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How can we better support women in building climate resilient farms and ranches?

Women farmers and service providers at Foxhollow Farm in Kentucky at a recent Women for the Land Field Day. Photo Credit: Elora Overby

Women in all corners of the U.S. are finding ways to gather to cultivate climate resilience in agriculture. Through field days, learning circles, and workshops, women are taking initiative, pooling resources, and often traveling long distances to learn from one another to build resilient farms, families, and communities.  

How can we better support them? What gaps in service and education can we fill? What barriers to participation can we lower? As a summer intern with AFT’s Women for the Land Initiative, I was able to raise these questions in a series of interviews with leaders from across the country. Each of these leaders is, herself, a woman in agriculture, who has developed, participated in, or studied climate resilience education. Here’s what I learned: 

Gaps in Service and Education 

The most frequently mentioned gap in climate resilience education for women farmers, ranchers, and service providers is around systems thinking. Farming for resilience doesn’t mean tackling one problem at a time, in isolation. It means recognizing that things are interconnected. A healthy soil, for example, can lead to healthy crops, animals, communities, and even rural economies. More often than not, training programs underestimate these layered relationships. Even in colleges of agriculture, systems thinking doesn’t always make its way into the curriculum. 

What I try to do is talk about climate, but I don’t stop there. I talk about climate, food, soil, water… everything! Because I think that’s the gap in the world: we don’t do enough to show how everything is connected.   Wendy Millet, TomKat Ranch

California ranch of Brittany Cole Bush, women shepherdess. Photo Credit: Emmie Sperandeo

Another gap is meaningful climate monitoring. Often, farmers are asked to monitor their operations — water and fuel use, soil carbon and moisture, bird and insect diversity — but what comes next? What do the numbers mean? When is it time to take action? We need to be sure that the work farmers put into measurement is worth it, not only for interested researchers or companies, but for the producers themselves. This will require access to place-based resources, a third gap. Whether these resources are online materials, neighboring farmers, or technical service providers, their expertise in and relevance for the local landscape will be key to helping producers transition to climate-smart practices for their operations.  

“If we want farmers and ranchers to do all this monitoring, then we need to be able to provide that next step. Why are you monitoring this? What are the triggers that should lead you to change practices based on your monitoring? We need to be able to say, ‘This is why you should care.’ That’s what’s missing.” – Nancy Labbe, The Nature Conservancy 

Annie Elder of Community Farm of Ann Arbor, showing visitors what healthy soil feels like. Photo Credit: Caitlin Joseph

Barriers to Participation 

Farmers are strapped for time. That won’t come as a surprise, but it’s worth reiterating. It’s hard – maybe impossible – to quantify what an hour of a farmer’s time is worth, but it’s clear that it’s broadly undervalued by the many people and organizations who’d like to capture it.  

“People have a persistent habit of undervaluing farmer time. A farmer’s consulting wage if they have, say, 20 years of experience should be equivalent to that of someone who has 20 years of experience in any other industry.” – Caro Roszell, American Farmland Trust

In many cases, time is the biggest barrier to those interested in participating in training programs, even if they’re held during a relatively calm part of a farmer’s year. Incorporating incentives can help to lower this barrier. Program developers need to be asking: What is fair compensation for participation in training and mentorship programs? This is especially important when engaging women: conventional farms operated by women earn roughly 40% less than those operated by men. Another critical piece of the puzzle is childcare, which can limit womens’ financial resources, as well as their time. Women are nearly twice as likely as men to report childcare as an important factor in farm decision-making, and those with childcare problems tend to have lower farm sales. Providing or offsetting the cost of childcare can enable greater participation in climate resilience training.

“I’m really committed to paying a stipend. It’s an acknowledgment that farmers’ time is valuable and that they have expertise to share.” – Teresa Opheim, Climate Land Leaders

Brittany Cole Bush moving water tanks as she rotates her sheep. Photo Credit: Emmie Sperandeo

Whether or not compensation can be offered, an effective training program will ensure that a farmer or rancher walks away with something tangible, actionable, and personally relevant. Without a clear sense of what they’ll learn and how they might apply it, farmers are likely to allocate their valuable time elsewhere.

For farmers to show up, they need to know exactly what they’re going to get out of a program ahead of time. As a developer, you need to generate some output that goes directly back to the farm. You need to provide meaningful, specific deliverables.

– Chyi-Lyi (Kathleen) Liang, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

A Note on Women’s Programming  

The leaders I interviewed this summer identified critical gaps and barriers in climate resilience education, while noting that many are not necessarily specific to women. Still, they emphasized the power and continued need for women-centered programming. When I asked them why it mattered, three key themes rose up:  

  1. The relative ease of trust-building when women learn from one another 
  2. The openness of women to thinking holistically about their operations 
  3. The need to elevate women’s voices in the space of climate resilient agriculture 

“My personal success in my career has come from my ability to tap into women in agriculture training programs and scholarships. If it weren’t for that assistance, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.” – Jessica Gnad, Great Plains Regeneration

Toward a Climate Cohort 

With these insights in mind, the Women for the Land team will continue to expand its focus on climate resilience for women farmers and ranchers. Because it takes time to effect the scale of change needed to respond to the climate crisis, a cohort model shows the most promise as a way to build relationships and deepen impacts. This may look like a group of women repeatedly gathering (over months or even years) to reach specific objectives, building skills and tracking impacts along the way. 

“Having a community of practice is really important. The members meet regularly, form a tight pod, and support one another as they move along. Just having a consistent group that you can go to with any question is a big deal.” – Hannah Gosnell, Oregon State University

Women farmers gathered at one of our Learning Circles in Kentucky at Foxhollow Farm. Photo Credit: Elora Overby

When together, these women would share strategies, successes, failures, and new ways of thinking about their farms. They’d learn from one another, and then go on to share these learnings with their broader communities. Their stories would energize neighbors, customers, and policymakers, garnering support for sound farming practices and for policies that minimize barriers to women in agriculture 

“Any definition of ‘climate resilience’ in agriculture needs to embrace the social, ecological, and economic. For some people, that’s a totally new way of thinking about their farm.” –Laura Lengnick, Cultivating Resilience, LLC

Before long, I hope that we’ll be sharing these stories of resilience with you here.

 

Lauren Ashbrook is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of the Environment, where she focuses on soil health and climate change communication. 

Thank you to the incredibly generous and inspiring folks who spoke with us! 

  • Adria Arko, San Mateo Resource Conservation District 
  • Jean Brokish, American Farmland Trust 
  • Allison Chatrychan, Cornell 
  • Jessica Gnad, Great Plains Regeneration 
  • Hannah Gosnell, Oregon State 
  • Maria Janowiak, U.S. Forest Service 
  • Nancy Labbe, The Nature Conservancy 
  • Laura Lengnick, Cultivating Resilience 
  • Chyi-lyi (Kathleen) Liang, North Carolina Agriculture & Tech State 
  • Wendy Millet, TomKat Ranch 
  • Teresa Opheim, Climate Land Leaders 
  • Ashley Rood, Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network 
  • Caro Roszell, American Farmland Trust 

 

About the Author
Lauren Ashbrook

Women for the Land Initiative Summer Intern

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