New Partners for Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for GNC06-060

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2006: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Nancy Grudens-Schuck
Iowa State University
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Project Information


A pilot interactive mapping activity with women farmland owners and conservation professionals revealed ways in which women farmland owners, who are not operators, are excluded from land management decision-making, or avoid active management. Conservation professionals discovered new communication gaps, and women farmland owners became aware of agency services new to them. Oral history interviews and the pilot service maps became prototype case studies showing business time lines and the relationships and information needed by women who are most often overlooked as active partners for sustainable agriculture practices and policies. Model action plans address gaps in agricultural conservation services for women.


Widespread implementation of known sustainable agricultural practices by landowners would positively impact the quality of the environment and quality of rural life. However, widespread adoption is unlikely unless a crucial sector of farmland owners participates in sustainable agriculture decision-making. This group is composed of women. In Iowa, women comprise 70% of the landowners and own 47% of the farmland (Lasley 2004, Duffy and Smith 2004). Women are underrepresented in the active decision-making roles for conservation activities, as an example, and routinely lack interaction in local soil conservation offices where conservation transactions originate and are navigated (Wells 2003).

Institutional practices, such as disseminating information in large group meetings, fragmenting services, using unfamiliar terms and acronyms, adhering to complicated rules that mask agency limitations, and institutional versus actual time lines are part of the problem (Pence and Sadusky 2005, Wells 2004). Social factors endemic to rural women’s lives contribute to their low participation, but blaming their failure to participate on the culture of agriculture inappropriately places the full burden of change on the women themselves. Women own their land and some are primary operators, but far more of them are dependent on production relationships negotiated with family or tenants who have a large influence on women’s final choices (Wells 2004). Ownership is not a guarantee the owner’s wishes will be carried out.

New curricula designed for women, such as Annie’s Project, with farm management topics such as crop insurance and marketing have been offered through limited program series in Iowa. These program offerings, however, do not have sustainable agriculture or conservation information figuring prominently in the curriculum, though they do attract women to educational settings. Values that influence women’s decision-making are not strictly economic and, in fact, conservation and concern for the environment ranked slightly higher than need for income in a 2003 survey of Iowa women farmland owners (Wells 2003).

The purpose of the case study development and interactive mapping workday was to explicate how the social relations and agriculture services hinder or help women to participate in sustainable agriculture and conservation programs. Institutional and social barriers in agriculture programs for women farmland owners were mapped in such a way that barriers were made real, without blaming women or agency staff. Indications of the ruling relations (Smith, 2005) emerged in the prototype case studies. Continued research using the method institutional ethnography (Smith, 2005) will explicate the intersections of communication and interactions that could be made more functional and effective for sustainable agriculture.

Women as landowners are often invisible in research. Little is known about their needs and experiences in spite of their high landownership rates in Iowa. This is partly due to the social confusion over “who” is a farmer and who is not. Historically, women have not self-identified as farmers though many contributed to the business of farming through labor, marketing, bookkeeping, and managing family relationships which permitted an increase in land or labor resources (Wells 2003, Salomon 1992). Women are sole owners of their land (49%), or share it with siblings, children, or spouses (Wells 2003, Duffy and Smith 2004). Inheritance patterns and longevity (women tend to live longer than men) contribute to women’s landownership patterns in Iowa and the Midwest (Lasley 2004, Salomon 1992). These trends have been stable or slightly increasing for the few years it has been tracked through Iowa State University Department of Economics (Duffy and Smith 2004). Many more data are available about women operators than about women as farmland owners and landlords.

Project Objectives:

Objective #1: Identification of key issues related to women’s negative and positive experiences with agricultural conservation program service delivery through interviews of women farmland owners. Eight women farmland owners were interviewed and received honorariums for their participation.

Objective #2: New understandings of the interconnections and barriers for women farmland owners for two to five agricultural conservation agencies in Iowa through the mapping process. The diverse participants in the pilot educational mapping project developed new understandings of the interconnections and barriers for women farmland owners and were inspired to pursue their own plan of action to remove barriers.

