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This land is her land

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.

The women, who live as far away as Kentucky and Illinois, also attended the Mills County Fair in Malvern.

“We love the land and the community that surrounds it, and we hope to pass our passion for the land and our heritage on to our children,” says Nancy Kayton Hansen, Geneva, Illinois. “We need strong partnerships with local people to keep these links alive.”

Accessing information

Reynolds' husband farmed for a few years, and he managed his share of his family farm, homesteaded in 1855. Today, she oversees 75 acres of it, sold in 2004 for a Kansas DOT project that's still on hold. A second farm where she lives has quail habitat, natural prairie, timber with 27 acres for hunting and two conservation ponds. Reynolds' tenant farms 57 acres of crops and 24 acres of brome hay.

Accessing data and deciphering USDA programs can be challenging. “There are days I spend a lot of time at the FSA office or talking to my Extension agent,” she says. “I look up Iowa State University information online and sometimes call a farm manager who knew Dad. It's what I have to do to stay in the ball game.”

In June, Reynolds and her daughter attended a conference for absentee/nonoperator landowners organized by Gannon Real Estate/US Farm Lease in Ames, Iowa.

Many women owners aren't as persistent as Reynolds, who earned a master's degree after raising her family. But greater outreach efforts are focusing on women.

A decade ago, the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), Iowa State University, and USDA agencies laid the groundwork, holding a series of meetings with women farmers and landowners. Based on over 1,500 surveys, conservation values emerged as a priority. However, women's enrollment in USDA conservation programs was low, compared to men landowners.

“Women often report being unaware of USDA resources,” says WFAN program coordinator Lynn Heuss. “They say they didn't know they could get a free NRCS farm plan or cost-sharing for a buffer.”

The NRCS, FSA, Extension, and Iowa DNR are partnering with WFAN to expand their outreach. WFAN has created a Women Caring for the Land (WCL) presentation and an 84-page guide (www.womencaringfortheland.org).

WCL also is offered in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. The American Farmland Trust's Center for Ag in the Environment held its first Lady Landowner Learning Circle last spring.

For the past two years, two former NRCS staffers, Pat Larr and Betty Joubert, have hosted workshops on a 257-acre farm near Nabb, Indiana, to help women learn to manage and conserve their land. They partner with three county soil and water conservation districts and Hoosier Hills RC&D. “Women don't tend to come to field days,” Larr says. “They come to our workshops to learn, to have fun, and to network.”

Rented Land

  • Men Own 39%
  • Women Own 61%

Iowa State University

But women still say they find it difficult to discuss their hopes and goals for their land with family members and particularly with tenants. (For more, see sidebar.)

“That's why there's a lot of focus on helping women learn how to approach a tenant on giving up farm acres for a long-term conservation project,” Duffy says.

Role of change agents

Some view women as a bridge to the next generation of farmers. Practical Farmers of Iowa is in the third year of partnering with WFAN to bring together women landowners and beginning farmers. Heuss says new landowner-tenant agreements have sprouted.

These conversations are helping young farmers observe how the perspective of women landowners may differ and what it may take to meet their needs and maintain strong connections, including:

1. Communication tips. More inclusive language and fewer technical terms and acronyms in USDA documents and discussions with tenants.

2. Conservation ethics. More priority on water quality, crop diversity, and animal habitat. “Women often are willing to give on finances to gain a half inch of topsoil,” Heuss says.

3. Lifelong connections. “Almost 30% of single female owners say they own farmland mainly for family or sentimental reasons,” Duffy says.

Reynolds fits the profile. “A few years ago estate tax laws changed, and it seemed a good time to sell,” she says. “I went to Iowa with it in mind, but I wasn't ready. I still love the land.” 

What Do Women Owners Want?

The response to this age-old question is as diverse as agriculture itself.

When Lynn Heuss, program coordinator for Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), conducts Women Caring for the Land meetings, she asks what makes a perfect tenant. Three criteria emerge.

1. Someone who is honest.

2. Someone who knows how to farm and understands what farm life is like.

3. Someone who will take care of the land and keep a neat farmstead.

In fact, the WFAN/Iowa State/NRCS survey in Cass County, Iowa, one decade ago showed that when it comes to influences on their decision making, women's concerns for the environment ranked slightly higher than the need for income.

“Women totally get the idea of leaving a legacy,” Heuss says.

Irene Reynolds owns land in Kansas and Iowa. “I wouldn't look for someone who wants the last penny,” she agrees. “I'd look for someone who uses updated farm methods and is willing to conserve the soil and environment. I want to leave my land in better shape. I gained a respect for the land from my father.”

Heuss says leases are a common source of consternation. “I've heard many stories from women landowners who aren't getting a fair return on their land,” she says. “Their dad or husband and tenant sealed the deal with a handshake. The next generation of farmers has to go beyond a handshake to a written lease.”

In general, Heuss says women share a concern for doing what's best for the community and being a good neighbor.

Ann Sorensen, research director for the American Farmland Trust, is curious to see how tenants will interpret and respond to these concerns. “I think it's going to take awhile for men to listen to what women have to say about how they want to manage their land,” she says.

Heuss agrees. “Women have not been invited to the table to make decisions about land,” she says.

Time will tell if women are ready to step up to the plate.

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