Partnering in Conservation: Engaging Women Farmland Owners and Their Tenants in Collaborative Conservation Planning

Final report for ONC19-052

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2019: $40,000.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Andrea Basche
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Project Information


This proposal directly addresses three sustainable agriculture challenges in Nebraska and the Corn Belt more broadly: 1) annual crop production of corn and soybean that comprises 81% of state cropland, which due to limited conservation adoption is at risk of continuing to degrade soil and water; 2) the challenges landowners and tenants face in collaboratively planning conservation to address these concerns; and 3) educating the future agricultural workforce to understand the social dimensions involved in conservation planning among landowners and tenants.

In the context of these challenges: how can agricultural scientists, professionals, and advisors better facilitate landowners and tenants working together to prioritize conservation? This proposal addresses this question through a pilot project creatively integrating research studying landowner-tenant relationships and undergraduates’ learning, creating tools for intervention and change.

This proposal will partner working farms whose landowners are interested in or actively pursuing diversification, conservation, and sustainability with a senior undergraduate course. Analysis of qualitative (landowner-tenant interviews and student surveys) and quantitative data (resource inventory of the farms) will result in case studies of conservation navigation for use by agricultural professionals, landowners, and tenants, as well as a pedagogical model for use in other classes engaged in on-farm research and management.

Project Objectives:
  1. Analyze how landowner-tenant conservation decision-making influences conservation implementation in specific on-farm scenarios through social and agronomic research
  2. Identify and evaluate enabling or impeding factors within landowner-tenant conservation collaboration to inform intervention and farm-scale change
  3. Generate new and extend existing knowledge of landowner-tenant relationships to analyze specific navigations of conservation decision-making on-farm
  4. Develop conservation case studies and tools for use by agricultural professionals and landowner-tenant teams
  5. Analyze agricultural student learning of conservation planning and its complex human dimensions through integration within undergraduate education
  6. Create an educational module to instruct future agricultural leaders in the complex human dimensions of on-farm conservation planning


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Materials and methods:


The preliminary research in this phase of the project included: semi-structured qualitative interviews, agronomic data synthesis, student farm improvement plans addressing both landowner and tenant goals, and student reflections on the course.

Landowner partners and researchers convened a series of planning calls in spring 2019 to collectively plan the qualitative interviews and the fall course field trip. Landowners communicated directly with their tenants, sharing information and reporting back throughout the planning process. During June 2019, the researchers conducted in-person qualitative interviews separately with landowners and tenants to learn more about their conservation planning process, goals for their farms and farming operations, and to identify topics for the fall student course conservation recommendation projects. The course research projects took place during August-December 2019, and included student visits with landowners and tenants on the farm, agronomic data shared by landowners and tenants, and contextual and historical information as identified in the interviews. Students presented their conservation planning recommendations to the landowners and tenants at the end of semester. At start and end of semester, students were asked evaluative questions to identify their knowledge of landowner-tenant relationships and what was learned through the experience of doing the class project. Interview protocols were approved by IRB at MTU and the class learning evaluation instruments were approved by the IRB at UNL.


Continued research included analysis of student reflective data and ongoing analysis of landowner-tenant relationships. Student reflective data was analyzed by the Co-PIs and published in the journal of Natural Sciences Education, titled “Training future agriculture professionals in landowner‐tenant conservation decision‐making."


In 2021, we conducted four semi-structured interviews with project participants to assess how relationships and actions had evolved since our project began in 2019. After transcribing the interviews, we collaboratively developed descriptive coding schema categories about using an adapted Grounded Theory (Corbin and Strauss, 1990) process that involved three steps: individual coding, comparative coding, and synthesis of codes into conceptual categories. First, we read through the transcripts individually, identifying codes specific to the questions of our case study as well as emergent codes. We then discussed our coding, noting exceptions and points of commonality through a series of iterative discussions, developing conceptual categories in relation to one another. Through these comparative discussions, we reached intercoder agreement and created the final, comprehensive synthesis of conceptual categories. Preliminary synthesis of themes is presented in the results and discussion.


On May 31, 2022, we hosted a farm tour at the farms of two of the women landowner project participants in in Dodge and Butler counties. The event featured on-site demonstrations of conservation practices and learning circles. The field day was attended by approximately 30 agriculture professionals (NRCS, Extension) and was supported by the Center for Rural Affairs. A post survey was conducted and completed by 18 attendees and we recorded observation notes throughout the event.

Research results and discussion:


In this first year of the project, we have preliminary results from two simultaneous areas of study in this project: the landowner-tenant conservation decision-making process (Objectives 1, 2, 3) and the learning among the undergraduate UNL students (Objectives 4, 5, 6).