This project helped the women farmland owners who participated in the work day to think about their resource assets and land management responsibilities. Agency staff who participated in the work day assisted the women by identifying and mapping the institutional processes that occur on behalf of landowners but outside of normal transactional communication. This project mapped systemic problems and relationships that prevent women from engaging in sustainable or conservation land management programs to the fullest extent possible. The map of the relationships as explicated in the case study prototypes will benefit farmers, agencies, non-profit organizations, and policy makers because the full picture of participation is exposed.

Objective #3: Solutions to conditions can be changed through simple actions or coordinated efforts are listed in response to the overall map. The pilot educational mapping activity allowed the participants from conservation agencies, and women farmland owners, to examine and consider how conservation plans, programs, and policies could remove barriers for women farmland owners, and how, in some cases barriers are created.

Objective #4: Problems and solutions will be communicated in research-based reader friendly case study format to disseminate lessons learned. Three case studies in prototype form have been produced. This case study and innovative mapping approach suggests there are opportunities for more effective educational efforts in sustainable agriculture. Longer-term systemic changes include better-focused conservation and agriculture programs to help women farmland owners achieve their desires for profitability and sustainability. Farm operators who work with women farmland owners will have research-based information to help them more effectively carry out the land management wishes of the women farmland owners.


Materials and methods:

Eight oral history interviews were conducted and used for the basis of the case studies and mapping exercise used during the work day. Thirteen women farmland owners and eight conservation professionals participated in the pilot work day. The workday agenda is attached. Conservation professionals and women worked together in small groups to develop scenarios in the form of maps using chart paper to draw the flow and co-occurring steps and events in the life of a fictitious woman farmland owner. During the process the diverse participants learned from each other about opportunities and challenges posed by numerous factors.

Three research-based case studies in prototype form have been produced and will be used to further develop the institutional ethnography work that will continue through May 2008. Five model action plans are proposed for changing the way women are served by agencies and non-profits. The dissertation of this graduate student will contain the interactive educational service mapping pilot project method and results.

The diverse participants in the pilot educational mapping project developed new understandings of the interconnections and barriers for women farmland owners. This was evaluated with a retrospective pre-test and short answer evaluation form (attached) and by a telephone survey conducted a month after the work day activity. The qualitative evaluation data obtained is discussed in the Results section of this report.

Research results and discussion:

The results of the eight oral history interviews and pilot workday interactive mapping activity are presented in narrative here, and in the prototype case studies and model action plans developed in response to the maps. A map is presented in photos of the flip chart work in the hard copy appendices. Three prototype case studies are also in the appendices. The work of grounding the research in women’s stories through oral history interviews and pilot workday mapping exercise highlighted important areas for further research. The pilot project activities produced sufficient results to support continuing research for the student’s dissertation.

Three themes that bear further exploration emerged from analysis of the interviews with women farmland owners.
1. Women lacked the language of conservation even if they cared deeply about taking care of the land for the benefit of future generations. While they spoke knowledgeably about selling crops through crop share arrangements; and in detail about cropping histories, ownership histories; and about complex land title and abstracting issues, they hesitated and searched for words to describe conditions on the land which had precipitated conservation treatments. They were “insiders” to the financial and legal matters of farming but seemed to be “outside” the realm of stewardship activities common to conservation practices. At this phase of the study, the researcher is investigating the role of identity in stewardship and conservation communication as one of the barriers to women’s more active participation (Freire & Macedo, 1987, Andrews et al, 2003).

2. Women with family members in farming felt confident that everything that should be done by way of conservation was being done. Someone else told them when conservation work was needed and how to go about it. In nearly all the cases the “someone else” was the family member charged with the farm operations, or a trusted long-term tenant. Communication from conservationists suggesting that “more should be done” to protect farmland will have to be specific and clear as far as what problems look like and what the proposed solutions produce, and be sensitive to the nature of the relationships women have with their farm operators. Research into these relationships continues (Flora, 2004).

3. A woman without family members in farming had a great deal of difficulty finding someone to do exactly what she wanted done when it came to implementing conservation and in making sure the farming practices protected what she had managed to accomplish. One point to probe further is the extent to which women’s goals for land protection and conservation are understood by others who take action on those goals – from conservation professionals to farm operators and vendors for conservation services. The examination in the next phase of research involves interviews and observations of conservation professionals working with farmland owners, and discourse analysis of texts governing the actions conservation workers can take in doing their work. Of great interest at this time is the possibility that women’s goals may not be expressed adequately (per item 1 above) or are not actionable due to ruling texts and processes which make their goals invisible in some way (Smith, 2005, DeVault, 1999).

