Rural women are a powerful force in shaping food and farming systems, providing leadership to their farms and communities. In 1996, the Nebraska IMPACT Project received NCR-SARE support to organize groups of rural women. The objectives of this project were to:
- Organize and support at least five groups of women in Nebraska to work for education and support for sustainable agriculture and community issues
Provide opportunities for women to strengthen their abilities and willingness to take leadership on farms and in communities
Improve women’s ability to access and use agricultural outreach programs of the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service, and increase women’s activity in statewide sustainable agriculture networks.
The women’s groups identified issues affecting their farms and communities. They then created goals, projects, and plans to address those issues. The groups accomplished a wide range of activities including formal and informal education on organic gardening, pastured poultry production and processing, medicinal and culinary herb production, vegetable and flower seed production, management-intensive grazing, home-based businesses, and cooperative marketing.
Group members built their leadership skills through the hands-on process of developing and implementing projects to accomplish their goals. Organizing outreach events and teaching others increased their confidence and encouraged shared leadership within the groups. The outreach efforts of these women’s groups reached hundreds of people across the state.
In 1999, we surveyed and held focus group interviews with women participating in this project. Through the IMPACT Project, many of the women gained the courage to be entrepreneurs and generate additional income for their families. They spoke of the education they received in agricultural marketing, communication, estate planning, and other topics as providing them with more understanding and credibility when communicating with their husbands.
Many of the women made changes in their farming and ranching operations during their involvement with their IMPACT groups. These changes included a range of alternative practices and marketing enterprises. Some changes were directly attributable to involvement in the group, while others were progressions of work begun before they joined.
The groups had different experiences with Nebraska Cooperative Extension. Some groups found that Extension was extremely helpful, and they increased their participation in Extension programming. In other cases, the local Extension office was unresponsive. Some groups had better luck with the Extension Home Economist than the Agricultural Educator.
Group members who participated in the statewide IMPACT sustainable agriculture network made decisions about project funding and policy, reported on their activities, and shared knowledge with other groups. For these groups, network participation helped them develop leadership skills. Some groups did not travel to these network meetings, however, because they felt that they could not leave obligations at home.
This project identified clear steps that organizers and resource providers can take to meaningfully involve rural women in sustainable agriculture research and education. The women’s groups did best when the development of a supportive learning environment was included as a primary, serious objective. Utilizing a group to help women develop leadership together results in greater individual and group success. The groups told us that they need time to explore various options before they develop a project proposal, and they recommended that future funding be structured so that significant funds are available later in a group’s life.
The IMPACT project is a grassroots development effort of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Center for Rural Affairs, and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
1. Organize and support at least five groups of women in Nebraska to work for education and support for sustainable agriculture and community issues.
2. Provide opportunities for women to strengthen their abilities and willingness to take leadership on sustainable agriculture issues on farms and in communities.
3. Improve women’s ability to access and use existing agricultural outreach programs of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, and increase women’s activity in statewide networks for sustainable agriculture.
The Nebraska IMPACT project is an ongoing, statewide effort to increase support for and adoption of sustainable food and farming systems in Nebraska. In the early stages of this project, we identified a need to engage rural women in this effort. This project increased the effectiveness of IMPACT by bringing rural women’s perspectives, leadership and energy to the table.
Community-based groups, or farmer networks, lie at the heart of the IMPACT project’s approach. IMPACT project staff members from the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, the Center for Rural Affairs, and the University of Nebraska help the groups plan and find resources to achieve their goals.
With support from NCR-SARE and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, four IMPACT women’s groups were organized and supported during the three-year course of this project. The women’s groups identified issues affecting their farms and communities. They then created goals, projects, and plans to address those issues. They were provided with small grants – up to $3,500 per year – to support their education and demonstration activities. Funding was awarded to these groups through a competitive application process. The groups were required to include public outreach activities, such as farm tours and workshops, in their work plans. They shared their work with one another at an annual networking meeting, which included participants from all IMPACT groups. They attend one another’s field days and workshops, and read stories about one another in the NSAS newsletter.
