Women lead a farming revolution in Iowa

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

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

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.

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.

“As a whole,” says Ms. Eells, “these women have a strong view of land as community – as a source of food and water for animals, birds, as well as people – rather than just producing a commodity. But while that conservation ethic makes them natural allies for agricultural conservation programs, women often feel their views are out of sync [with state or federal programs].”

Partly it’s because women don’t know or use standard terminology to talk about land conservation, Eells says. Partly it’s that agricultural system representatives tend to think and talk production – even when discussing conservation, she adds.

“If a woman brings up something about farming, and a man blusters authoritatively about it, women are socialized to just clam up,” Eells says. “So to the extent that a woman landowner starts discussing conservation, there are a lot of reasons why this might not go well.”

Male farmers and state agricultural officers echo Eells’s view. John Bruene, a district conservationist for the US Department of Agriculture, says women landowners are increasingly voicing their concerns to him. “We do deal with a majority male population in the farming community,” he says. “But there’s also been some new awareness that women owners out there want a say in how things are done. They are finding they don’t have to just do whatever their tenant wants them to do.”

As a result, his USDA department is focusing more on ways to educate women in the lingo of conservation and also to “reach out to a group that maybe we haven’t done that well reaching before.”

Mr. Bruene and Jim Serbousek, a county soil commissioner, spoke to – and took questions from – a Women Caring for the Land meeting of women landowners in Linn County. Mr. Serbousek, who farms his own land and is a tenant farmer for 10 landlords, says he heard plenty from the dozen or so women present.

He’d never dealt with that many women landowners before. “I was surprised; they didn’t hold back,” he says. “I was stressing that they need to have communication and cooperation with their tenants. They asked right back: ‘Well, how do you keep communication going when the only time you see [the tenant farmer] is when they sign a lease?’ ”

Still, he’s not surprised older women have conservation concerns not shared by younger tenants farming their land.

Willing to lower the rent
For most young farmers, “it’s economics, the almighty dollar, that speaks,” Serbousek says. “That’s where communication comes in. If the tenant does more conservation, I told the ladies, ‘Maybe you could lower the rent.’ ”

To his surprise, many women said they would gladly lower the rent if tenants followed good practices. But “if they’re going to tear up the fields, I’m definitely going to have to charge full rent.”

Carolyn Palmer, who grew up on the Linn County farm where she and her father were born, has lived on the same 90 acres for 50 years. She is determined to preserve its beauty and productivity.

But in the three years since her husband died, Mrs. Palmer says, she’s noticed that the tenant was slicing off a little more each year from waterways – the 30-foot-wide grassy strips beside streams required to prevent erosion. Not long ago she went out and measured: Sure enough, he’d shaved off a foot or so.

She’s also unhappy that crop rotation has changed from corn, oats, and hay to just corn and soybeans – which she says has harmed her land.

“I’m sure there is more erosion since we don’t have a field of hay – and the reason for this has to be profit,” she says. “If I had my druthers, I would shift back to another rotation,” even if it cut profits.

Still, as women like Palmer and Doermann get more active in conservation statewide, Ms. O’Brien, the farmer, sees potential for environmental progress – especially if farm programs can reach more women.

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