The pilot workday yielded results supportive of continuing development of the mapping strategy for barrier identification and the utility of using service mapping as a means to catalyze agency change to benefit women farmland owners and sustainable agriculture in the broader sense. The conservation professionals recruited for the workday were asked to contribute their knowledge of agency procedures during relevant opportunities as they co-developed the prototype case studies, following the lead of the women farmland owners present. They were not asked to teach anything in particular, nor asked to supply documentation to defend their agencies. The women farmland owners were recruited in a letter explaining they would be asked to contribute their experience and knowledge, and further told during the introduction portion of the workday that the research purpose of the day was not to provide an educational opportunity overtly, but to facilitate ways for them to tell their farmland owning experiences.

Consistent with situated learning theory described by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (Lave & Wenger, 1990), the work day women farmland owner’s written comments and conversations a month later revealed they had learned from each other and the conservation professionals during the co-production of the service maps for the prototype case studies. Two women wrote about needing “to get more involved in the conservation programs and ask questions instead of leaving it to [others].” Several women wrote specific factual points they learned during the day which came from other women and conservation professionals while co-constructing the service maps. One woman wrote she did not learn anything and was expecting the day to be more informational and about issues rather than about the circumstances which were the focus of the proto type case studies. At this time, there are no plans to further develop the mapping activity as an educational activity for women as part of the dissertation research of the student.

Of more benefit to the on-going research is the response of the conservation professionals to the work day. The conservation professionals reacted to what they heard the women say during the workday in ways suggesting the exchange with women farmland owners was different than they expected and normally experience. One spoke of being “honored to be in the presence of so many women farmland owners with time to really listen to them.” Another wrote, “I am not explaining conservation programs as well as I thought I was.” Written responses to what was most worthwhile during the day included, “real case scenarios that are tracked on paper” and when they “worked…to make up [a fictitious woman] and her special issues – allowed people to interject, then, with several experiences, such as impediments, solutions, and questions.” These responses by the professionals will inform the researcher’s work of interviews, observations, and discourse analysis within the institution of agricultural conservation. If a beneficial shift in perspectives and approach to conservation service delivery is identified and possible after further research, then the communication of professionals and texts that organize their work become the logical target of those new perspectives.

Five model action plans are proposed to address the gap in language and orientation of agricultural conservation programs. The plans focus on communication with women farmland owners, but may have utility for non-traditional farmland owners who are not effectively reached by agency marketing and information. The orientation of the programs bears further research and analysis which is one of the model action plans.

Plan A. Develop Training Materials -- Re-examine the oral history interviews of women farmland owners to determine additional words and phrases used to communicate about their farmland conditions. Additional beneficial data could be gained through interviews with farmland owners who are perhaps recent inheritors who do not have a farming background and also do not “own” the conservation language. Include conservation terms that are used incorrectly or spoken incorrectly such as “CPR” instead of “CRP”. With conservation professionals, determine the most critically needed conservation practices that would be beneficial if more widely adopted (varies by land form for some practices) and search common media discourse for how these are described. Match the women’s words and phrases to conservation terminology used by conservation professionals. A brochure could be developed along the lines of a language translation dictionary with a few pictures to illustrate the conservation concepts, as well as a non-professionals description of what the picture shows. Descriptions such as “rough ground” and “wet area” can be shown in photos, and the corresponding conservation jargon and conservation programs can be presented in plain language.

Plan B. Develop interactive sensitization workshop for conservation service providers -- Convert prototype case studies into decision case studies which can be used to help train conservation service providers who will work with women farmland owners. Decision case studies can contain real details of women farmland owners’ lives and highlight the decision points that are problematic when it comes to participating in conservation programs. The decision case studies should use the language used by women farmland owners who are not extensively involved in the farming operations to provide the most realistic scenarios for training. Small groups of conservation service providers should engage with the decision case studies by drawing the physical dimensions of the decision points on paper where the time lines and locations of “where things happen” are visible. In this way, the institutional time lines and the farmland owners’ time lines can be shown together. Institutional time lines include factors such as annual budget cycles, decision cycles, and time to process normal cases, such as when a board meets once a month to approve landowner applications for assistance. Farmland owner time lines should include not only seasonal farming cycles, and time to find information to fill out forms, but also include the timing challenges of gaining acceptance from family members who live at a distance across time zones and who may know little about the actual business of farming. In this way barriers and confounding factors such as travel time and distances for both conservation professionals and farmland owners can be seen clearly. The decision points in the case studies should emphasize relationships that could be tricky for some women farmland owners to negotiate because of their position in the farming operation.