The women’s groups were encouraged to involve at least one University of Nebraska Extension Educator in their work. Extension involvement provided groups with technical support while increasing Extension’s involvement in sustainable agriculture.
Representatives of each group were asked to serve on the IMPACT Project Steering Committee to make decisions concerning the use of IMPACT resources and to set policies for the project. Serving on the Steering Committee provided leadership development opportunities and ensured that this project was farmer- and rancher-driven.
In April 1999, we interviewed women who had been involved in the four women’s IMPACT groups. Using focus group techniques and a semi-structured interview guide, we asked the women about their history with their IMPACT group and their vision of the future for agriculture and their communities. We asked how their farms or ranches had changed since their membership in the group, changes they had experienced personally, and their feelings about starting their own enterprises and taking time for themselves personally.
Interviews ranged from 45 to 90 minutes. A total of 18 women were interviewed, with four to five present at each group interview. One member who could not attend her group’s meeting was interviewed separately. All interviews were audio taped and transcribed. Hyperresearch, a software application for qualitative research, was used to identify categories of information in the transcriptions, or codes. Codes were then grouped, resulting in themes. These themes form the basis of many of the conclusions presented in this report. The results of this survey were summarized in an outreach document, Building Rural Women’s Leadership in Sustainable Agriculture, which is attached to this report.
Objective 1: Organize and support at least five groups of women in Nebraska to work for education and support for sustainable agriculture and community issues.
IMPACT supported four women’s groups during the course of this project. Groups received financial support for group organizing, meetings, project work, and outreach. These groups include:
The Hay Springs Marketing and Education Group (previously know as the Hillary Clinton Club): This group formed in the fall of 1994 to learn more about marketing and financial skills of use to their family farms. They have since expanded to explore other issues including alternative crops and farm safety for children. Members range in age from 35-50, with most having very young or school-aged children. This group received IMPACT project support from 1994-1997. The Hay Springs Marketing and Education Group is located in northwest Nebraska. Although this group is no longer a part of the IMPACT project, members still meet and organize occasional activities for their community.
EQUAL (Enhanced Quality of Life): Begun in 1995, EQUAL is concerned primarily with education and experiences that increase the quality of life for farm women, their families, and their communities. The group stresses family and community leadership and education on sustainable agriculture. EQUAL’s members range in age from 35-54, with most having older or grown children. This group received IMPACT project support from 1995-1999. Through education and networking, EQUAL members are finding ways to improve quality of life for themselves, their families, and their community. EQUAL is located in northeast Nebraska, and is still actively involved in IMPACT.
Kimball County Women: This group received IMPACT project support in 1997 and 1998 to learn about crop marketing skills and estate planning. The members ranged in age from 45 to 65, with grown children. This group was located in southwest Nebraska, and it is no longer together. However, members say that they may come together in the future to learn about other issues.
Country Edge: This group joined the IMPACT project in 1998, and received IMPACT project support in 1998 and 1999. The women in this group are interested in developing on-farm enterprises that will generate additional income for their family farms. They explored value-added crops and livestock and direct marketing strategies that can help them achieve this goal, and they received a SARE producer grant for their cooperative pastured poultry business. This group is located in southeast Nebraska. Members range in age from 30-45 with very young to school-age children, with the exception of one woman who is the self-proclaimed “grandma” of the group. This group continues to actively participate in the IMPACT project.
The women involved in these four groups accomplished a wide range of activities. These include formal and informal education on organic gardening, pastured poultry production and processing, medicinal and culinary herb production, vegetable and flower seed production, ratite production, bison production, financial management, grain marketing, management-intensive grazing, seasonal grass-based dairies, home-based businesses, stress management, use of the Internet, and cooperative marketing.
The women’s IMPACT groups provided women with safe, supportive environments to learn and experiment together. This project was created because women farmers expressed a need to establish a learning environment where they could feel confident asking questions and where their concerns would be taken seriously. Most of the women in the groups married into their family farm operations. As ‘outsiders’ in the family business, these women said that they sometimes felt like scapegoats for difficulties faced on the family farm, which made it hard for them to suggest new ideas or ask questions. IMPACT participation helped these women learn about alternative, profitable farming practices and gain confidence in their abilities to put these practices to work.
