changes in attitude – by the women who participated in the learning sessions as well as the local agency service providers who worked with them. Many of the women said they began to view service providers with less hostility when they were able to establish trust and relationships with them. Local agency personnel said that they, too, felt more comfortable and open to serving women. After hosting a WLL program in their area, they reported seeing more office contacts with women associated with farming, more involvement of young women in food production, and a greater overall local interest among women in agriculture.
WLL programs also empowered women in their farm's management. Participants reported initiating conversations with families and consulting attorneys and financial planners to establish or update estate plans, draft or revise land contracts, create trusts and prepare wills and farm plans. In the process, participants said they gained confidence about their ability to make good decisions and navigate the local social landscape to help them in these efforts.
Women play a very important role in conservation stewardship
Iowa NRCS state conservationist Richard Sims says he is pleased with the evaluation and that it's another example of how "knowledge is power."
"Women play a very important role in directing the conservation stewardship on their own land and they are change agents of future conservation stewardship activities on Iowa farmland," Sims says. "The survey results will be used by many people to provide the kind of information women landowners need to make sound and informed decisions."
A secondary benefit of WLL programs was the confidence among participants that led them to leadership opportunities. Participants reported that they were taking on new roles by serving on community-based committees, boards, civic organizations, producer associations and other assorted groups. They also reported a local change in attitudes, specifically, a new respect for their involvement in community affairs and farming.
WLL programs gave participants confidence, and leadership skills
"FSA is supportive of the leadership that women contribute to today's American agriculture and this outreach project certainly has had a positive impact," says John Whitaker, state executive director of the Iowa Farm Service Agency. "Our agency has seen more women involved in their local county committee elections process as well as seeing more women making decisions for their farms. This leadership needs to continue to develop, so that these positive impacts and others can continue to help improve our land as well as rural communities."
Members of the WLL state team are Bregendahl; Beth Grabau, FSA public relations and outreach specialist; Tanya Meyer-Dideriksen, coordinator of the Iowa Valley RC&D; Tricia Mootz, NRCS human resources specialist; and Carol Richardson-Smith, process design consultant from Perry.
To reach the full report, and for more information about Women, Land and Legacy, go to the group's website at: http://www.womenlandandlegacy.org.