Plan C. Develop conservation marketing tools -- Conservation outreach materials must also reflect new understandings about women farmland owners to effectively reach them so participation can be increased. A teaching/marketing tool that could be developed would be one to describe the benefits of native prairie systems, a commonly used conservation practice, and their role in water quality and water quantity. Marketing tools commonly use novelty and curiosity to encourage people to engage with the tool and thus receive the message that they may otherwise be unlikely to see. Familiar objects used in an unfamiliar way or in an unfamiliar setting can be effective at inviting listeners and observers to interact with the object and the concept being marketed. A common household object that is used by all social economic groups is a sponge, which is very familiar to women who most often use them. A novelty marketing item that is readily available is a compressed sponge that expands many times its size in contact with water. The compressed sponge wafer is novel because it is an unexpected dimension for a sponge, and yet even when it is expanded, the properties of a sponge are well known and understood. Native prairie systems function on the landscape, much like a sponge as they absorb tremendous amounts of rain water preventing flooding, and provide water cleaning benefits as they trap sediment from overland flow. The compressed sponge wafers can be printed with educational and marketing messages for conservation purposes and distributed through women’s venues, among others.

Plan D. Create new conservation programs or packages -- Some existing agricultural conservation programs and practices can be reconfigured or repackaged to provide the same land, water, and wildlife protection functions and meet other values that landowners may have. This has occurred on a regular basis since the 1985 Farm Bill put wildlife considerations into the design of agricultural practices. An example is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which initially simply took highly erodible land and out of production and put it in permanent grass cover. In the time since, many regionally specific planting mixes have been approved for use on CRP ground to reflect the knowledge and interests of wildlife enthusiasts and yet provide the same soil erosion protection of the original conservation practice tied to farm support. In the same way conservation practices can be reconfigured to reflect the knowledge and interests of diverse farmland owners, including women. An example might be farmstead windbreaks, which in Iowa are promoted through a program called the Resource Enhancement and Protection Act (REAP). Traditional farmstead windbreaks consist of rows of trees and shrubs with space for the plants to expand but also for the convenience and size of farm equipment for mowing and maintenance of the young seedlings. If the windbreak design was not based on the convenience and size of farm equipment it could instead be based on making intriguing areas for children to play, make forts, discover facts about woody plants, and engage in their own intimate play spaces. The function of the windbreak could still block wind and catch snow, protecting the rest of the farmstead, but it could also add value to generations of children to come. The program could be sold as Really Excellent Areas for Playing (REAP).

Plan E. Improve conservation content in workshops -- Agricultural education opportunities for women are now common in Iowa, however, workshop content about soil water conservation is either largely absent or addressed in traditional ways. In light of the theme revealed in the oral history analysis, that women farmland owners who are not operators do not always self identify as making conservation decisions, any soil and water conservation content experts who may be asked to present at these workshops should be alerted to ways to engage women as soil and water conservation stewards. Until programs and policies are reoriented to address the values and concerns of half the farmland owners in the Midwest, certainly it is possible to appeal to those values today with existing programs. Improving conservation programming and marketing may be a gnarly issue today, but given the power of media to help previously unaggregated groups begin to self identify, some creative thought to engaging women as stewards of the land should be possible.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The case study prototypes will continue to be refined through further research and additional prototypes will be developed. The pilot project yielded evidence that transformation of attitudes may be possible through a small grouping of conservation professionals and 1) landowners willing to share their stories, 2) in a purposeful conversation about circumstances and processes formerly extant to the transactions, 3) in a setting where the purpose is not assigning blame but describing how things happen as they do.

