New Partners for Sustainable Agriculture

Project Overview

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


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: networking
  • Sustainable Communities: social networks


    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.

    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.