 Researchers analyzed the interview transcripts to identify shared interests, concerns, and opportunities for the course conservation planning. Researchers shared contextual and historical information from the interviews, as well as agronomic data shared by landowners and tenants, in the fall course and the students used these data to develop conservation recommendations. These recommendations were then presented to the landowner-tenant teams. Initial analysis of the student evaluative data shows increased awareness and understanding of the importance of landowner-tenant relationships, the positive role that women landowners can play, as well as the benefits of collaborating with the NRCS in their future careers (described in learning outcomes). Our focus on this relationship in the class project differs from the normative course instruction about agronomic planning and conservation adoption in calling attention to this important relationship and including landowners and tenants within the class project.


In this second year of the project, we analyzed and shared data from  two simultaneous areas of study in this project: the landowner-tenant conservation decision-making process (Objectives 1, 2, 3) and the learning among the undergraduate UNL students (Objectives 4, 5, 6).

In our analysis of the data from the Fall 2019 course, we identified that students recognized the importance of landowner-tenant relationships to their careers, yet defaulted to gendered and production-oriented mindsets in their recommendations; this led to our recommendation that social components of diversification and sustainability need to be included in the curriculum. Assessment data included a quantitative survey of career goals and conservation attitudes, qualitative reflections at start and end of course, and autoethnographic observations. 

We did not conduct the planned interviews with landowners and tenants during summer 2020 due to pandemic and propose to complete these virtually during summer 2021. These interviews would assess if and how the students’ recommendations and participation in the project influenced the landowner-tenant relationships. Our continued informal communications with the project partners over the past years suggest there will be changes.


We began analyzing results from the interviews conducted in June 2021 with the landowners and tenants. Overall we found that our “intervention” (i.e. the involvement of the students & course with the tenants and landowners) was effective. All landowners took more conservation action on their land and the “third party” interactions helped each of the parties “hear” each other more effectively. However, given this timepoint approximately two years after our initial conversations, some of the complexities of the relationships and socioeconomic realities were further revealed. For example, the landowners shared some of their successes (i.e. new practices put on the land) and still continued concerns with communication and incongruence with long-term goals. Our interviews revealed that it can be challenging for tenants and landowners to see the land managed in a way that reflects their values given systemic constraints. Tenants can often only spend limited time managing the particular fields owned by these specific landowners as they are farming many fields to sustain themselves economically. These often leads to transactional relationships and behaviors. The scale of agriculture and “treadmill” of production often leads the tenants to be unable or unwilling to try new things. Both tenants and landowners expressed frustration with the isolation and limited support or knowledge networks that derive from smaller rural communities and farm consolidation.  


At the first farm tour location, the mother-daughter landowner team discussed farm transition and market diversification. Specifically, they shared their rotational sheep grazing and efforts to support this new enterprise on their farm (from grazing strategies to marketing to processing). At the second farm tour location, the landowner led a walking tour of a riparian area and shared the evolution of its conservation. Participants asked general questions about program enrollment, payment, practices, contacts at local offices, and planning with tenants.

The Center for Rural Affairs conducted a participant evaluation at the 2022 farm tour field day. Eighteen participants completed the survey and highlights of their feedback included: a desire for more local programming for “non-traditional” audiences, recruiting more women for similar events, opportunities to earn income on smaller pieces of land, finding and navigating funding opportunities, and transition planning information. All who completed the survey ranked the tour as “good” or “excellent”, and many noted the networking, ideas and programmatic/funding information as valuable to improving their farms and work.

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

13 Consultations
8 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles
4 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
15 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
6 Other educational activities: 6 semi-structured qualitative interviews (1 with each landowner and tenant project partner) in June 2019 to identify shared goals, concerns, learn more about operations

Participation Summary:

12 Farmers participated
35 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:


-We estimate approximately nine consultations during 2019 activities on the project: 3 calls with women landowners together, 6 calls separately to coordinate the trip and campus visits.

-The 8 educational tools include the student farm improvement plan reports and presentations (two landowner-tenant pairs received three reports, and one pair received two based on the student groups). In 2020 and 2021 we will continue working toward conservation case studies based on our landowner tenant pairs and an academic journal article analyzing the student evaluation data to be submitted to Natural Sciences Education

-On farm demonstrations included the three student farm visits (1/farm) at start of fall 2019 semester in August 2019.

-We estimate six webinars, talks and presentations including: two collaborative conference presentation proposals submitted and accepted (to be presented in 2020 where  landowners and researchers as equal authors); 1 guest lecture by Carter in Basche’s fall course in October 2019; 1 meeting with Basche, Carter and NCR SARE team in August 2019; Student presentations on conservation practices at UNL’s Natural History Museum Morrill Hall in November 2019; Student presentations for landowners and tenants in December 2019

-Additional agricultural professionals who participated in the project include the following individuals who supported both the farm visits/interviews and final student presentations in December 2019: Chris Rader, NRCS; two representatives from Mo Valley Ag Cooperative; Jeremiah Schutz, NRCS; Becky Carter, NRCS; Ray Ward, Ward Labs; Jami Thoene, NRCS; Ryan Hassebrook, ServiTech; Gary Lesoing, UNL Extension and State SARE Coordinator


-The Nebraska Women in Agriculture conference was held in Kearney, Nebraska in February 2020. Andrea Basche and the three women landowners hosted a session with ~20 attendees. Landowners shared their perspectives on how the engagement with the University, students and NRCS has supported their conservation planning and tenant relationships. 