The five model action plans may be developed further as warranted. The information gained through this pilot project will be embedded in the student’s dissertation research. Additional expression of the insights and information will be developed as training opportunities with conservation professionals emerge.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Impact of Results/Outcomes
Identifying language issues characterizing communication between conservation professionals with landowners is significant. Professionals are routinely cautioned by educators to avoid the insensitive use of jargon, but the themes emerging about women as farmland owners point to a veritable contextual chasm between conservation communications directed towards decision-makers and women’s practical role in conservation stewardship which is that many don’t self-identify as conservation decision-makers. The interviews and case studies revealed a mismatch of words that prevent good communication essential to proper functioning of conservation programs within sustainable agriculture. The eight women's interviews yielded data about circumstances that shaped their participation in conservation activities. Within the circumstances were clues that much of the conservation language used by professionals simply does not figure in women’s decision-making. With the exception of a woman who has done a great deal of conservation work on her land, it was notable that none of the other women used conservation terminology when discussing their land or conservation practices that had been installed. The woman who had done a great deal of conservation work had arranged for it by herself and has no family members sharing the responsibility. Other women spoke of "getting that rough spot fixed," or of knowing "there was something done on that wet spot" or said that "we've got some of that conservation ground." The degree to which this occurred in interviews was significant and warrants further research. The prototypes for case studies will be further developed with more details about agency processes. The pilot workday time frame was insufficient to detail these and other practical steps a farmland owner is required to take in response to agency processes. The intersections of communication and interaction between agencies and landowners should be brought into clearer focus with more work on the time lines and seasonal aspects of the agency work. These intersections are defined by ruling relations that can become transparent in research-based case studies. Analysis must be brought to bear on factors impacting the intersections of landowners with agencies. This analysis should address multiple levels of influence and assumptions about learning, motivation, social circumstances and identity. Each of these last listed areas, at minimum, finds expression through agency communication as reflecting a theory of change that may be incomplete or misguided. Consider the written comment by one of the conservation professionals at the end of the workday, “there are more women landowners than most men are willing to admit.” Pending final research and analysis, it is highly likely that a variation of the pilot workday will be developed to catalyze institutional change on behalf of women farmland owners and sustainable agriculture, whether the charge for change is taken up by the institutional members or by other organizations and professionals. The model action plans will figure in another workday to the extent practicable.

Economic Analysis

An economic analysis was not an intended product of this pilot educational project.

Farmer Adoption

Farmer adoption of conservation practices for sustainable agriculture is a greater goal, but not a short term goal of this project which focused on identifying barriers to participation in agricultural conservation programs by women farmland owners.

Areas needing additional study

Language and identity issues of farmland owners, not just those of operators, would expand the reach of sustainable agriculture. Current land inheritance patterns are likely to continue and women will figure as a significant percentage of landowners in the Midwest making it valuable to examine the structure of the institutions of agricultural service delivery.

Works Cited
Andrews, S., Flora, C., Mitchell, J., & Karlen, D. (2003). Growers’ perceptions and acceptance of soil quality indices. Geoderma 114, 187-213.

Annie’s Project. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2006, from Iowa State University Web site:

DeVault, M. L. (1999). Liberating method: Feminism and social research. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press

DeVault, M. L., & McCoy, L. (2002). Institutional ethnography: Using interviews to investigate ruling relations. In. J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein, Handbook of interviewing research: Context and method, ed. 751-75. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Duffy, M. & Smith, D. (2004). Farmland ownership and tenure in Iowa 1982-2002: A twenty year perspective. (PM 1983). Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.

Flora, C. (2004) Community dynamics and social capital. Agroecosystems Analysis, (Agronomy Monograph no. 43). Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America.

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world.

Lasley, P. (2004, November). What’s happened to the “family farm”? Presented at the conference of Agriculture and the Environment, Ames, Iowa.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pence, E., & Sadusky, J. M. (2005). The Praxis safety and accountability audit tool kit. Praxis International: Duluth

Salomon, S. (1992). Prairie patrimony: Family, farming and community in the Midwest. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Lanham, MC: Altamira Press, Lanham

Stake, B. E. (2005). Multiple case study analysis. New York, NY: Guilford.

Wells, B. L. (2003). Women and the land. 44, 1. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.

Wells, B. L., (2004). Cass County women farmland owners: Survey report. Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Atlantic, Iowa.


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.