During the last several decades, more and more women have been entering agriculture as new farmers, widows or inheritors of farmland. Whether they lease their land to neighboring farmers or operate their own farm or ranch, thousands of women bring a strong conservation and stewardship ethic to managing their land. They are now poised to play a much larger role in U.S. agriculture, marking a historic shift. This demographic change will require a new approach and customized set of tools aimed at educating women landowners today to help them become tomorrow’s conservation leaders.
According to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture:
- Nearly one-half of all farmland in the U.S. is owned or co-owned by women, with an even higher percentage for leased land—making them the largest underserved group in agriculture.
- More than 75% of women operators are also the sole owners of their land.
- The number of women farm operators jumped 19% from 2002 to 2007.
"Women are starting to rise up through the ranks and be recognized," American Farmland Trust Research Director Ann Sorensen explained in a USA Today article Breaking the Grass Ceiling. "Although within the state commodity groups and state farm bureaus there is embarrassingly little representation by women, I think that is going to change."
Transition in Farmland Ownership: A Challenge and Opportunity
The ownership of U.S. farm and ranch land is poised for dramatic change. The majority of farm operators are older than 55 and the fastest growing sector is farmers who are older than 75, heralding a transition of land to a new generation of owners and operators. An estimated 230 million acres of farmland will change hands during the next 20 years, with women potentially owning a majority of the land that is transferred. This transition will, among other impacts, create a major opportunity for encouraging the use of conservation practices on farmland, which will enhance water quality, protect soil health and yield other important environmental benefits.
Women who are new to agriculture will need an array of information, assistance and tools to help them get up to speed quickly and become successful leaders and land stewards. But to engage these women, we need to better understand their unique needs and the barriers that they face. Thus, AFT is working to document existing knowledge gaps and to develop new programs that will educate and empower women. For example, AFT’s New York and New England offices recently launched Farmland Advisors, a training program aimed at helping agricultural professionals present an array of farm transfer and farmland access alternatives. Two-thirds of those selected to participate in the program are women.
A Woman’s Unique View of Caring for the Land
Through its outreach to women landowners in the Midwest, AFT has observed that women often emphasize different goals and values than men for their land. Women tend to take a longer view of their land as a valuable community asset that should be protected. They also overwhelmingly support policies and programs that encourage new farmers and provide incentives for using conservation practices and protecting farmland.
“The demographic shift toward female landowners could transform the way soil health is managed in the future,” predicts AFT Midwest Director Mike Baise. “Female landowners are much more likely to adopt conservation practices on their land or require their tenants to do so. I predict that women landowners will bring about a cultural change that will result in more sustainable leases, cover crops, on-farm wildlife protections, and enhanced soil health.” The attributes of women landowners make them ideal partners in conservation and farmland protection.
Using “Learning Circles” to Engage Women
Working with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and other organizations in the Midwest, AFT has convened a series of Female Landowner Learning Circles. Learning circles, first pioneered by WFAN, are informal gatherings in which 10 to 25 women share their hopes for their land in a relaxed setting. Female representatives from the USDA and local soil water and conservation districts are invited to answer questions about conservation programs, the benefits of using conservation practices, and the specifics of implementing these practices.
These women-only settings have proven to very effective in engaging women. Within a year of attending a learning circle, about 60 percent will take at least one conservation action.
Women and the Future of Agriculture
The attributes of women landowners make them ideal partners in conservation and farmland protection, both today and looking ahead to the need to foster the next generation of farmers and landowners. Providing customized technical assistance to these women will be critical. Thus, AFT’s Farmland Information Center, a web-based information clearinghouse and answering service on farmland protection, is developing online resources and tools to specifically help women overcome obstacles relating to on-farm conservation, permanent protection and succession planning.
For more information about American Farmland Trust’s work with women landowners, please contact Ann Sorensen at (815) 753-9349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.