Women for the Land: New Voices for Conservation and Water Quality in Virginia

Final report for EDS19-09

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2019: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2021
Grant Recipient: American Farmland Trust
Region: Southern
State: Washington, DC
Principal Investigator:
Jamie Mierau
American Farmland Trust
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Project Information


The “face” of American agriculture is changing, bringing with it new challenges and impressive opportunities to protect farmland, promote sound farming practices, and keep farmers on the land. Nearly 301 million acres of U.S. land — about a third of the nation’s land in farms — are now farmed or managed by women. Many more acres are in the hands of women who are “non-operators”, leasing their land to neighboring farmers. These women control the future for millions of acres of farmland in America. In the next two decades, about 371 million acres of farmland are expected to change owners as aging farmers retire or transition their land to the next generation. It is predicted that women may own 75 percent of this transferred farmland. Virginia mirrors these national trends with 51 percent of the farmers more than 65 years old. Despite their growing numbers, women are under recognized for their tremendous contribution to farming and fundamentally underserved by the programs that provide farmers with the advice, funds, and resources they needed to be successful stewards of working landscapes.

This project will integrate women agricultural landowners in Virginia into an approach that informs them on opportunities for sustainable agriculture and engages them in implementing practices on their land. Graduate of American Farmland Trust’s Conservation Learning Circles are women farmland owners who have completed a three-part program learning about local conservation agencies and have spent time planning a holistic future for their land that integrates sustainable farm practices with increased conservation actions. In the process, they build confidence and strategies to work with tenants, professionals, and agency staff to achieve their goals. These Conservation Learning Circles have an impressively high rate of success in increasing women’s confidence in communicating their desires for improving conservation on their land and implementing conservation measure. Fifty percent of Learning Circle participants take a conservation action on their land within one year.

Over the 24 months, 56 women landowners will graduate from one of four Conservation Learning Circles, and be poised to implement conservation measures upon their land. Twenty female professionals, employed by conservation agencies, and AFT’s partners, will partner with AFT staff during the Conservation Learning Circles, learning the strategies and methods to work directly with women landowners. AFT will also work with its steering committee and local and state-level partners, to lay a foundation for a sustainable Virginia Women Landowner program that is embraced by the conservation agencies as a strategic part of their outreach and implementation activities.

Project Objectives:
  • 56 women landowners will graduate from one of four Conservation Learning Circles, and be poised to implement conservation measures upon their land.
  • 33 women will take a conservation action on their farm within the first 6 months following the training.
  • Through training, women landowners will demonstrate new knowledge, confidence and relationships with peers and agency staff that they need to improve conservation and productivity on their land, current farm assets and areas needing attention.
  • 48 women landowners will complete a Farm Inventory that will help them assess how they want to involve themselves in the farming operation, identity objectives for the farm.
  • 20 female and male conservation professionals employed by conservation agencies, and other organizational partners will recognize the importance of gender relevant training and the efficacy of the Learning Circle approach to working with women non-operating landowners.


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Educational approach:

AFT’s work with women farmers and landowners is part of our national initiative known as Women for the Land. Women for the Land incorporates research, training, evaluation data, outreach, and communication of program results. AFT’s approach is based on one developed by the Iowa-based Women, Food, and Agriculture Network, reaching out specifically to women farmers and landowners and addressing the need to design an approach specifically for women instead of inviting women to training developed for men. 

AFT uses participatory, women-only Learning Circles to deliver information that informs women farmers and non-operating landowners about conservation concepts and options as well as shifts power to women to take conservation action on their farmland.  

Taking that model, AFT hosted nine Learning Circles in Prince William and Powhatan Counties and reached women in an additional 24 counties (Accomack, Amherst, Bristol, Caroline, Chester, Clarke, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Frederick, Goochland, Hanover, Jefferson, Loudoun, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Orange, Rappahannock, Richmond, Rockingham, Stafford, Surry, and Washingtonin Virginia. Topics included:

  • Getting to know your local conservation agencies 
  • Getting started with farm bookkeeping 
  • Balancing agricultural production and wildlife on your farmland 
  • Agricultural Conservation Easements 
  • Creating Your Farm Conservation Resources Inventory 

Curriculum, fact sheets, and educational tools developed and utilized included: 

  • Women for the Land: On-Farm Resource Inventory Checklist 
    • Section 1: Starting the Conversation 
    • Section 2: Farms & Operation 
    • Section 3: Planning for the Future 
  • Women for the Land: Empowering Women Landowners to Conserve the Land fact sheet 
  • Women for the Land: Stories from the Field fact sheet 
  • Understanding Non-Operating Landowners fact sheet 
  • Farms Under Threat: The State of the State, Virginia fact sheet 
  • Steps to Conservation Planning and Technical Assistance fact sheet 
  • Your Path to Conservation Success, local, state, and federal agency resource map 
  • Agencies Available to Help Mid-Atlantic Farm and Forest Landowners fact sheet 
  • Your Land is Your Legacy: Estate Planning for Farmers and Ranchers guide 
  • Agricultural Conservation Easements fact sheet 
  • Conservation Options for Protecting your Farm or Ranch fact sheet 
  • Sample USDA conservation plan  
  • Sample soils Inventory Report tool 
  • Sample lease provisions 

To further support Learning Circle participants, AFT collaborated with Friends of the Rappahannock to create customized water quality reports to help women plan for conservation goals. The reports include GIS and other information specific to their property, including land use, soils, hydrology, recommendations for priority stewardship actions, and a proposed stewardship action plan. 

