Dena Vittorio

January 16th, 2019

Gaining Confidence from AFT Learning Circles

Dena Vittorio always dreamed of continuing to farm her family’s land, but when she was young, unfortunate events took place, and she became a widowed single-mom who needed a steady income. At the time, farming wasn’t a feasible way to make a steady income. Dena stated, “My grandpa began farming this specific farm in 1887. This farm is essential to me, not only because my parents and grandparents loved this land, but because stewarding this farm is a form of prayer for me, both physically and spiritually. My professional life as a church pastor took me away from the farm, yet I never gave up the dream that one day I would return. Twenty-five years later, my husband and I returned in 2003.”

Dena Vittorio

The farm she left in 1978 is nothing like the farm she returned to 25 years later. She felt ignorant of the extensive use of inputs, soil erosion, and today’s market emphasizing production, often at the expense of soil health, community life, and low profits for the small farm. Both she and her husband didn’t know much about farming and didn’t feel comfortable seeking advice.

“It began a couple of years ago when I asked myself how to increase the quality of our crops. I found information on the Women Food and Ag website and decided to explore the possibility of attending a learning circle.” – Dena Vittorio

Dena and her sister officially inherited the 240-acre 1887 Ellison Family Farm in 2008. She knew she needed to gain more confidence and opportunities to ask questions without judgement. After searching for opportunities, Dena began reading everything she could about agriculture, particularly women in agriculture. One day, she came across the Women Food and Ag website and the Women Caring for the Land learning circles.

“It began a couple of years ago, when I asked myself how to increase the quality of our crops. I found information on the Women Food and Ag website and decided to explore the possibility of attending a learning circle,” Dena said.

Dena wanted a community of farming women who shared her committed passion and knew these learning circles were a perfect opportunity to make this happen. So, she gathered with fifteen women for a learning circle in August, 2018. Dena expressed, “The staff was excellent in helping us share our own stories and leading us in experiments that helped us consider sustainable practices for our soil. By the end of that day, we had listened, laughed, expressed our concerns for our farms’ futures, and agreed we wanted to continue getting together.”

Learning circles can help women identify themselves as farmers, not just helpers to farmers. Some of these women may not be working the fields—but they are checking the fields and are concerned with the conservation practices on the land and the soils. “Since that day of the first learning circle, I have gained confidence in my knowledge of farming and in my pursuit of sustainable agriculture. We are already using no-till, cover crops, a CRP waterway, and lower inputs through selective usage.”

“Since that day of the first learning circle, I have gained confidence in my knowledge of farming and in my pursuit of sustainable agriculture. We are already using no till, cover crops, a CRP waterway, and lower inputs through selective usage.” – Dena Vittorio

Farming can be seen as a solitary journey, especially for women who want to understand why soil and food health are so important. Dena expressed, “Being in the presence of other women farmers who speak the same language and express the same passion for their farms is like coming home—changing my solitary to solidarity. I felt like I received more than what I was expecting. Many of the other women landowners had similar stories and wanted to continue to learn together. I felt so happy to finally gain a community that’s bigger than myself. Since our first learning circle—we decided to meet every other month as twelve of us.”

For Dena, the family farm is seen as a legacy she wishes to see continue as such. Though she can’t quite predict what her kin will do with the land, she knows this farm will always be a part of her family. She hopes that when her children inherit the farm they will understand the gift it is, how to incorporate sustainable agriculture practices, and that there are farming communities that can be made.

To learn more about the Women for the Land initiative, contact Jennifer Filipiak, AFT’s Midwest director, at jfilipiak@farmland.org or (515) 868-1331.

Women for the Land