Developing a Conservation Education and Outreach Program Targeted at Women Farmland Owners in IA, NE and WI

Final Report for LNC10-317

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $81,766.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Ahna Kruzic
Women, Food & Agriculture Network
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Project Information


This two-year project focused on delivering targeted conservation outreach to women farmland owners in IA, NE and WI. Women now own or co-own up to 50 percent of Midwest farmland (Duffy and Smith, Iowa State University, 2008). The percentage of women who are sole landowners is rising as women inherit land from husbands and fathers. Many women express strong conservation values in meetings and surveys, but are often unsure of how to turn those values into action as they have not been involved in farm management decisions in the past.

WFAN has developed its Women Caring for the LandSM program to meet the needs of these women for information, as well as for increased confidence as decision-makers. The methodology is based on a “learning circles” model–bringing together groups of women landowners from 2 to 4 contiguous counties for women-only, informal, facilitated discussions. Female conservation professionals are on hand to participate in the discussion and inform the women of best practices and available resources in soil and water conservation.

Fifteen women landowner meetings were held in the three states over the two years of the project as a result of this SARE grant. One hundred and eighteen women landowners attended, who owned a total of 24,300 acres in the region. Follow-up surveys show that 52 percent of the women who responded had made at least one change in farm management to improve soil and water conservation on their land within 6 to 12 months of attending a meeting. Actions ranged from installing grassed waterways and buffer strips to meeting with NRCS personnel to create a whole-farm conservation plan.

The second goal of the project was to create, improve, and disseminate information about the rationale and methodology of the program, as well as the targeted print pieces we have developed, to conservation professionals in the three states. The print materials we developed focused on the use of cover crops as a topic (two brochures and a longer booklet), and are available for free download at the Women Caring for the Land website ( We also have developed a PowerPoint presentation for use by WFAN staff in training conservation professionals in our methodology and tools for targeted conservation outreach to women landowners.

Finally, through other funding, we have created a 90-page curriculum guide for use by anyone wanting to deliver targeted conservation outreach to women farmland owners, which covers everything from the demographics and rationale of the program to how to create, advertise, deliver and evaluate women-only meetings. This manual is also available for free download at the website, or in printed form at cost plus shipping.


Our primary goal with this project was to deliver conservation information to women farmland owners in Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin through informal, peer-to-peer facilitated conversations ("learning circles") that would motivate them to work with their tenant farmers to improve conservation on their land. Fifteen meetings were held during the two-year project, through which we reached 118 women with information about how conservation fits in any type of farming operation. We further supported this effort by engaging an Iowa State University graduate student to conduct interviews and a rhetorical analysis to uncover not only what women thought about their role in managing land, but also how they spoke about it. Her work took the form of internal reports to WFAN, which were then used to shape the work of a second graduate student who developed outreach materials targeting women farmland owners. Ten women farmland owners gave us feedback from attending meetings and reviewing outreach materials.

Project Objectives:

We estimated we would reach 300 women with the peer-to-peer meetings. We reached 118 – an average of 8 per meeting. Meeting sizes ranged from 4 to 24 participants. We fielded requests for information from women who could not attend but requested additional information and were interested in being invited to future meetings. Women conservation professionals from WFAN, NRCS, FSA, state DNRs, state conservation agencies, and county conservation departments were present at meetings to provide information about programs that might be helpful to the landowners, and to discuss best practices for the range of questions women had.

Ten women farmland owner advisors assisted the project by attending meetings and offering feedback, and reviewing the outreach materials developed during the project. A total of two brochures and a booklet, two issues of a newsletter, and one PowerPoint presentation were developed. The PowerPoint presentation describes our methods and rationale for conservation outreach to women landowners, and will be used and customized by WFAN to train conservation partners.

The outreach materials have been shared through the WFAN website (, the new Women Caring for the LandSM (WCL) website (, and at meetings of soil and water conservation professionals.

Our partners in Nebraska and Wisconsin have received requests for additional women landowner meetings. WFAN has received requests for assistance in Iowa from county conservationists, federal and state agencies (NRCS, DNR) and private non-profit organizations with conservation interests.

Fifty-two percent of the women farmland owners who responded to our surveys have undertaken changes in farm management to improve conservation on their land, affecting a total of 24,300 acres in the three-state region.