During the grant period (not funded by Southern SARE), AFT conducted a survey of non-operating landowners in Virginia to better understand the decision-making processes of non-operating landowners in managing their land and to identify ways to remove barriers to implementing conservation practices on leased land. They survey indicated a significantly higher level of non-operating landowners in Virginia live on the land they rent (53%) or live near the land the rent (median of 40 miles). These landowners also have vast farming experience compared to other states – through either farming personally or helping their parents farm. This strong connection to the land and familiarity with farming provides unique opportunities to carry out targeted and specialized outreach to work with women non-operating landowners who participated in the Learning Circle. A summary of the results can be found at: https://farmlandinfo.org/publications/non-operator-landowner-survey-virginia-results/

Several adjustments were made during the grant period to achieve project objectives and address changing circumstances. AFT originally planned to host the Learning Circles in-person and spent significant staff time and capacity planning multi-day, in-person Learning Circles. This included securing locations and presenters, developing training curriculum, and promoting to partners and women in agriculture. However, AFT pivoted to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There were some challenges associated with the shift to virtual. One challenge was that many local and state service providers did not have access to work computers when working from home for several weeks or months during the beginning of the pandemic. This made it more challenging and time consuming to communicate with and engage them as we pivoted from in-person Learning Circles to virtual Learning Circles. Another challenge was the video conference fatigue that many people experienced during the pandemic, which affected attendance from and engagement by women in agriculture and service providers. In some cases, some women that were interested in participating in the Learning Circles could not because they did not have access to reliable Internet.  

While there were challenges with the virtual Learning Circle model, there were several benefits too. We learned that the virtual model can be effective. AFT created and utilized the “Reaching Women in Agriculture: A Guide for Virtual Engagement,” which includes information, tips, and tools to deliver effective, engaging, online, and hybrid education for farm and ranch women on topics related to farm viability, resilience, and conservation (https://farmland.org/virtual-learning-circle-guide/). The guide helped ensure productive and successful virtual Learning Circles. AFT was also able to engage more women (70) and from a broader geography (26 counties) in Virginia than anticipated.  

Due to the virtual nature of the Learning Circles, our methods of collecting feedback and evaluation pivoted to online surveys and as such responses were more limited. Other feedback AFT collected included: 

“The most important thing I learned is that there is a well-informed set of resources to help guide me in the areas that I lack expertise in and keeping my farm is not an unattainable goal moving forward. In addition, it is inspiring to meet other women who are facing some of the same challenges and succeeding. With excellent resources like Women for the Land, we can all rise to our collective and individual challenges.” 

 “Very excited to work with Friends of the Rappahannock on a tailored conservation report.” 

“I learned about so many organizations in our area that are highly involved in the work that interests me. It is heartening to know there is current research to support agriculture practices that work in harmony with native species, as well as so many resources to help landowners who are looking to manage their land more sustainably.” 

Since completing this project, AFT has received two grants that build on the foundation of this work: 

  • USDA Farm Service Agency Grant: Supporting the Success and Stewardship Efforts of Black Women Farmers and Landowners in North Carolina and Virginia ($991,115 for 1 year)
  • Individual donor grant: The Sustainable Grazing Project in the Rappahannock Region of Virginia ($650,000 over 3 years) 

Educational & Outreach Activities

14 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
9 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
12 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Other educational activities: AFT educated service providers through a presentation at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation All-Bay Networking Forum in February 2021 and at the Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Conference in January 2020.

Participation Summary:

70 Farmers participated
28 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

See "Educational Approach" section. 

Learning Outcomes

27 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

12 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

Twelve women farmers and landowners took action to implement conservation practices on their farmland, including: 

  • Installed 3 miles of stream exclusion fencing to keep livestock out of waterways 
  • Created 3 nutrient management plans covering 243 acres of farmland 
  • Adopted Best Management Practices on 680 acres including rotational grazing, nutrient management, and stream buffers  
  • Created 5 Farm Conservation Resources Inventories to help women farmers understand that conservation needs and opportunities for their farmland, and to help them develop a plan for reaching their conservation vision 
  • A farmer and her family had a conversation with a local land trust (Piedmont Environmental Council) about an agricultural easement on their farmland  
  • A women landowner had a conversation with her tenant about creating a longer-term lease and including conservation practices in the lease  


Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.