Once on the Sidelines of Farming, Women Landowners Find Their Voices

Half a million American women rent land to tenant farmers. Now, a handful of conservation groups are working to empower these returning rural stakeholders to prioritize the air, water, and land.



A few years after her father died unexpectedly, Holly Maffitt decided to take over her parents’ 500-acre cattle operation in Pike County, Missouri. Living by herself in the old brick farmhouse seven miles west of the Mississippi River, the 68-year-old was grateful for the chance to enjoy the brilliant sunrises and sunsets she’d missed during the decades she’d spent raising a family and working as a nurse in Houston.

But she soon began to realize how much she didn’t know about overseeing an active farm. When she first assumed responsibility in 2012, Maffitt was unaware how the rural roads around her connected, couldn’t name many of the tools in the farm’s machine shop, didn’t know much about managing livestock—and most importantly, didn’t have the language to communicate effectively with the father and son tenants who managed the cattle and crops on the property.

“I was constantly having these wearying interior battles,” she says. “I was learning a new vocabulary and desperately looking to find confidence when I was talking with other farmers.”

Soon, however, she began to get to know her surroundings, research various farming methods, and hone in on her own goals for the land.

While she respects her tenants, who her father brought onto the land as his health began to decline, “They’re not really gung-ho grazers,” Maffitt says. “They rotate the [cattle] every seven to 10 days; I wish they would open those gates and move them every three to four days. And I think multispecies grazing might be the best thing if I can find enough management help.”

Eventually, Maffitt would like to find tenants who embrace her grazing goals—and she would like to break up the corn and soybean rotation. “I’m quietly looking at some specialty crops of some sort,” she says—perhaps nut trees or rye to supply a young man producing whiskey in the area. She’d also like to create a riparian border to protect a creek that runs through the land and implement a new management plan for the wooded part of the property that will involve eliminating invasive species and setting aside a portion for wildlife habitat. “I’ve got a lot of dreams,” she says.

As the current generation of farmers retire or pass away, women like Maffitt increasingly find themselves inheriting farmland and being tasked with making decisions about how they want it managed. While more than 1 million U.S. women are operating farms themselves, an additional half million own farmland they don’t farm. Predominantly over the age of 65, many of these inheritors have spent their adult lives in non-farming careers, and rather than switching gears, they choose to rent the land out or maintain the rental agreements already in place.

In the U.S., about 40 percent of all farmland is rented. And a good portion of farmland landlords—37 percent—are women. Women, in fact, own almost half of the rented farmland in the country. Moving forward, experts say, that number is only likely to increase: the American Farmland Trust (AFT) predicts 370 million acres of farmland, or 40 percent, will change hands over the next one to two decades as farmers retire or pass on—and because women tend to outlive men, they will likely inherit a great portion of these acres.

As their presence in the agricultural scene grows, some farmland conservationists have realized that partnering with women landowners is vital to achieving the dual goals of protecting farmland from development and ensuring it is managed sustainably, in ways that improve the air, land, and water, such as reducing the size of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico and sequestering carbon to curb climate change.

The problem? Because women have traditionally assumed support roles in agriculture and tend not to pick up farm publications or frequent educational events hosted by government ag agencies (which often target men), finding and connecting with women landowners often proves difficult for the conservation organizations looking to work with them.

“There’s this whole segment of the agricultural audience we’re not reaching,” says Jennifer Filipiak, the Midwest director of the AFT. “If we want to achieve conservation and water quality goals, the people who own the land need to be engaged, and half of them are not even in the room.”

In addition, being a landlord—rather than a farmer—removes some women even more from the conservation conversation. “Women in agriculture are almost invisible,” says Bridget Holcomb, executive director of the Iowa-based Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), a national organization that supports women in sustainable agriculture efforts. “When you add to that being a step removed from production, the invisibility just compounds.”

In recent years, groups like the AFT and WFAN have begun offering programs designed specifically to engage women, most notably in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes regions. And they’ve found the audience extremely receptive to messages about sustainability.

“What is wonderful about working with women landowners is that … they inherently want to leave the land in as good or better condition than they got it,” Holcomb says. “They want the land to continue to feed or support their families—and they want to leave a legacy.”

Getting them to take steps to protect the land, she says, is often just a matter of showing them how.

