Women landowners learn about conservation at workshop
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
(March 14, 2017) Stumbling into farmland ownership, whether by purchasing, partnering or inheriting, can come with a steep learning curve.
That’s particularly true for women landowners who might not have had a seat at the decision-making table before receiving the deed to the family land — without an instruction manual.
“We know that in lots of farm families someone works off farm, and that often is the women,” said Jim Baird, Mid-Atlantic director for the American Farmland Trust, which is expanding a program to engage female landowners. “Even when women are very involved in the farming, when you get a big transition, like a spouse dies, you are having to make decisions about things that you haven’t had a lot of experience with.”
Nationally, more women than ever are taking ownership of farmland as they outlive their parents or spouses or partner in their own ventures. Women own or co-own about a third of the nation’s farmland, and many more acres are in the hands of women who lease their land to neighboring farmers.
The average age of farmers also continues to rise, and women are often the gatekeepers and initiators in the process of land succession, national surveys show.
In the next two decades, about 240 million acres of farmland are likely to change owners, and much of it will transfer to women.
But, Baird said, when it comes to the conservation of that land as farmland, women landowners are underrepresented as participants in conservation programs. And many of the systems that are intended to help farmers incorporate conservation practices or smoothly pass on land to the next generation do not currently do enough to incorporate them, AFT’s research has found.
When a spouse dies, the surviving family members might not know what an organization like the Natural Resources Conservation Service does, let alone how to contact a local office about receiving grants for practices.
The American Farmland Trust received funding to help organize a series of “learning circles” for women landowners interested in conservation practices and will host several of them in the coming years.
The circles are designed to help women share information with one another and to learn firsthand from other females who work in local NRCS or extension offices. The small gatherings allow women to share about their struggles as new or still-learning landowners and to talk through some solutions. More than 500 women have gone through the program in Illinois, Indiana, New York, Maryland and Virginia since it started.
“Surveys show that women have a particular bend toward stewardship and see their land as a community asset,” said Baird. “They want to see their land transition to the next generation, to see it stay in farming, so they are often open to working with a new landowner or a farmer who will come and do something with that land.”
Though Judy Gifford grew up on a small dairy farm in Connecticut, she found there was plenty she didn’t know when she acquired with a partner a farm in Kennedyville, Md., in the mid-1990s.
Dealing with ever-changing nutrient management regulations proved as challenging as handling employees or the weather. She said participating in a women’s circle group last year helped her see and make decisions about the land differently.
“There is a different terminology between men and women,” said Gifford, who sees herself as a manager of the land rather than a ‘controller.’ “I’m just borrowing (the land) for the time being.”
American Farmland Trust sees the program as an opportunity to engage new landowners in conservation practices, such as working with a long-term lessee who will manage the land better or considering a conservation easement. Women at the sessions can share their experiences and learn practical skills from technical experts on how to negotiate better leases or fill out complex paperwork.
Women who want to participate in the program attend three meetings.
In Virginia, a learning circle was held last week in Rockingham County and another in Prince Edward County begins April 11. In Maryland, a circle serving Dorchester, Caroline and Talbot counties is scheduled for March 30 at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in Easton, Md., and another serving Prince George’s and Ann Arundel counties will take place in April and May.
Learn more about the program at www.farmland.org/initiatives/womenlandowners.