We're witnessing a major demographic shift in agriculture. Over the next two decades, as aging farmers retire or leave their land to the next generation, 70 percent of the nation's private farm and ranch land will likely change hands. One report predicts that women may own 75 percent of this transferred farmland.
Many of these women are non-farming landowners. A significant number of farm and ranch land owners in the United States – 42 percent – lease out their land for other people to operate.
Although they may not be in farming themselves, we know that non-farming landowners make many important decisions about their land that have a profound impact on the nation's land stewardship and farm viability. For instance, these landowners have a say in what conservation practices take place on their land – affecting soils, water and the environment.
But research shows that women landowners who lease their land face greater gender barriers in managing their land for long-term sustainability. Their farming tenants may dismiss their conservation goals, or they may not know how to approach the resource management agencies (like Soil and Water Conservation Districts) for help.
At the same time, Iowa researchers discovered that women who lease farmland in their state tend to be deeply committed to healthy farmland, farm families and farm communities. If this trend holds for women in general, it makes them ideal partners in conservation across the nation after we overcome the obstacles they face.
To address this potential paradigm shift in land ownership, American Farmland Trust has a two-prong approach: find out more about how women who lease their land to others make decisions, and figure out the best way to get them the information they need.
Thanks to a timely investment from Rachel's Network – a vibrant community of women at the intersection of environmental advocacy, philanthropy and women's leadership – we partnered with Peggy Petrzelka at Utah State University (USU). She is a well-known expert on non-farming landowners. USDA's Economic Research Service and The Mosaic Company Foundation also provided much-needed funding for this effort.
Through a survey and focus groups with women around the country, we are learning more about women landowners – which will help us and the nation's resource management agencies give these women the tools they need to best take care of their land.
In Illinois and Indiana, we convened learning circles for women inspired by work the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) had done in Iowa. Women-only learning circles bring women landowners together with conservation professionals – also women – to have an informal discussion about their hopes and dreams for their land.
Over 50 percent of the women who attend these sessions take a conservation action within six months of attending a learning circle, according to WFAN findings. As a result of their value, we are supporting continued learning circles in both states while expanding them to Maryland and Virginia. AFT's Farmland Information Center uses the findings from these circles to better provide the information and resources these landowners need.
Already through our focus groups we've uncovered many regional differences among women landowners in terms of how much land they own, whether they live on the land, what decisions they share with their tenants, and the particular challenges they face.
We will keep you apprised as this exciting project moves forward and as we gain insights that guide our work as the nation's leading resource for saving the land and keeping it healthy. To learn more about our work with women landowners, visit www.farmland.org/programs/protection/Empowering-Women-Landowners.asp.