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Women owning more farmland

When Sarah Lankton opened the 2012 USDA Ag Census survey that arrived in her mailbox, a question came to her mind.

Lankton, who resides in suburban Northbrook, Illinois, has never farmed or lived on a farm. But she’s a farm owner. Make no mistake about it, she knows how to track down answers.

“My journey into agriculture has helped me step into another world -- one where I have to constantly learn by reading and attending seminars,” she says.

Lankton’s network of formal and informal resources includes Pam Nelson. They met five years ago at a book club. Both enjoy books, but it was their mutual farm ownership that sealed their friendship.

“There aren’t many women farm owners here,” Nelson says. “The day I met Sarah was one of the best things that’s happened to me. We exchange information by email and discuss farm issues. It’s been a big help.”

Nancy Kayton Hansen is a generation younger than Nelson and Lankton. The Geneva, Illinois, woman has strong ties to a family farm in Iowa. She’s reaching out to other women to bridge barriers of distance and technical expertise.

“The land isn’t just an investment,” she says. “It’s part of who I am. It’s also a big responsibility. How do I manage a farm I don’t fully understand and be part of a community I don’t live in?”

These are questions that a growing number of women are asking today.

Women currently own more than half of U.S. rented farmland. An estimated 75% of the land transferred in the next two decades will go to women. A shrinking number have family tenants, and some of them are assuming management roles. The transition is under way.

Lankton began by helping her mom make decisions about their farm west of Springfield. By 1986, she and several cousins had inherited shared ownership. No one in her family was farming the land, and no one wanted to manage it.

“It was a dilemma,” she says. “My uncle said, ‘Sarah, you run the farm. You know you love it.’” Lankton, a former R.N., began immersing herself in agriculture.

“My grandpa died young, so Grandma ran the farm and raised kids,” she says. “Now I’ve had to learn about agronomy, marketing, bookkeeping, farm programs, conservation, land values, wind farms, fracking, and negotiating leases.”

Nelson is three generations removed from farming. In the early 1990s, she began helping her mom to manage their farms. Today, she and her brother own the land, which is held in trust. She handles the book work and records. “Much of what I know comes from listening to my parents talk at the dinner table when I was a kid,” Nelson says.

She keeps up by reading magazines, visiting websites, and being a member of the Illinois Corn Growers and the Illinois Soybean Association. Her leases are crop-share.

She works with farm manager Penny Lauritzen, Lanark, Illinois, on one farm. “People ask why I want to own farmland,” Nelson says. “Number one, I love it. Number two, I make money. Then I ask them, ‘How’s your stock market doing?’ ”

Lankton hired a farm manager for three years when she was rebuilding drainage tiles and was finding a new tenant. “I told him I had to have it back,” she says. “I missed farming.”

Finding a new tenant is the most difficult challenge, the women agree. Lankton lost a tenant when she converted to cash-rent lease.

“It was emotional, because we’d worked with our tenant and his family for 12 years,” she says. “I had to look at it from a business standpoint. We needed a steady income in retirement. Cash-rent also will be easier someday for our kids.”

Her interviews with potential tenants focused on five criteria: compatible personality, current agronomic methods, use of ag technology, financial stability, and a solid machinery line.

“It wasn’t highest bidder wins,” she says. “Some farmers don’t want landowners involved -- it’s time-consuming. I want a business partner. I need someone who will look me in the eye.”

Communication also is a key component for Nelson. She talks to her renters by phone regularly.

“Our tenants are good about keeping us appraised of what’s going on,” she says.

The two women recently attended a wind energy workshop. “We want to know about trends that impact us,” Lankton says.

Lauritzen says not all farm owners, regardless of gender, are as engaged as Lankton and Nelson.

“Women tend to stay involved with their farm holdings if their parents or husband included them in conversations when they were younger,” she says. “It’s a connection to their loved ones and part of their memories.”

Both Nelson and Lankton cherish their memories of visiting the farm as children, and they have ties to cousins in the area.

“The land will continue to be held in trust and pass to four grandchildren,” Nelson says.

Educating the next generation is one of Nancy Kayton Hansen’s goals. She helped form a network of women who own land in Iowa.

“We like learning together, and meeting with others helps me make it a priority,” she says. “Dad’s turning over some management decisions to me and my sister. This year, we’re marketing some grain, along with our kids. Maybe there’ll be a little competition.”

Not surprisingly, Hansen says the theme of the next gathering of women landowners is "Engaging the Next Generation."

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