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Can women farm owners prevent the next Dust Bowl?

Members of Women Caring for the Land plant cover crops, install buffer strips, restore wetlands, and plant native wildflowers for pollinator habitat.

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    A 13-year old Iowa farm girl struggles to keep her sheep in line during the 2013 Market Lamb Show in Kansas City. Women Caring for the Land seeks to increase conservation efforts on farm land owned by women.
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In her late 50s, Alice Ramsay returned to the Iowa farm where she’d grown up. She had graduated college in Missouri and spent most of her adulthood in Colorado employed as a teacher. But after her parents passed away, she bought up the inherited land from her brother and sister, and, in 2000, she moved back.

“I’d been gone for 30 years and I never had an idea I would come back to the farm—never ever,” Ramsay says. “But here I am. So I had to start at the ground level and go from there.”

Ramsay, now 72, first needed to get caught up on what was happening on the land she now owned, about 20 miles west of Des Moines. It was about 180 acres of hilly land that sloped down to the South Raccoon River. The rolling landscape made the land challenging to farm, and soil and water runoff from the higher ground constituted an ongoing issue. Oak savannas grew near the river, and grasslands surrounded a pond. A country road cut through the middle of the property.

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A farmer had been renting the whole farm, where he grew corn and beans and raised cattle. Like her father, who bought the farm in 1943 and worked on it until his death, in 1992, Ramsay valued the conservation of this special place, a philosophy reinforced during her 10 years volunteering with a wildlife and education organization. “My purpose was to come back and do what’s right for the land,” she says.

Ramsay speaks like the former educator she is—with a curious mind and authoritative tone. But it wasn’t easy for her to walk up to the farmer who worked this land and direct him on the best ways to protect soil diversity, native wildlife, and water; he wasn’t necessarily considering the environmental impact when he farmed, partly because no one had asked him to. It was intimidating to walk up to a seasoned farmer and start poking around. And Ramsay didn’t know much about it to begin with.

She is not alone. Thousands of other women throughout the United States are in similar situations. In Iowa alone, women own about 14 million acres of farmland, which is significant because the health of the nation’s soil is crucial to the productivity of its farms and in feeding a growing population. In fact, so many older women are inheriting farms that some experts believe training them in land conservation may be our society’s best defense against Dust Bowls of the future.

Removing barriers, planting seeds

The nonprofit Women, Food and Agriculture Network reaches out to people like Ramsay through a program called Women Caring for the Land. More than 2,000 women have participated in the program, which piloted in 2008. The typical participant is a woman over 65 years old who owns farmland but has never worked in the fields. Many have inherited their land and are suddenly tasked with managing it; although some have been farm wives, most were left out of the decision-making process.

The program, which is funded in part by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, teaches them how to practice conservation with a focus on soil health.

Jean Eells, an Iowa State Soil Conservation Committee member since 2002, developed the program after becoming aware of the lack of women landowners interested in conservation programs.

“What fascinated me was how women as landowners were so invisible to the process,” Eells says. “Being invisible does two things: You think you don’t have any responsibilities [and] you’re just left out.”

Women Caring for the Land operates in seven Midwestern states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin—and 70 percent of its participants have so far made improvements on a total of about 50,000 acres. These include direct changes to land management, like planting cover crops, installing buffer strips, taking land that borders a river out of cultivation, restoring wetlands, and planting native wildflowers for pollinator habitat.

But they can also include contractual changes and training—things like writing conservation practices into the lease, or meeting with a representative of the NRCS to review the farm plan.

Women Caring for the Land meetings are held in the style of a peer-to-peer learning circle, where each participant tells the story of her farmland, her goals, and her dreams for the land.

“There’s a lot of emotions in these meetings because it’s the first time a lot of them have been in an environment where they can ask questions or share their stories … because they feel disenfranchised,” says Lynn Heuss, program coordinator for the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network. “It’s a man’s world.”

Participants then visit farms—run by men or women—to see good conservation practices firsthand. They also get the chance to handle unfamiliar tools such as a soil penetrometer. This tool measures what’s called soil compaction, a major concern among farmers as it can suppress air and water from the soil and reduce crop yield.

This program may become even more critical as farmers get older. In the United States, the average age has risen to almost 60, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. At the time of the 2012 census, one-third of farmers were 65 years or older, and many of them will be retiring soon.

“Until I went to these meetings, I didn’t feel like I could say a lot,” Ramsay says. She has since taken several steps, including voicing concern to her farmer tenant about erosion—her land is on a hill and soil washes down—and requesting a visit from an NRCS representative for advice on how to address the issue.

She’s also talked to her farmer about using cover crops, which help keep nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion, thereby keeping it healthy during the nongrowing months; Ramsay says he’s been amenable to all the changes. She wants to leave the land in good shape for her three adult children, who will one day inherit it.

“We’re not doing anything different than what the men do,” Ramsay says. “We’re just taking more responsibility for our land.”

Focusing on soil health

Tillage and plowing are major sources of soil erosion, and were blamed for the 1930s Dust Bowl, when a severe drought in the Great Plains turned loose soil into dust that blackened the skies and displaced tens of thousands of farmers. Additionally, carbon dioxide is stored in soil, and when stirred up can be released into the atmosphere.

Through a program it runs called the National Resources Conservation Service, the USDA provides technical and financial assistance for soil health efforts, such as with the three-year grant to Women Caring for the Land.

The program launched in Iowa because a 2012 report by researchers at Iowa State University showed a need for educating women landowners on conservation. The report notes several significant trends in land ownership, including that women over the age of 65 own about 30 percent of the state’s farmland; women landowners also own more of the state’s rented farmland.

Although the act of renting land doesn’t necessarily preclude a tenant from caring about long-term investments in conservation, this arrangement can complicate those efforts.

That’s why it’s so important for women landowners to become more informed and empowered, Eells says. Because if they don’t know the ins and outs of soil conservation, and they struggle to talk to their farmers about environmental stewardship, their hopes for better practices may never be implemented.

And that puts the future of the American food supply at risk.

• Sena Christian wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sena is a newspaper reporter in Roseville, Calif., with a passion for social justice and indoor soccer.

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