Our survey work revealed distinct stages that the groups went through as they developed leadership and trust. These stages, described in more detail in the attached report, include:
Identifying a leader and forming the initial group. Women’s IMPACT groups tended to form around natural, strong leaders. Members usually shared an initial, broad concern such as quality of life on family farms or rural community survival. The promise of funding and other resources provided a strong incentive to form a group.
Support: Providing support for its members was a critical role of each group. Support helped members develop their leadership skills and break through the isolation often experienced by women farmers.
Bonding: Groups needed between one and three years to explore various options before committing to large projects. They used this time to establish a strong level of trust, confidence, and group identity. Informal educational activities, such as field trips to learn more about sustainable agriculture, were an important part of group bonding. The women told us that, in the future, it might make more sense to offer groups small amounts of start-up funding early in the project, with larger amounts of project funding available after 2-3 years of planning and bonding.
Education and information sharing: All of the women’s IMPACT groups engaged in self-education. Sometimes they sought outside information and speakers to meet their educational needs. Peer learning strategies, where group members shared skills and taught each other, were extremely important and highly effective for the groups.
Teaching others: Even before the groups were completely committed to a specific project or direction, it was important for the women to share their new knowledge with others in their communities. Through the teaching process, they increased their skills, feelings of support, and self-confidence and gained new respect in their communities and families.
Diffusing leadership: Once a group had developed a project and direction, it was extremely important for all of the members to begin to share leadership. The original leader needed to help others grow by creating a space where all of the members could become leaders. Without taking this step, the original leader was at high risk for burnout.
Termination or continuation: IMPACT funding ended in 1999. Three of the groups continued with varying degrees of formality. Some groups had funds remaining, programming planned, and additional grants in the pipeline. Others simply wanted to continue to learn together and support each other.
Objective 2: Provide opportunities for women to strengthen their abilities and willingness to take leadership on sustainable agriculture issues on farms and in communities.
The IMPACT project provided women’s group members with a variety of opportunities for leadership development, including:
Planning and organizing group projects and events: This work provided the women with valuable hands-on opportunities for leadership development. Group members gained self-confidence through sharing the tasks involved in organizing events, such as contacting speakers, developing agendas, promoting and marketing the event, contacting speakers, and managing logistical arrangements such as food and facilities. Members of two groups developed their leadership skills by developing grant proposals for additional funding, including a SARE producer grant proposal. This leadership development strategy was most effective for groups that shared leadership among all of their members. Overall, group members felt that they developed leadership qualities through the experiences of trying new skills, more so than attending leadership seminars or trainings.
IMPACT project leadership: The IMPACT project required representatives of all funded groups to attend twice-yearly Steering Committee meetings. Group members who participated in these meetings made decisions about project funding and policy, reported on their activities, and shared knowledge with other groups. For these groups, Steering Committee participation helped them develop leadership skills. The groups in western Nebraska did not travel to these meetings, however, because they felt that they could not leave obligations at home. Some members of these groups felt culturally distant from the rest of the state and wished to focus their resources and efforts in their own communities. In retrospect, it was unrealistic for us to expect women, particularly mothers of young children, from western Nebraska to travel long distances for Steering Committee meetings, even with support for travel and child care expenses.
Leadership training opportunities: In 1999, the EQUAL group worked with NSAS to organize a retreat for all women in the IMPACT project. This retreat included a strong focus on leadership skills development. The Family Community Leadership (FCL) program was an important source of leadership training for the women’s IMPACT groups. In 1996, several members of the EQUAL group participated in the state FCL conference in Kearney. In 1997, these women helped to design, organize and facilitate a mini-FCL conference in their community. In 1998, a member of the Kimball group attended this conference and shared what she learned with other group members.