We are already seeing the benefits of conservation outreach to women farmland owners as we hear stories from conservation professionals and women themselves who have developed new relationships with their tenants and resource persons as a result of the meetings, and are taking steps to transform their land. Privacy protections within government agencies limit our ability to conduct more comprehensive evaluation of results, but we take these anecdotes as a good sign that reaching out to women farmland owners is working.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Jean Eells
  • Dr. Joel Geske
  • Laura Krouse


Materials and methods:

We held meetings using our Women Caring for the LandSM (WCL) model, which uses the “learning circles” methodology that women consistently say they prefer over a lecture-based model. The meetings include a facilitated discussion with conservation professionals and participants, followed by a field tour to examine conservation practices and further discuss how they work and how to get them installed.

Participants evaluated meetings using an after-meeting survey form; observations offered during meetings were captured by WFAN staff and used to make mid-course corrections to the methodology. Facilitators made careful observations on how engaged the ladies were and whether their questions were answered. Their observations were used to correct meeting execution based on what printed resources were being used and how to facilitate the mechanics of the day with food and transportation to keep costs low.

The first ISU graduate student attended WCL meetings until she received permission from eight women to interview them individually up to three times each. She followed university research protocols for data collection, analysis and reporting. She produced five reports that we used to address communication issues or needs she identified among the women using qualitative analysis methods.

The second ISU graduate student worked with a team to develop our set of outreach materials. WFAN contracted with a designer to create a logo and the color palette for WCL. The publications received frequent reviews by a team including ISU and WFAN members plus outside content experts as warranted by topic. Women farmland owner advisors helped with reviewing materials and providing feedback on the meetings.

WFAN issued a mail survey of 190 WCL participants six to 12 months after they’d attended a meeting. The sample included more WCL meetings than those funded by SARE (a total of 19), as we did not expect substantive differences. Out of 190 mailed surveys, 55 were returned, for a 29% response rate. Of these, 45 surveys were useable and reflected the audience for the meetings. The survey contained open-ended questions requiring qualitative analysis, and a small number of quantitative questions.

Research results and discussion:

The graduate students were successfully engaged for years one and two, and the products they developed were completed. We arranged and completed 15 meetings, including meetings out-of-state with new partners in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Women farmland owners advised us on meetings and reviewed outreach materials.

We had hoped to attract 300 women over the two years. However, meetings were unevenly attended, ranging from 4 (more had signed up but didn’t show up) to 24 with no clear trends accounting for the differences. Recruiting women to attend meetings is sometimes challenging for several reasons. Mailing lists the agencies use to send invitations via direct mail are so outdated that some letters go to women who have sold their land, are deceased, or are no longer handling their own affairs. We hold meetings on weekdays to accommodate older women, who own the highest percentage of land as sole females. However, this precludes attendance by women who are working off-farm jobs. Many women still consider conservation topics challenging and frequently will assume their tenant is doing a good job of conservation because they do other things satisfactorily (such as move snow or pay on time). That said, we have deployed several means of overcoming these challenges and continue to work on this.

We used after-meeting written surveys to capture evaluation data. Women in our target audience often were not experienced survey-takers, and did not fill out surveys completely, so we adjusted the forms to try to better capture their experiences with the meetings. Overall satisfaction with meetings was very high (most meetings were 4.8 out of 5 on these measures) and women responded with surprise at how enjoyable the meetings were. They expressed interest in coming to another meeting and often talked of wanting to bring friends. The after-meeting surveys were mainly helpful to us in reshaping the meetings and recruitment as we searched for ways to increase participation rates.

Here is a typical response on a post-meeting survey: “I liked that it was only women here today. Also I liked that it was an 'open' talk about us and our farmland. It was a very good meeting. I learned a lot."

And another: “My husband’s health is not good and this past year I find that more of the decision-making is falling to me. I really appreciated the meeting about conservation. I don’t know who to turn to even though he’s still here. He says, ‘Why are you worried about this? It’s all taken care of,’ when I ask questions, so I don’t ask. I’d be interested in more meetings about what to do when faced with taking over the farm.”

Responses to the follow-up survey (mailed 6 to 12 months after meeting attendance) showed outcomes that take time to develop. Consistent with surveys from the previous two years, we found that a majority of women who respond have taken at least one action to improve conservation on their land. For some, their gains in confidence are significant. “As a result of the meeting I was more assertive in asking my tenant to take the cows off the pasture to protect the grasses sooner because of the drought.” Others made significant improvements to their land by installing buffers or grassed waterways, or enrolling acres in CRP. Still others arranged to meet later with conservation staffers whom they had met at meetings, and many picked up written resource materials they did not know existed.