-The Soil & Water Conservation Society symposium in July 2020 included collaboration with a landowner (Chris Henning) and researcher (Dr. Jean Eells) engaged in an Iowa-based SARE partnership project. While the NE-based and IA-based women-landowner SARE projects have different objectives, landowners and researchers from both projects identified how communication with tenants can prevent or enable conservation adoption; landowners shared stories from their own land management and researchers shared preliminary results from their SARE projects. 

-One more academic journal article is in preparation to submit in fall 2021. This journal article analyzes the interviews with landowners and tenants that we conducted at the start of the project and propose to complete in summer 2021, as well as ethnographic data we have been collecting through our ongoing conversations with the landowners throughout the life of this project.

-We plan to create conservation case studies based upon the experiences of our landowner tenant pairs and our research

-Additional agricultural professionals participating in outreach included Jean Eells, E Resources Group & Iowa landowner Chris Henning, both of whom participated in the SWCS Conference Session


Andrea Basche presented research results at an invited presentation to the Department of Soil, Water and Climate at the University of Minnesota (March, Virtual)

Andrea Basche presented research results at an invited presentation to the Departments of Soil and Crop Science & Agricultural Biology, Colorado State University (October, Virtual)

Dawn Nielsen (landowner & collaborator on this project) joined Andrea Basche’s Fall senior capstone course to discuss her involvement in the project and her collaborative conservation efforts with her tenant (October, virtual)

Andrea Basche presented research results at an invited presentation at the ASA-CSSA-SSSA meetings at the Environmental Quality Megaposium (November, Salt Lake City, Utah)


Andrea Basche presented research results at an invited presentation to the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (February, Virtual)

Andrea Basche presented research results at an invited presentation to the Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis (February, Virtual)

Hosted a farm tour in collaboration with the Center for Rural Affairs including two of the landowners, attended by approximately 30 agriculture professionals including other landowners (May, Eastern Nebraska)

Andrea Basche presented research results at an on-farm research for soil health session at the Tri-Societies annual conference  (November, Baltimore, MD)

Learning Outcomes

34 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • From a landowner and farmer perspective: we have learned that since our interviews and class projects that each pair intends to take additional conservation action on their farms: one plans to take five acres of typically flooded cropland out of production to convert to a permanent CRP; another intends to convert 12 acres of flood cropland to grass through the EQIP program to be used for sheep grazing; and finally another will convert one acre of land to permanent vegetation to reduce erosion.

  • From a student perspective: in analysis of student reflection assignments we found that 100% of students recognized the importance of considering both landowner and farmer goals in the context of conservation, and how critical communication between these individuals. We estimate in our report that this will impact 22 farmers, as this is the number of students in the class who told us that they already farm or intend to farm in the future. This learning was illustrated by a few of the below quotes:

    “The best-case scenario is to have a good dialogue between the two parties, so an agreement can be made about what is done to the land.”

    “The most important thing I learned over the course of the semester that is important for my future career was how to communicate with landowners, producers, and other industry professionals. In the future I would hope to be a crop consultant that works with producers and landowners to improve their production and meet goals. I believe this is super important because knowing the goals and expectations of all parties involved makes it easier to create plans that improve farm productivity and sustainability.”

  • From a student perspective: We further found that a number of students also reflected on changing their perceptions of the role that women landowners can play in supporting conservation or diversification, and how financial arrangements can help facilitate such changes. This is illustrated by the below quotes:

    “The most surprising thing that I learned in this course was how much these women landowners cared for their farmland even though some of them were away from the farm for many years. They all cared deeply about their land and wanted what was best for it. I think I was unaware of this before because I always perceived people that inherited ground just wanted the money from the land and that they didn’t care what happened to it. I always thought they would rent the ground to the highest bidder and not care what happened to it.”

    “All of the landowners in the case study’s seemed involved in the management practices happening in the field but I know from experience there are some landowners that only what a check for rent.”

  • From a student perspective:Finally, a number of students noted that they were most surprised to learn about the value that NRCS and its programs afforded, illustrated by the below quotes:

    “I was interested in how many government programs can be used to help soil conservation. I did not realize all of the possible programs that could provide cost share to help with erosion and soil health.”

    “I did not know that the NRCS office is so willing to help people. If one of my future clients is interested in land conservation, I would not be afraid to call the local NRCS office to ask for help.”