Participation in conferences: The EQUAL and Country Edge groups participated in the annual NSAS Healthy Farms Conference. EQUAL members presented workshops at two of these conferences, and members of both groups served as conference volunteers. In 1998, three members of the EQUAL and Country Edge groups were delegates to the Second International Conference on Women in Agriculture in Washington, DC. Mary Rose Pinkelman represented the North Central region as a panelist in a workshop on, ‘Sustaining Women Farmers in America: Work, Hopes, and Challenges.’ Linda Kleinschmit participated on a committee that selected workshop speakers and conference delegates and developed the workshop content. The women applied for and received funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to attend this conference. EQUAL and Country Edge members also participated in the 1999 NCR SARE marketing conference in Lincoln.
Participating in exchanges with other women’s groups: In 1997, the EQUAL group planned, organized, and raised funds for an educational exchange with women farmers in northwestern Massachusetts. Through farm visits and home stays, the women exchanged knowledge about sustainable farming, particularly grass-based dairies, and family farming issues that they held in common. When the Massachusetts women visited the EQUAL members’ farms, the Nebraska women were surprised at how much they knew and were able to explain about their farming operations.
Leadership positions in other organizations: As the women gained confidence and leadership skills within their groups, they extended those skills into their local communities and the sustainable agriculture movement. From 1997 to the present, EQUAL member Linda Kleinschmit has served as Nebraska’s representative on the board and planning/steering committee of Community Alliances for Interdependent Agriculture (CAIA), which was previously the national Integrated Food and Farming Systems (IFFS) Network’s Steering Committee. She is the only woman farmer represented on this board. Members of two women’s IMPACT groups ran for the NSAS Board of Directors, and one of these women was elected. A member of the EQUAL group ran for her county Extension Board, and a Hay Springs Marketing and Education group member won a position on her district school board.
Objective 3: Improve women’s ability to access and use existing agricultural outreach programs of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, and increase women’s activity in statewide networks for sustainable agriculture.
The groups had different experiences with Nebraska Cooperative Extension. Some groups found that Extension was extremely helpful, and they increased their participation in Extension programming. In other cases, the local Extension office was unresponsive and uncommunicative. One group felt that they were treated with disrespect with their local Extension Educator, who turned them down when they asked for help. This group had better luck with and Extension Educator from a different county. Some groups had better luck with the Extension home economist than the agricultural educator.
All of the women’s groups included local Extension Educators as consultants or advisors at some level. The Kimball County Women and Country Edge worked with Extension to plan workshops on marketing and business development. EQUAL worked closely with their Extension Home Economist on leadership development activities, and has involved her in their annual Women’s Wellness Day.
Efforts to involve women in existing agricultural outreach programs of Nebraska Cooperative Extension were marginally successful. Members of EQUAL attended Extension workshops and tours on management-intensive grazing and dairy grazing. One Country Edge member attended Extension courses on beekeeping and biotechnology. Otherwise, it has been difficult to convince women to attend Extension events focused on farming practices. EQUAL members often attended these kinds of events as a group, which helped to overcome the discomfort of being greatly outnumbered by the men in attendance.
From 1995-1999, the women’s IMPACT groups were required to participate in the statewide IMPACT network annual gatherings. Members of the eastern Nebraska groups – EQUAL and Country Edge – are active, vocal participants in the statewide IMPACT network. The western Nebraska groups, however, did not actively engage in IMPACT networking activities. The barriers to their participation in the IMPACT network were the same as those preventing their participation on the IMPACT Steering Committee, described under the previous objective.
Rural women are a powerful resource for sustainable agriculture. They clearly perceive the drawbacks to chemical-intensive, conventional agriculture when they have to wash their husbands’ work clothes separately, or when they worry about the kids being exposed to agricultural chemicals. Many rural women maintain the financial records for their farms, and they are fully aware of the declining profitability of monoculture grain production. Educating rural women about sustainable agricultural systems while building their confidence and leadership skills is a powerful long-term strategy for change. Involving rural women in sustainable agriculture efforts can bring long-term environmental benefits, profitability and hope to America’s farms and rural communities.
