Editor’s note: This is part of a series on programs for women farmers and landowners.
AMES, Iowa — Women Caring for the Land, a program of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, just turned 10 years old.
There have been more than 225 Women Caring for the Land meetings, most in Iowa and six other Upper Midwest states. The program also has led learning circles in Kentucky and Maine and will go to South Dakota this summer.
It focuses on conservation topics, said Carol Schutte, coordinator of the program. The primary mission of the last six years has been improving soil health, she said.
“We talk about tillage problems and the importance of cover crops or a longer rotation with cool season crops in the mix,” she said. “All soil health discussion and suggestion directly impacts water quality and water management in the state and downstream.”
The program has also provided workshops on transitioning land for conservation and sustainability, hunting rights and watersheds.
Women Caring for the Land bases its model on research and experience that shows women are more comfortable and learn better in a discussion setting where they can see each of their peers.
“We aim to establish a safe place where everyone feels comfortable asking questions,” Schutte said. “This means that our mornings have only women in the room.”
Afternoon field tours sometimes include male conservation professionals as well as the women professionals who were with the group in the morning. There are no PowerPoints or lectures.
“The demonstrations we use about soil quality are dramatic and very convincing,” Schutte said. “We have added more over the last few years as we gain new ideas.”
They have found that women who are less involved in agriculture — maybe new inheritors of land — are especially appreciative of the format.
“For many, it’s their first meeting about farming and they want to have a voice at the table,” Schutte said.
Women Caring for the Land organizers evaluate each meeting. Written comments from attendees are affirming and encouraging.
Among comments: “I learned so much in a short time, today’s gathering has given me confidence and a background to discuss healthier ways to grow crops on our farm,” and “I have written down phrases and terms to use in my new-found vocabulary to discuss issues with my farm renters.”
Also, “I value the encouragement and camaraderie,” and “It was so nice to be among women where I could ask questions I would never ask in front of men.”
Women Caring for the Land has made a difference in empowering women landowners to make decisions that support more conservation, Schutte said.
“Some women come to our meetings a second time, and we hear about changes they made since their first event,” she said. “Fifty to 70% of the women who attend one meeting take an action to improve conservation on their land.”
The research is quite clear that women think differently than men, Schutte said.
“That always brings some giggles when I say that at meetings — like we didn’t all know that already,” she said.
“Then I go on to state how many women may be more inclined to make a conservation management choice on their land because of the values and connectedness we feel to our roots, the home place, the memories. Perhaps a woman will feel more inclined to save a little wetland. Perhaps a woman won’t feel quite as much pressure or competition to get the highest dollar out of the land and instead set aside some land for pollinators or a windbreak.”
She does not mean to imply that men don’t care about these things.
“It’s just a different way of thinking for some and a different sense of responsibility,” Schutte said.
Every woman landowner, no matter what type of management or acreage involved, is welcome at the table in Women Caring for the Land discussions.
“There is room for conservation improvement on every operation and much to learn,” Schutte said.
“Our hope is to regenerate the land so it will be profitable to farm well into the future. The soil degradation worldwide is of great concern as we are faced with feeding millions more people on finite land. Improving our land vitality and health is essential to improving water quality and can and will also help rejuvenate and support vital rural communities.”
WFAN has been asked by other states and agencies to help train their resource professionals in outreach to women land owners. For more information on upcoming Women Caring for the Land sessions, check http://www.wfan.org/iowa-spring/.