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This land is her land

CHERYL TEVIS 09/05/2012 @ 11:35am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

It's been 65 years since Irene Reynolds was her dad's chore girl on their Colo, Iowa, farm. But her memories remain untouched by time.

“I was the only help Dad had,” she says. “I started out replanting corn by hand, tamping down seed with my foot. Later, I drove a small tractor and raked hay. Dad loaned me out to neighbors.”

Reynolds never lived on the farm after graduating from college in Kansas, where she met her future husband, Karl. She helped him build an industrial business near Lawrence and raised two children.

She became the sole heir to the Iowa farm. In 2008 when Karl died, she inherited the farm they had bought in 1986, and part of his family's Kansas farm.

Reynolds represents a growing trend. Nearly half of Iowa farmland is owned or co-owned by a diverse mix of widows, daughters, wives, and women farmers. The percentage is higher for leased ground. A similar ownership pattern likely is mirrored across the Midwest.

Aging demographics is a major driver of the trend. In 2007, 55% of Iowa farmland was owned by individuals over age 65. Over the next two decades, an estimated 70% of U.S. farmland will change hands. It's projected that 75% of the land that's transferred will go to women.

This coincides with another major trend. “Over 50% of U.S. farmland is rented, and it's over 70% in some Iowa counties,” says Mike Duffy, Iowa State University economist. “Farmers will increasingly rely on rented land.”

Over the next two decades, a growing number of women landowners will be negotiating leases with a shrinking pool of predominately male farmers.

“Farmland ownership and management by women is one of the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S,” says Pat Larr, a former NRCS district conservationist who has a small farm near Nabb, Indiana.

Bridging the distance

Many women rent their land to family. Others, like Reynolds, rent to nonrelated tenants. Some of these non-family relationships span generations.

Jim Collins began renting from Reynolds' parents in 1978. Reynolds assumed management of the farm later that year, after moving her parents to Kansas. By 1980, Collins and his wife, Gail, had bought the acreage and house, and they moved in. Their daughter grew up here.

Reynolds visited Iowa as often as possible. But she recalls a 10-year period without a single visit when her family and business required her full-time attention.

“I'm busy, and Jim knows what to do,” she says. “He's easy to work with. Once I wasn't paying attention, I guess, and he told me he raised his cash rent. We talk a couple times a year, maybe for five minutes, sometimes an hour.”

An increasing number of landowners, like Reynolds, live out of state. “Over 20% of land in Iowa and in many other states is rented from absentee owners,” Duffy says. “My guess is this eventually will level out at about 40%.”

In July, 18 local and out-of-state women who own farmland in Mills County, Iowa, met there to discuss leases with Iowa State University Extension field economist Tim Eggers.

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