Women Are the Key to Bringing Sustainability to the Corn Belt

Much of the farmland in the Midwest is under female ownership—and conservationists are hoping that could have long-term benefits.

(Photo: Valentin Casarsa/Getty Images)

Sep 16, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Thirty percent of farmers are women, unless you head to the Hawkeye State. In Iowa, half of the farmland is owned by women, and they’re not all the fresh crop of millennial farmers: A woman 75 or older now owns one in 10 acres of farmland in the state. They’re not the workers—they’re the landlords. And conservation groups are now betting on them to help repair the soil.

“Women tend to be able to look further down the road and realize the benefits that could accrue from certain conservation practices,” said Iowa-based Women Food and Agriculture Network program manager Carol Schutte, who facilitates one-day workshops in the group’s “Women Caring for the Land” series. “They tend to think of the activities they could do with their grandkids, if only there was still a grove where the kids could make forts or a wet spot where there would be frogs in the spring, if only there was a windbreak where they could go learn about birds.” Much of that non-farm habitat, however, is gone in Iowa; More than 30 million of the state’s 36 million acres are cultivated.

Research has shown that women are strong partners in conservation efforts given a commitment to healthy farmland, farm families, and farm communities. Working with local partners such as the Department of Natural Resources and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Women Caring for the Land has taught thousands of women in the corn and soy belt of the Midwest methods of soil conservation including no-till farming and cover crops. The methods are unique: There are no podiums and no PowerPoints. Rather, the program uses a peer-to-peer “learning circle” model, which begins with introductions in which women share their personal connection to their land.

“Oftentimes we have tears when the women are talking about widowhood or having to sell the last of the cows,” Schutte said. “A multitude of things come up.” Introductions are followed by the education component of the day, in which attendants ask questions of one another as well as the program leaders and local experts, and they end with a field trip to get hands-on experience testing soil. They are out by 3 p.m. so they can meet the school bus.

It’s a model that has proved to be a popular way to close not only a knowledge gap but generational and gender differences for women who have inherited land but may have no hands-on experience farming, or who are recently widowed and may not have been involved in the management of the farm. Participants say it is a relief to be able to ask “dumb” questions.

“It’s just so different for them to feel that none of their questions are going to be silly or that eyes are going to roll,” Schutte said.

“Women in male-dominated professions need to talk to each other and see others like themselves,” WFAN’s Leigh Adcock told Truthout. When they come together in the learning circle, a landowner may discover she’s been charging a tenant farmer a below-market per-acre rate for years, as happened in one meeting, and participants can develop strategies for how to approach a long-term tenant, who may be a relative, on trying no-till farming or cover crops, both of which reduce erosion. “Our bottom-line statement is this is your land,” Schutte said. “We try to empower them in that way.”

With the average attendee owning 330 acres, the effort could have a significant impact. In North America, agriculture is responsible for 66 percent of the soil loss, and it can be difficult to institute new farming practices that don’t adhere to the status quo, pressure to produce more, and the bottom line. Between 1997 and 2009, corn belt farmers received $51.2 billion in government subsidies to spur production but only $7.0 billion to implement conservation practices, the Environmental Working Group found.

But degraded soil requires fertilizer inputs to produce high yields, and because the structure is compromised, heavy rain causes soil runoff into rivers and streams—washing harmful chemicals from the farm along with it. A study from the Environmental Defense Fund found the use of cover crops and other soil conservation practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The group has proposed the government offer a discount on crop insurance for growers who incorporate the practices.

The Women Caring for the Land survey results show 50 to 70 percent of program participants take action to improve conservation following the program. The challenge, Schutte said, is helping local groups throughout the Midwest, in Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, to maintain these kinds of gatherings.

But women have long found ways to share information, in quilting circles and sewing bees, and farm women are nothing if not resourceful. Just ask Lori Stern. When she moved home to Wisconsin from Olympia, Washington, to run Lucky Dog Farm, an unofficial gathering of women farmers in the area offered resources, feedback, and community.

“It started really informally—just a group of women farmers, and we would meet and have these amazing potlucks and sit in a circle. People would say, ‘This is what I need; this is what I can offer other people.’ And it just came to be a thing,” Stern said. The group applied for grant funding, which enabled it to host tours of its members’ farms to raise awareness of sustainable agriculture practices, and it now hosts a weekend event each summer whose underlying message is soil health.

The group calls itself the Soil Sisters because, its website says, the soil is where food begins.