by George Looby

It has been brought to this observer’s attention that the role women play in the nation’s agricultural scene has been largely underestimated and underpublicized. One organization that has taken a lead role in overcoming this deficiency is the American Farmland Trust (AFT). This organization has taken on the mission of preserving the nation’s agricultural land.

Founded by a group of farsighted individuals who recognized that prime farmland was disappearing at an alarming rate, they set a goal of establishing guidelines to bring a halt to this trend. Almost four decades later, the group’s work has been a model for other like-minded organizations.

Since its inception, the role of the organization has expanded to meet the needs of other agriculturally-related activities, including those spearheaded by women. For any number of reasons, the “traditional farm wife” has played a somewhat quieter role as wife, mother, housekeeper, cook and often the bookkeeper – certainly enough to keep any woman busy, but often their role has expanded far beyond those important activities often brought on by the death of a husband or father and they may be asked to assume a more active role in the operation of a farm or ranch. Women continue to face barriers that are based on gender alone. Overcoming these long-held obstacles is one of the priorities of the AFT. There is a group within this organization called Women for the Land whose mission it is consider the obstacles women face in accessing conservation programs and resources.

There still exists in farming culture something akin to the “old boys’ network” – there are certain areas where female members of a family do not venture because of the long-held notion that certain tasks “ain’t girls’ work.” This barrier has prevented women from getting the exposure to all aspects of farm operations, including the very areas the AFT is trying to address. When thrust into the role of overseeing the land she acquired through whatever route, her level of knowledge is often not what it needs to be to be able to succeed at a high level. Dealing with a long-time leaser about initiating a change in some area of management can be somewhat intimidating to a woman who has never played that role before. “Never had to do that before” might be an anticipated response from a crusty old neighbor who has dealt with a woman’s dad for years. Resistance is the most predictable response to change. Those who promote it need to be well prepared to offer strong arguments for such change.

Women for the Land hosts “learning circles” that empower women landowners to adopt environmentally sound farming practices, protect farmland and improve the viability of their farms. This format is an extension of the inclination of women to gather in small groups to share in activities in which they have a common interest. Women for the Land combines research, on-the-ground projects and policy efforts to transform the agricultural landscape and develop a new voice for conservation.

There are few numbers readily available that demonstrate who owns and leases agricultural land in the U.S., especially when it comes to women owners. Working with Utah State University, the organization began a search that focused specifically on what is known about leased farmland and its owners, hosting focus groups with women landowners in seven of the 10 USDA production regions. There are now nearly one million women farm operators and another half million women landowners who lease their land to farmers. About one-third of the total acreage in this country devoted to farmland – some 301 million acres – is now farmed or co-farmed by women, and another 87 million acres are in the hands of women landowners. A large amount of this acreage is located in the Midwest.

The average age of farmers nationwide continues to creep up, and when it comes to survivorship it is often the female partner who survives and is left with crucial decisions to make. This group is often poorly prepared to manage the land in the best possible manner. They love the land and want it to be managed in the best possible way but find themselves ill-prepared to carry out best land management practices without some impartial advice and direction.

The AFT began establishing their “learning circles” in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic region about seven years ago. These groups were designed to bring together women landowners with female conservation professionals to increase their level of knowledge regarding the best current conservation practices. Surveys conducted following the implementation of these study groups gives strong support to the idea that women who attended these start-up sessions wanted to learn more.

As the models for bringing needed information to the target audience become well-established, the goal is to bring these study groups to an ever-expanding audience. If current plans hold, there will soon be study groups in the Northeast.