SALEM, Ohio — While the majority of U.S. farms are operated by men, many of those same farms are owned by women who, in turn, lease their farmland to male operators.
The trend toward female ownership is difficult to track because most data only records the gender of farm operators, and the amount of farmland that is leased.
According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, only about 14 percent of farms are operated by women, but the number of farms owned by a woman is presumably much higher.
The numbers matter when trying to make a difference on the land — especially when it comes to conservation.
A group of land experts with the American Farmland Trust and the Great Lakes Protection Fund is studying the trend and recently announced a $1 million grant program to work with women landowners and farmers in the Great Lakes region.
“Our project focuses specifically on female landowners because women play an increasingly important role in farmland ownership, and they often take a long-term view of their land, seeing it as a valuable community asset that must be managed using conservation practices,” said Ann Sorensen, research director and assistant vice president for American Farmland Trust.
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 44 percent of Ohio’s farmland and 27 percent of New York’s farmland is leased. Because leases are usually just for one year, farmers who lease have to decide whether the cost of improving the land is worth the investment.
“There has been some evidence that there are fewer conservation practices on leased land, mainly because a lot of farmers are on annual leases, so that immediately brings up the concern about whether or not you implement conservation … if you don’t know whether you’re going to be farming that land in subsequent years,” Sorensen said.
The other challenge is the knowledge gap that can exist between women landowners and their tenants. Some owners are removed from the farm and less familiar with today’s technology and farming issues.
The American Farmland Trust has seen evidence of the knowledge gap when bringing women landowners together to meet with farmers. During preliminary meetings, women landowners were given tours of modern, working farms, and were surprised to see how much has changed.
“Some of them haven’t really looked at a tractor in 20 years,” said Beth Landers, of the Soil and Water Conservation District in Wood County, a local partner in the project.
Landers said the funding is mostly for education and outreach. The plan is to continue holding meetings in the fall, that will bring women and landowners together, to facilitate dialogue and increase their education.
The focus will be on conservation practices, as well as the permanent protection of farmland, and helping farmers gain access to affordable land.
The program is based on an effort in Iowa by the Women, Food and Agricultural Network. The program’s “learning circles” have since spread across Indiana, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia.
The group hopes to eventually hold pilot demonstrations in Ohio and western New York, that will benefit both the owners and operators of farmland.
“They’re (women landowners) desperate for information,” Sorensen said. “They want to know enough so that they can have a conversation with their operator.”
The group is in the process of contacting female landowners and trying to determine how many exist — so they can offer services that will assist them going forward.
Other partners in the project include Cornell Cooperative Extension, IPM Institute of North America, Agren, and Utah State University.
- To learn more about the American Farmland Trust, visit www.farmland.org.
- If you are a woman landowner and want to know more about opportunities along the Portage River in northwestern Ohio, contact Beth Landers at 419-352-5172. If you live in or near northwestern New York and want information, contact Joan Petzen at 585-786-2251, Ext. 122.