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:


We have learned that since our interviews and class projects that each pair intends to take additional conservation action on their farms. This includes flooded cropland out of production to convert to a permanent CRP; another intends to convert 12 acres of flood cropland to grass through the EQIP program to be used for sheep grazing; and finally another will convert one acre of land to permanent vegetation to reduce erosion. Additionally, all three landowners on the project have reported to us that they find their relationships improved with their tenants, including now having a better understanding of their tenant’s goals and motivations, and having more frequent communication. Overall these outcomes illustrate success toward project objectives 1, 2 and 3.

Finally, our preliminary analysis of student learning (objective 5) found that students report a more complex understanding of landowner-tenant dynamics to ensure long-term vitality of operations, the positive role that women landowners can play in supporting conservation, and the support available from NRCS.


As we have continued our outreach and conversations with the landowner collaborators, all three have landowners on the project have reported to us that they found their relationships improved with their tenants. As noted in 2019, this included now having a better understanding of their tenant’s goals and motivations, and having more frequent communication. However we have also learned that one of the landowners is likely to end her tenant over miscommunication about land management and future conservation plans. Overall these outcomes continue to illustrate success toward project objectives 1, 2 and 3. We will conduct the final official interviews with landowners and tenants in the spring/summer of 2021 to have a more complete understanding of the impact of our project, learnings and changes in their relationships.

Finally, our analysis of student learning (objective 5) found that students report a more complex understanding of landowner-tenant dynamics to ensure long-term vitality of operations, the positive role that women landowners can play in supporting conservation, and the support available from NRCS, but that more attention should be paid to these relationships in educational curriculum.


Our analysis of the follow up interviews further reveals the complexity of the landowner-tenant relationships, where gender is one complicating factor that makes communication, knowledge exchange and networking a challenge. However, the interviews underscored that economic pressures, tenant workloads and the scale of operations also present very real complications to what can and is willing to change in terms of conservation. We learned that both the tenants and landowners are trying to work around the same problems of farmland consolidation and depopulation; however we understand them to be doing so in different ways. For example, the women landowners experience the gendered social control of land and agricultural knowledge that complicates their ability to do anything that is not the mainstream, and the lack of networks of larger communities make it hard to find support for their knowledge and practice of alternatives. Further, the economic pressures faced by both landowners and tenants exacerbate the gendered social dynamics and place tenants in a more transactional place out of necessity and pressure.


This project strengthened and expanded relationships among NRCS, Extension, & CFRA, and their participation with women landowners. One of the women landowner project partners reported that she felt the NRCS office was now more responsive in replying to her calls and questions as a result of this project. The project also contributes to future proposed collaborative research between the co-PIs and the CFRA. Additionally, the co-PIs hope to continue to engage the women landowners who participated in the farm tour in future proposed collaborative research to strengthen conservation learning networks for women landowners in Eastern NE.

Success stories:

Following our symposia in 2020, two of the three landowner partners shared with us the personal affirmation they felt through participation in the project. One specifically told us: “Thanks Angie for putting this project together.  I am so glad you & Andrea see the importance of letting women landowner's voices be heard.” 

We heard a lot of great feedback regarding our Natural Sciences Education article published in 2021 from educators and practitioners. A conservation professional working in western IL shared she was excited to forward the article on to her colleagues to highlight how important it is to prioritize non-traditional or minoritized farmers/landowners in research collaborations and educational opportunities. A researcher/educator at a land grant university in the Midwest wrote us in appreciation for our study and sharing “Your work has just prompted me to think about at what points in a curriculum/campus life students writ large are prompted to think about the impact of gender and how I can influence that in a positive way.” It is clear that the themes of the paper - including challenges in reaching future agriculture professionals around gendered and production oriented norms in agriculture - resonated with many in related fields.



We are requesting a one year no cost extension. We would like to follow-up with the project partners through virtual interviews/calls to see how this past season went and what, if any, changes have been made following the students’ recommendations and the landowners’ participation in the project. For example, one of the landowners shared with us that they thought their relationship had improved through the project, but that this season they are likely to end their contract with their tenant in order to move forward with their conservation plans. In addition to the follow-up virtual interviews/calls, we plan to convene the landowner partners through a virtual meeting to discuss ideas for future funded projects.


We have requested a no cost extension into 2022 as given ongoing complications with the pandemic, we were not able to convene a wider meeting with Nebraska women landowners in 2021. We have been in touch with the landowners and are beginning to plan for an early summer in-person gathering that will feature findings from projects while also providing a networking venue for other interested landowners.


We appreciated the opportunity for another no cost extension as the farm tour was very successful on many fronts. It provided us the opportunity to strengthen our relationships with landowners and other agriculture professionals. We appreciate SARE’s continued commitment to supporting those who are not always front and center in agricultural outreach and research!

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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.