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Women lead a farming revolution in Iowa

As wives inherit husbands’ farmland, they stress conservation over maximizing profit.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2009

(L. to r.) Laura Krouse, Linda Halsey, Carolyn Palmer, and Margaret Doermann of Iowa want their tenant farmers to care for the land more.

Mark Clayton


Mount Vernon, Iowa

Women own nearly half of Iowa’s farmland. But they find they have a common problem: The men they hire to farm their land often don’t treat it with the tender care they expect – and often won’t listen when they complain about it.

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Women from three counties near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, discovered the shared view in a series of meetings on “Women Caring for the Land.” Dozens have turned out to learn more about farmland conservation – and to share tales of dealing with their tenant farmers.

Margaret Doermann’s Iowa farm has some of the richest soil in the state, which is why she insists it be farmed the way her husband did, using strong conservation practices to preserve it. So it was a shock to discover the tenant farmer she’d hired after her husband’s passing was treating her land like, well – a rental property.

“I was awakened in the middle of the night by a tractor tilling the hillside,” Mrs. Doermann says. Her husband “had always tilled it in a contour [across the hillside] to limit erosion. But when I went out the next morning, that hill had been tilled up and down so the soil would wash right off.”

Doermann’s rude awakening didn’t end there. The water in the stream near the field looked like “brown gravy” – full of soil runoff from the hillside. She and her daughter wound up in a lawyer’s office arguing with the farmer over how to till the hillside. A new lease now specifies the soil preparation she wants.

“Well, you know what?” Doermann said to three women at a small gathering of farm-land owning women last month. “The very next spring, he did it again.”

Doermann’s experience is hardly unique, experts say. Of Iowa’s 30.7 million farm acres, 47 percent are owned by women. But a growing share – 20 percent – is now owned by single women, many of them older, with a far different take on farming than their male counterparts. About three-quarters of the land owned by single women is rented out to mostly male tenant farmers.

While most women still own farmland for income purposes, “almost 30 percent of single female owners say they own it primarily for family or sentimental reasons, not income,” says Michael Duffy, an economist at Iowa State University who does a regular survey of land ownership. (More farm wives are inheriting farmland as their husbands pass on.)

Those “sentimental reasons” often translate into conservation concerns – with animal habitat, environment, and water quality high on the list. Women land owners care more about land preservation than about maximizing crop yield – with potentially large implications for farming practices, the findings show.

Among more than 800 Iowa farm women who recorded their views on farmland ownership in 2006, most listed conservation as a high priority, according to the “Women, Land and Legacy” report conducted by Iowa State and US Department of Agriculture researchers.

Women show a “clear and strong consciousness about land-health issues and respect nature intrinsically – not for its productive value, but because it sustains life,” the report found. Women also support conservation to ensure the land will be productive for future generations and because the land provides “physical and mental health and healing benefits.”

An environment-minded generation
“We now have this generation of women, many of them older, now engaged in learning more about agricultural conservation,” says Denise O’Brien, a full-time farmer who nearly became Iowa’s first female secretary of agriculture in 2006. “I hope women will feel empowered to say: ‘I want a waterway, buffer strips, and trees on my farm.’ When women say that today, men pretty much roll their eyes and think that they don’t know enough to make these decisions.”

Jean Eells, a sociologist who focuses on environmental education, has studied how Iowa’s large share of older women who own farmland are faring in getting their land-conservation views heard.