Debbie Clay is a farmer in Stony Creek, Virginia. When her father died in 1998, Clay inherited 110 acres.

Power Dynamics in Farm Country

Growing up on the family farm, Maffitt helped with garden chores and helped her father feed the cattle from time to time, but she was more of a bystander to the operation than an active participant. “I was relegated to the house and gardens much more [than the fields],” she says.

As the wives and daughters of farmers, many of the women inheriting farmland have at least some knowledge about agriculture, says Rebecca Fletcher of the Indiana Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency that helps farmers and ranchers maintain healthy and productive lands. “What they may not have is the operating and business information and the important conservation information about sustainably caring for the land and improving the quality of its resources.”

In an agricultural scene dominated by men who have been farming for decades, this lack of information can put them at a disadvantage when trying to develop a vision for their land and advocate for it.

Texas native Marli Hickin, 45, took over her husband’s family’s farmland in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia after he died in a plane crash. The land was being rented out by a neighbor for his dairy cows, but Hickin decided to take the operation on herself, with the help of her five children. While the tenant farmer had continuously grazed cows across the property in conventional fashion, Hickin introduced sheep and goats and began to rotate them daily through different parts of the property to improve the soil quality.

“It’s been a difficult thing, being taken seriously,” she says. “I have no farming background, and some of the things I’ve done are a little on the strange side for local farmers.” As an outsider coming into it, she often experienced the farming community as a good ol‘ boys’ club. “If you went to agricultural school and do it all the regular way with the chemical fertilizers and all that stuff, you can be a farmer. But until then, you’re [seen as] a little strange,” adds Hickin.

In some cases, women new to farmland ownership suffer explicit discrimination. Filipiak and Holcomb have talked to women who have had to turn over their marriage certificates before government officials would supply them information about their land. They’ve spoken with others whose tenants have insisted on paying rents substantially below the going rate. WFAN was founded, in fact, in part to combat this type of discrimination: “As much progress as we have made toward equality, it seemed to our founder and others involved at the beginning that rural areas were behind the curve,” Holcomb says.

For Black women landowners, who have faced a long and painful history of discrimination and have unjustly lost countless acres of land, the problem is compounded. “There’s a lot of deliberate misinformation given to women and people of color,” says Ebonie Alexander, executive director of the Black Family Land Trust (BFLT), a North Carolina-based conservation land trust that preserves the land assets of African-Americans and other historically underserved people. “Information is power. [A person] can give you part of the information but not all of the information you need to make an informed decision. [They] can give you enough to make mistakes.”

Multiple times, Alexander has witnessed people try to convince Black women landowners that agricultural conservation easements, designed to protect land as farmland, will lead the USDA to seize their land. “That’s a big lie,” she says.

In some cases, the disadvantages women face are simply about a lack of insider vocabulary. Nancy Bolson and her two sisters inherited their grandparents’ farm in what she describes as “a real progressive little pocket of Iowa,” south of Decorah. While Bolson, who had previous experience co-farming with her husband, wasn’t discriminated against, she did feel overwhelmed when she first visited the Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. “The first couple times I went to FSA, there were so many acronyms thrown at me,” she says. “It wasn’t a gender issue—I’m sure any guy would have felt the same way; it was all those acronyms.”

On top of these hurdles, complex social dynamics often inhibit women from acting on their ideals. “If you own the land, legally you have the power; it’s your land, you can do whatever the heck you want with it,” Filipiak explains. “But socially, you don’t have that power. I could fire my farmer at any time, but I go to church with my farmer, and the whole community will think I’m a horrible person.”

While women might technically have the ultimate say over their property, she says, they also want to “keep community harmony; they want to keep family harmony. It’s [about] more than just legal control.” In some communities, in fact, women may feel alienated or even unsafe if others come to see them as causing problems.

Holcomb says building women’s confidence and sense of empowerment is one of her principal goals with WFAN. “It breaks my heart every time I hear of a woman who is watching her farmland degrade and doesn’t know how to stop it—she doesn’t feel she has the language or the respect or the knowledge to step in and change it. This is happening all over the country, and it’s happening to the detriment of our soil and water,” Holcomb says.

Her goal is to get women to realize that this is their land, and they get to call the shots.

Debbie Clay walks through a field of cotton on her farm.

