For women landowners, a place at the (decision-making) table
Mary Ellen Miller grew up in Iowa. But she moved away, had a career in public health, and swore she’d never live in the country again.
Well, never say never.
After Miller’s brother died several years ago, leaving her 40 acres in south-central Iowa, she says she felt a sense of responsibility.
“When I inherited this land I really wanted to be mindful about what to do with it,” Miller said. “So I’m here to learn to balance mindful land conservation while actually using the land for an economic outcome.”
“Here” is a workshop in Chariton, Iowa, specifically for women landowners.
According to the latest estimates, women operate about 14 percent of the nation’s farms. But with the average age of American farmers rising, more farmland is expected to change hands in the years to come.
Ann Sorensen, research director for the American Farmland Trust, said much of that land is being inherited by farm wives who outlive their husbands. She said many of the women she’s working with in Illinois often seem to look at land a little differently.
“I think it’s going to take a while for men to hear what women have to say. To realize it’s not always about the bottom line or greater yields,” she said.
For many women, Sorensen said, farmland is also about the environment, the community, passing something on to the next generation.
But it’s not easy. Sometimes women end up in rooms that historically have been full of men. Think conservation board meetings, farm organizations, the local co-op. Places Men usually go to for advice and camaraderie.
“Ag has been patriarchal; that’s changing and that’s good,” said Lynn Heuss, who is with the Women Food and Agriculture Network, one of the partners for the workshops. “But it’s not like we don’t need to sometimes say, excuse me, we want to be at the decision-making table — not just running errands or fetching snacks.”
Lyla Nennig is a landowner with her husband near Osceola, Iowa. She said she came to a workshop because she wanted to be able to talk with him about how he manages their property.
Nennig said she thinks men could learn something from women.
“I think if you want it done, give it to a woman and it’s going to done. Probably faster and probably better,” she said.