The women involved in the IMPACT project perceive social and community issues to be just as important a part of sustainable agriculture as farming practices. The women in these groups consider production issues as a piece of a larger picture including family, community, and quality of life issues. Grass-based seasonal dairying is to them as much a family and community issue as it is an innovative, profitable production practice. A potential impact of this project is to broaden the focus of the sustainable agriculture movement, integrating family, community, and social issues with production practices.
40 women participated in the four women’s IMPACT groups supported by this project. Workshops, field days, tours, and other outreach events hosted by these groups reached over 500 people across the state of Nebraska.
Women’s IMPACT groups provided their members with self-esteem, leadership skills, and education to take leadership on sustainable agriculture issues. The women interviewed in the survey told us that these skills helped them to make changes in their farming and ranching operations. The following findings are described in detail in the attached report:
Empowerment on farm, in community, as entrepreneur: Many women spoke of feeling empowered as a result of their involvement in IMPACT groups. Some spoke of having the newfound courage to be an entrepreneur and generate additional income for their families. Others felt empowered to challenge outside authority structures. Others felt more adventurous and willing to take risks as a result of their IMPACT project participation.
Impact on farm decisions: Many of the women spoke of having the same or greater influence on farming and family decisions after their involvement in IMPACT groups. They spoke of the education they received in marketing, communication, estate planning, and other topics as providing them with more credibility when it came to communicating with their husbands. Some of the women mentioned having increased confidence in their conversations with their families, leading them to have more influence.
Changes on the farm – Sustainable agriculture practices and increased income: Many women spoke of changes in their farming and ranching operations that had occurred during their involvement with their IMPACT groups. They ranged from trying alternative practices and enterprises to differences in marketing products.
New vision for agriculture: Many of the women were concerned with depressed commodity prices and increasing corporate concentration of agriculture. However, a large number of the women spoke of the situation as a combination of adversity and opportunity. Some felt that falling commodity prices opened the door to new ways of doing things. Others felt that, with the current conditions, their husbands were more willing to back them in new ventures that might bring new income to the farm.
Involvement of Other Audiences
Although rural women were the primary audience reached by these groups, their field days, workshops, and classes reached diverse audiences including Extension, rural families, inner-city residents, clergy, bankers, business people, social workers, and journalists. Extension played an organizational and technical advisory role with all three groups.
Men — spouses, neighbors, and members of other IMPACT groups — were involved in many of the women’s groups’ activities. When this project started, male members of the IMPACT steering committee expressed some uncertainty and discomfort with setting aside project resources for women’s groups. At the fall 1998 Steering Committee meeting, the men who evaluated the EQUAL and Country Edge proposals felt that the support and education realized by the women’s groups was very important and effective, and that women in other parts of the state should have opportunities to belong to similar groups. They recommended that the women in the EQUAL group help to start and support similar kinds of groups in other communities.
The EQUAL and Country Edge groups formed a strong partnership with an inner-city Omaha group developing community gardens. This partnership has helped both groups understand the different and similar challenges faced by urban and rural residents. This partnership may open up direct marketing opportunities for the Country Edge group.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Throughout this project, IMPACT group and staff members gave presentations across the country describing the women’s groups and their activities. These presentations included:
Date – Event and location – Type of Presentation – Presenters – Approx. attendance
9/11/97 – Women in Agriculture: The Critical Difference. Conference in Kearney, NE. – workshop – IMPACT Staff – 100+
11/2/97 – Farming Systems Research and Extension conference. Welches, OR. – poster – IMPACT Staff – 50
11/22/97 – Michael Fields Rural-Urban Conference. East Troy, WI. – workshop – IMPACT Staff – 25
2/26/98 – Cedar County Historical Society meeting, Hartington – workshop – EQUAL members – 15
2/27/98 – NSAS Annual Meeting, Aurora – workshop – EQUAL members and IMPACT staff – 25
3/98 – Ten Years of SARE conference – poster – IMPACT staff – 75
6/98 – Second International Conference on Women in Agriculture, Washington, DC – panel – EQUAL member – 60
11/22/98 – Center for Rural Affairs Annual Meeting, Columbus – workshop – EQUAL members and IMPACT staff – 3
2/8/99 – Meeting of the Holt County Republican Women, O’Neill, NE – presentation – IMPACT staff – 20
8/16-8/18/99 – IMPACT Project Women’s Retreat, Fremont, NE – retreat – EQUAL members and IMPACT staff – 15
9/16/99 – Women in Agriculture: The Critical Difference. Conference in Kearney, NE. – workshop – IMPACT staff – 100+
Total number of people reached through outreach presentations: 463
Several news articles were published about the women’s groups. All of these articles were submitted with annual reports for this project.