Reaching Women on a Personal Level

WFAN first began developing its Women Caring for the Land program, which centers around a program of peer-to-peer learning circles, in Eastern Iowa in 2009. Since then, the organization has developed and expanded the model—and shared its methodology with organizations like the AFT, which since 2012 has offered similar workshops in numerous states through its Women for the Land program.

The sessions, which are led by trained facilitators and generally last a day, allow the landowners, with no men present, to share the story of their land and their goals for managing it and passing it along. Experts often provide them with information on specific land management topics, such as soil health, water quality, pollinator habitat, or timber management. And in the afternoon, the group heads out into the field to see conservation practices at work first-hand.

Filipiak and other circle leaders hope to inspire participants to try out techniques like introducing crop diversity, cover crops, and no-till farming on their land. They also hope the sessions will position women to improve their relationships—and establish respectful communication—with their tenants, many of whom have been working the land for decades and have their own goals for it.

“[The two sides] need to come together and figure out where there’s common ground,” Filipiak says.

Before landing on the learning circle model, Indiana’s NRCS found it very difficult to reach women, who they say do not tend to pick up publications or attend workshops. The group offered its first learning circle in 2013 and has developed a robust statewide program since.

“[The learning circles] are reaching women on a more personal level than sending out a news release or holding a field day where 100 farmers come and walk through a field,” says Fletcher, who spearheaded the effort that has served 400 women so far. “This is the way women prefer to learn—it’s not top-down; it’s more relation-based. It’s really intimate, and it’s something women really seem to enjoy.”

Debbie Clay inherited 110 acres of her family’s farm in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, after her father passed away in 1998. The 62-year-old attended three learning circles in her county, where she learned about pond irrigation, weed control, and how to manage the forested acres on her property.

“Going to these seminars and learning everything you can about your land helps you manage it,” Clay says. “Even if you’re renting out the land, you need to know to rotate the crops, to put heavier cover crops in, to not spray weeds when the wind is blowing. For some people, she says, “it’s all about the dollar—and you need to be educated so you won’t be taken advantage of” by tenants who would prioritize profit over treating the land well.

Over in Missouri, Holly Maffitt participated in several WFAN learning circles and took a number of other steps too to learn what she needed to know. She enlisted the help of local NRCS representatives, attended a seminar by Joel Salatin and Allan Nation, read grazing publications, and talked with neighbor farmers, who she has found very open to sharing. She also set up a Pinterest page that helped her learn the name of the tools on the farm, and, in winter, decided to don the “uniform” of the farmers in her area—muck boots, ear muffs, and coveralls, or “farmers onesies,” as she calls them.

Not all returning farm owners take the details quite so seriously, but WFAN reports that the women they work with own an average of 300 acres each, and more than half of them take a conservation step within six months of attending the group’s one-day trainings.

“We know we’re having a tremendous impact on increasing conservation across the U.S.,” Holcomb says.

Leaving Behind a Legacy

Between 1992 and 2012, about 31 million acres of farmland were lost—the equivalent of all the farmland in the state of Iowa—according to the AFT’s recently released report Farms Under Threat. That’s twice as much farmland lost than previously known. Much of the loss has come from low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, as well as the shopping centers and soccer fields that quickly follow the new home construction.

To help combat this rapid loss, many learning circle sessions focus on teaching women how to handle estate planning and land transfer in a way that ensures their land continues to be farmed.

“Our abundant and productive farmland is one of our greatest natural resources in this country, and women need to know what their options are for passing that land down,” says Filipiak of AFT. Rather than willing it to non-farming heirs who might sell it to developers, they could pass it to their renting farmer or a young farming family. Or they could put conservation easements on it to ensure it stays in agriculture, she says. “These non-operating land owners, they have goals and values and a legacy they want to pass down, and if the land goes randomly up for auction, their values and all they put into the land may not be honored.”

On her acreage, Maffitt hopes to create a thriving, productive operation her family can pass on to someone interested in carrying on the legacy—someone who may or may not be a family member. In the meantime, the former nurse continues working out her own vision for the property—and learning a lot about herself in the process.

“I feel overwhelmed a lot of times,” she says. “But when I look and see the huge force that keeps life going and how small I am in it, I feel a great peacefulness; I don’t have to fix everything; I just need to apply what I can.”

 

Photos by Kate Medley.

This story is part of a year-long series about the underreported agriculture stories in our rural communities.

 

 

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