Conservation workshops support female landowners

By Lisa Kivirist, Rural Women’s Project

What’s a key ingredient to stir up more conservation practices in our rural areas? Increasingly, it’s women landowners. According to data from Iowa State University, over 47 percent of the farmland in Iowa is owned or co-owned by women. A growing number of these women are sole owners, primarily senior and widowed landowners who inherited family farmland.

This statistic sparked the innovative training program Women Caring for the Land, created by Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and tailored to support these women in achieWomenCaringForLandving conservation goals. Thanks to a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Women Caring for the Land is now expanding into seven Upper Midwest states through 2016.

As the Wisconsin partner, the MOSES Rural Women’s Project will facilitate three day-long workshops in 2014 that are free for women to attend: April 22 in Dodgeville; April 23 in Viroqua; and, April 24 in Monroe. “Women Caring for the Land builds on more than a decade of our work with women farm- land owners in Iowa,” explained Leigh Adcock, Executive Director of WFAN. “Through various pilots, we’ve learned that this group of women consistently demonstrate strong conservation values in surveys and interviews. However, many of them are inheriting farm- land from partners or fathers, and have not participated in management decisions in the past. They don’t always know where to go for assistance and are sometimes reluctant to approach traditional conservation agency staff with their questions.”

Cue the importance of networking and peer-to- peer programming. In the same collaborative spirit of the MOSES Rural Women’s Project, Women Caring for the Land recognizes that women often learn best from each other. The format of these sessions includes a facilitated discussion in the morning between small groups of area women and female conservation professionals. They discuss their goals for improving air, water and soil quality on their land and engage in different activities that teach conservation principles. After lunch, participants go on a guided tour of area farmland to see these principles and practices in action.

“Women Caring for the Land provides a crucial link between these women and the resources they need to achieve their conservation goals,” explained Carol Schutte, WFAN Program Assistant, who will help facilitate the Wisconsin workshops in April. “Women feel free to raise questions, share challenges and knowledge, and get information on the wide range of resources available to them.”

Topics for discussion include soil health, water conservation, and government cost-share programs, as well as how to talk with tenants about changing management practices. A specialized curriculum has been developed for this program, outlining activities that innovatively tie in imagery close to the heart of this senior group, such as quilts, to bring issues such as diversity and soil erosion to life.

“We have had wonderful feedback from partici- pants,” Leigh said. “Many of them just need to network with other women landowners to give them the information and confidence they need to improve soil and water conservation on their farms. Over 60 percent of meeting participants take at least one conservation action on their farmland within one year of attending the meeting.”

These workshops also showcase the inspiring stories of local female landowners like Bonnie Wideman, women who have successfully incorporated conservation practices on their land by utilizing various state and federal resources. Wideman runs Pine Knob Organic Farm, a grass-fed beef and sheep operation outside Soldiers Grove, Wis.

“Perhaps the most significant change I’ve made since taking over management of the farm after my husband’s death eight years ago is going to rotational grazing, something he wanted to do, but we didn’t have the infrastructure at the time,” Bonnie explained. “Encouraged by grazing specialists and with EQIP funding to help pay for projects over the years, I was able to put in fence and water lines to enable grazing in over 30 different paddocks.”

Bonnie’s current project is finding a way to handle all the water that comes onto her property so that it doesn’t erode the field road and run through livestock lots. “My local NRCS staff are being incredibly helpful in coming up with a plan and submitting it for funding,” she added. “It is so gratifying when agency folks are able to understand how important conservation projects like this are to the landowner.”

“Women Caring for the Land provides a needed connection between women landowners and the array of land conservation resources and programs we have available here in Wisconsin,” explained Cara Carper, Executive Director of Southwest Badger Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Council, a partner in the 2014 Wisconsin workshops. “Southwest Badger RC&D is looking forward to bringing these landowners together and providing the start for new relationships and network support for the future.”

The impact of Women Caring for the Land holds strong potential for stewarding our rural land- scape. “These women landowners are some of the most dedicated conservationists in the state, but are typically overlooked with traditional conservation outreach, which is targeted at the tenant farmer,” Leigh summed up.

Lisa Kivirist leads the MOSES Rural Women’s Project. She is the co-author of “Farmstead Chef” (New Society Publishing, 2011), the award-winning “ECOpreneuring” (New Society Publishing, 2008) and “Rural Renaissance” (New Society Publishing, 2009). 

March | April 2014

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