We think it’s crucial to point out that among our target segment of landowners – non-operator females 65 and older, many of them new inheritors – providing them with the confidence to make decisions about conservation and land management is as important as providing them with information on best practices, if not more so. Most of these women have not made land management decisions in the past, in spite of expressing strong conservation and legacy values in meetings and surveys. It is gratifying to see them begin to take ownership of their decision-making power as they learn about other women who are leading the way in land management, and meet the resource people who can help them achieve their goals.

The publications WFAN created as a result of this grant are unique, and are being used in our meetings as well as by partner agencies and organizations. The two issues of our new women landowner conservation newsletter, Patchwork, is downloadable from the Women Caring for the LandSM website. The brochures and booklet about cover crops are especially timely for use in Iowa, as its conservation community is currently promoting the practice for watershed and soil health improvements.

In addition to making our print materials available for free download on our website, we have printed a modest number (using other grant funds) and are distributing them both to women landowners and conservation staffers to promote their availability on the web. We also intend to present about our methods and results, including outreach materials, at upcoming conferences and meetings in the Midwest conservation community. Our ISU student writer attended the Nebraska Water Conference in November 2012 with a poster about the WCL program.

WFAN received an Iowa SARE professional development program grant in the fall of 2012 which will fund a one-day workshop for the state’s conservation community staffers to learn how to hold successful women landowner meetings, featuring the materials developed for this project as well as the 90-page Women Caring for the LandSM curriculum manual funded by another grant.

Research conclusions:

We have reached women who own 46,764 acres of farmland in Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Women who attend our meetings own an average of 330 acres. Fifty-two percent responding to the 2012 mailed survey had made changes since the meetings, and listed additional intentions for substantive changes. Seventy-two percent of the respondents listed intentions for future changes to their land for conservation. We note that for many of the survey respondents, a full year had not passed since they attended a meeting; we find that many times it takes up to a year to facilitate changes on the land, particularly when working with a tenant farmer.

The intentions to make change were very substantive overall, ranging from talking to neighbor women about conservation and researching land trusts and other ways to protect land, to planting CRP acres and installing grassed waterways because of newly observed ephemeral gullies. If half of the women carry out actions and intended actions, a conservative estimate of 24,300 acres would be improved by conservation actions.

Another impact of the relationships developed with conservation professionals in other states is the growing interest in hosting more Women Caring for the LandSM meetings. One women conservation professional who attended a meeting told us, “When you described how the meeting would go, I thought I got it, but once I participated I was blown away by the difference in how the women landowners responded. Now I ‘get it’!”

We have received numerous requests to provide additional women’s meetings from agency personnel who recognize a substantive difference in reception and results of using the learning circle methodology. We also have received requests for training in the methodology from conservation and agricultural professionals who now realize they must do a better job of outreach to this underserved audience. We are actively seeking funding to fill these requests.

Our partnership with Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication has grown to include additional outreach studies and communication products for women landowners addressing new topics. For example, another grant-funded project will produce a booklet for women on managing hunting rights and wildlife habitat on their land. This topic emerged from evaluation results and observations of women’s questions about how to handle requests for hunting privileges and how to improve their land for all wildlife, not just the hunted species. We expect this relationship to continue and expand.

Partnerships with out-of-state organizations and agencies have been fruitful. The relationships have continued to produce outreach opportunities – through materials and meetings designed for women landowners. Additional grants have expanded programming connections for this core work with women landowners to Illinois, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Kansas.

Rachel Wolford, the ISU graduate student who began with the interviews and rhetorical analysis completed a dissertation (“Women Farmland Owners in Iowa: Cultivating Agency through Rhetorical Practice”), graduated and began her career at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She has continued to work on women’s issues in agriculture with a funded research project in Iowa. The second graduate student from ISU’s Greenlee School, Amber Knutson, has also graduated after producing the suite of communication materials based upon the foundational rhetorical analysis work and her own attendance at meetings for women.

