Redefining the farm woman

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Meg Doermann became a farm owner when her husband died suddenly 40 years ago. (Photo by Kathleen Masterson / Harvest Public Media)
About the author
Reporter, Iowa Public Radio
Kathleen Masterson was a Harvest reporter, based in Ames, Iowa, from 2010 to spring 2012.

Across the Midwest, the landscape of farming is subtly changing hands. As the population ages, one group of farmland owners is growing: widows. In Iowa, women over 65 now own more than a one-quarter of the farmland. 

While women have long been a part of farm life, women landowners frequently face unique social and cultural challenges. Advocates say that they haven't always been respected as farm decision makers and leaders.

Slowly this is changing.  In recent years, women farmers and women landowners are getting more attention.

Why now?

“The cynical answer would be because (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was sued for discrimination, said Leigh Adcock, director of the Women Food and Agriculture Network, which is based in Story City, Iowa.

She's talking about Love vs. Vilsack, a lawsuit filed in 2000 that asserted that farm agencies practiced gender discrimination. The lawsuit remains unsettled, but just last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the establishment of a process to resolve claims of women farmers and ranchers.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced in Dec 2009 to create equality for women farmers was never taken up by Congress.

Several groups have taken up the concerns of women landowners.

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The Women Food and Agriculture Network’s offices are tiny – just a single rented room containing Adcock’s desk and a space heater.  But the group has more than 1,000 members and has held meetings across the Midwest to bring women farmers and farm owners together to share advice and experience.

Many of the challenges women face are more social than intellectual, Adcock said.  This is particularly true when it comes to women landowners dealing with tenant farmers.  For example, Adcock said, some women have struggled with getting tenants to implement conservation practices.

Meg Doermann knows something about this. 

Doermann lives alone in her farmhouse perched atop a hill in Anamosa, Iowa.  Now in her 80s, Doerman became the sole farm owner when her husband died suddenly some 40 years ago.

“I was teaching, one girl was in high school, one in college,” she said. “We had the funeral. Gathered our parts up and went on."

Doermann quickly found a renter, someone whose family she and her husband had worked with before. Because part of the farm is quite hilly, Doermann and her husband had put in contour strips —planted rows running along the hillside designed to prevent erosion.

Doermann explained to her renter that he needed to farm along the contour strips, not just plant up and down the hill. But he ignored her.

“He planted up and down the hill -- I told him not to do it again the next year,” she said. “We had big rain in the night; he was feeding cattle, saw me in nightgown — looking where water going under road. He knew he’d been had.”

The rain had washed out the soil and the corn he’d planted — the next year, he gave up on corn and seeded with oats, as Doermann suggested.

In her own way, Doermann worked it out with her renter.

Doermann managed these challenges on her own. But a few years ago she went to a meeting organized by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network — a session for women to share strategies for land conservation.  Doermann said it helped her enormously to hear from other women landowners and to get advice from women in a “non-preachy” way. She even brought one of her daughters, who will inherit the land along with her sister, to a meeting.  And, Doermann said, her renter respects her more now that she is attending women landowners meetings.

Iowa state University research assistant Corry Bregendahl said many older women landowners find themselves in situations like Doermann’s.

“The biggest challenge is being taken seriously.  And understanding that they do have a lot of power -- they're landowners!” said Bregendahl, who works for a group called Women, Land and Legacy that strives to help give women access to information to make decisions about farming and conservation.

“There were common misperceptions at the time that women came into offices confused -- but really what women were doing is they had a different perspective on ag, and weren’t necessarily focused on production and profits,” she said.

To help bridge the gap in communication, Women, Land and Legacy helped form local planning teams in each county with partners from Farm Service Agency and women landowners. They held many listening sessions with women to get a sense of their goals for their land. Women listed things such as conserving their land and soil for the future, having a diversity of crops and farm projects on their land, protecting their families and contributing to the community.  

“It harkens back to the agencies' perceptions that women don't know what they want. Women did; it just didn't happen to fit the model or the expectations that they were used to serving,” said Bregendahl. And for the agencies, these meetings really helped them understand how to better serve these women landowners.

Another thing women learned from the Women, Land and Legacy meetings: Many women charge their farm renters much less than the going average. In fact 35 percent of women surveyed who attended  meetings said the main change they implemented as a result was to raise rent. 

“And there are stories in the evaluation about women renting land for 18 years and not raising rent, even though crop prices have gone up … and land values have gone up,” Bregendahl said.

Doermann acknowledged the rent she charges is probably below average.

“But I'm comfortable; I have everything I want,” she said.

And as the landowner, what she charges for rent is her choice. But the important part for advocacy groups is that women know their rights and their resources … and their voice is heard.