Davis, Richie. Women farmers connect across miles. Greenfield Recorder, MA.
Little, Jane Braxton. 4/97. Farm women launch “Hillary Clinton Club” to get their fair share. American News Service, distributed on the World Wide Web.
Higginbotham, Kate. 5/9/97. Women’s contribution to farming. Shelburne Falls and West County News, MA.
Contrada, Fred. 5/27/97. Women to visit farms in Midwest. Union News, MA.
Strimple, Laura. 6/97. IMPACT groups achieving goals. University of Nebraska — IANR press release, published in papers statewide.
Koch, Vicky. 6/25/97. Massachusetts farm women visit area. Norfolk Daily News, Norfolk, NE.
Wuebben, Crystal. 6/25/97. Massachusetts farm women tour Nebraska dairy operations. Cedar County News, Hartington, NE.
Parnass, Larry. 6/26/97. Farming women find community. Daily Hampshire Gazette, MA.
Kleinschmit, Linda. 7/2/97. Area Residents Renew Appreciation for Northeast Nebraska. (Letter to the Editor.) Cedar County News, Hartington, NE.
Eckmann, Janet. 11/6/97. Northeast Nebraska visit counterparts ‘back east.’ Crofton Journal, Crofton, NE.
Eckmann, Janet. 10/30/97. Trip East beneficial to ag women. Norfolk Daily News, Norfolk, NE.
The EQUAL women appeared in a Sioux City Catholic Charities video released in 1998.
In 1999, we published the results of our survey work in a report that is being disseminated through the IMPACT statewide network, the NSAS membership, Nebraska Farmers Union, the national Integrated Food and Farming Systems network, the National Council of Catholic Women, and sustainable agriculture organizations in the North Central Region:
Rembert, Julia. 1999. Building Rural Women’s Leadership in Sustainable Agriculture: Women’s Groups in the Nebraska IMPACT Project. Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Hartington, NE.
Areas needing additional study
One of the biggest challenges we faced in this project was increasing women’s participation in agricultural outreach programs of Nebraska Cooperative Extension. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension programs dealing with integrated crop management, plant protection, livestock production, soil and water conservation, waste management and marketing reach approximately three times more men than women (University of Nebraska, 1995).
Extension Educators do not intentionally exclude women from their programs, but many of them do not consider women as “farmers” and therefore do not make efforts to include them. It would be extremely helpful to more thoroughly research the barriers to women’s participation in Extension’s agricultural outreach programs. This research could be developed into a strategy to involve more women in these programs. This work would ultimately benefit Extension, as their efforts to change farming practices will be more effective if both partners in a farming operation participate in their programs.
It would also be interesting to research barriers to women’s leadership in sustainable agriculture. At the grassroots level, there are many women developing innovative, exciting sustainable agriculture production systems and businesses. There are quite a few women managing programs and organizing at the grassroots level, and there are a few women researchers like Cornelia Flora and Rhonda Janke making tremendous contributions to the field. Yet if you look at the outspoken leadership in sustainable agriculture – Fred Kirschenmann, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Alan Savory, Marty Strange, etc… – women are badly underrepresented. It would be interesting to know why more women do not serve as spokespersons for sustainable agriculture. Perhaps it is because of barriers like social norms that expect men to be the spokespersons. Perhaps they are too busy to take on a spokesperson role. Or perhaps women reject such a role because they prefer a quieter style of leadership. Nonetheless, the adoption of sustainable agriculture will no doubt increase if greater numbers of women lead alongside men.