Economic Analysis


Farmer Adoption

Although we did not propose that farmers would adopt conservation practices as a result (as our project targeted landowners), we can say based on our survey that a variety of conservation practices were implemented as a result of these meetings. We’ve also received calls and comments in emails from women who are taking action to enact their desires for farmland management. Because our target audience is non-operator women farmland owners, the fact that they are acting, requiring others to act, or negotiating with family members to act is a good sign that women are adopting a strong stance with respect to conservation.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Three of the publications developed promote the use of cover crops. The two tri-fold brochures are aimed at piquing interest among women who may not have considered asking a tenant to try cover crops. The longer (12-pp) booklet approaches cover crop information in more detail (but not too much!) aimed at a non-technical audience, and suggests conversation starters for women to talk with their tenants or family members about cover crops. All three publications include a Cover Crop Pledge to encourage women to take action.

The PowerPoint presentation Ms. Knutson developed is directed towards conservation professionals who have shown an interest in learning more about effective outreach to women landowners. Two issues of a conservation newsletter for women – Patchwork -- have been distributed; they feature profiles of women conservation professionals, information on available resources, and cover stories about women landowners who have made strong conservation decisions on their land. The graphics developed for the family of publications have been used in the development of a website at Web analytics show a spike in new visits after distribution of the newsletters.

The publications, poster and PowerPoint are attached to this section of the report.

Fifteen women’s meetings were held during the two years, as specified in the grant proposal. Locations for meetings were: Boone, Dyersville, Bloomfield, Jefferson, Bondurant, Hornick, LeMars, Buckeye, and Riceville, IA; Seneca, Brodhead, and Richland Center, WI; and Wynott, Ceresco, and Burwell, NE.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

We see a definite need for more outreach to conservation professionals, both male and female, who should be doing high quality outreach to women farmland owners. We have some ideas but need to do some careful development for how to help male conservation professionals host a woman-friendly meeting and potentially adjust their normal presentation style to allow women a chance to interact with each other as experts on their own land. All conservation professionals, female and male, need access to training for how to hold more women-friendly meetings. We have focused on engaging women conservationists in our meetings because the women who attend comment how much they appreciate being able to discuss conservation in an all-female setting.

We have found that conservation topics should be framed differently for women than for the male audiences traditionally presumed to be the norm. This may be truer for introductory materials than for the technical publications that describe complex implementation of conservation practices. This area definitely needs further study and guidelines for efficacy in publication standards are needed. Women do not perceive most agency publications are meant for them, as we have discovered in dialog and a non-response survey funded by another grant. They don’t see pictures of themselves, and they don’t understand the alphabet soup and jargon about farm management that most farm operators are familiar with.

We see a need for deeper exploration of women’s interests in conservation and land management. Women landowners are not a homogenous audience; our meetings have attracted women with wide-ranging interests and characteristics. Their interests as women landowners are definitely wider than topics often suggested by agency personnel, who may provide publications only on the backyard wildlife, birds, butterflies and prairie flowers which they recognize may appeal to women. A few women are using these existing publications with some effectiveness to pursue their conservation goals, but most come to our meetings as novices (often recently widowed) who cannot describe anything about the land they own or how it’s farmed other than the crops produced and that they have a “good tenant.” We suggest that if all tenant farmers were “above average,” as landowners frequently claim, the agricultural landscape in the Midwest would look dramatically different than it does.

Further research would help identify the extent to which women in other states feel as women in Iowa did who attended meetings during 2005-2007 described in a 2011 report by Women, Land and LegacySM (an agency-driven outreach project in Iowa with which WFAN was initially involved). Our experiences in Minnesota with women who own forest-land suggest that they have similar needs for targeted outreach. Some of the Nebraska women owned significant tracts of range land and wanted to talk about grazing and grassland management. (Example from a post-meeting survey comment: “I am more determined to return my land to grass to protect my fragile sandy soil to keep it from blowing and to provide a place for birds.”) All of them wanted to protect their land the best ways possible.

Finally, WFAN has invested in a review of existing research on women’s land ownership on a national level. We have found no federal census statistics on farmland ownership since a 1999 study by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In Iowa, a survey on land ownership and tenure is conducted every five years by Iowa State University by mandate of the state legislature; we can find no other state that conducts similar research. National-level statistics on land ownership trends, owner demographics and attitudes are crucial if agencies and non-profits are to effectively meet the needs of the growing segment of landowners who are not operators, and who increasingly do not live near their land but express the desire to retain ownership and manage their land in a sustainable manner.

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.