Author Archives: Ann Sorensen

Ann Sorensen

About Ann Sorensen

Ann Sorensen is Assistant Vice President of Programs and Director of Research at American Farmland Trust

Women Landowners and the Future of Agriculture

women23We’re witnessing a major demographic shift in agriculture. Over the next two decades, as aging farmers retire or leave their land to the next generation, 70 percent of the nation’s private farm and ranch land will likely change hands. One report predicts that women may own 75 percent of this transferred farmland.

Many of these women are non-farming landowners. A significant number of farm and ranch land owners in the United States – 42 percent – lease out their land for other people to operate.

Although they may not be in farming themselves, we know that non-farming landowners make many important decisions about their land that have a profound impact on the nation’s land stewardship and farm viability. For instance, these landowners have a say in what conservation practices take place on their land – affecting soils, water and the environment.

But research shows that women landowners who lease their land face greater gender barriers in managing their land for long-term sustainability. Their farming tenants may dismiss their conservation goals, or they may not know how to approach the resource management agencies (like Soil and Water Conservation Districts) for help.

At the same time, Iowa researchers discovered that women who lease farmland in their state tend to be deeply committed to healthy farmland, farm families and farm communities. If this trend holds for women in general, it makes them ideal partners in conservation across the nation after we overcome the obstacles they face.

To address this potential paradigm shift in land ownership, American Farmland Trust has a two-prong approach: find out more about how women who lease their land to others make decisions, and figure out the best way to get them the information they need.

Thanks to a timely investment from Rachel’s Network – a vibrant community of women at the intersection of environmental advocacy, philanthropy and women’s leadership – we partnered with Peggy Petrzelka at Utah State University (USU). She is a well-known expert on non-farming landowners. USDA’s Economic Research Service and The Mosaic Company Foundation also provided much-needed funding for this effort.

Through a survey and focus groups with women around the country, we are learning more about women landowners – which will help us and the nation’s resource management agencies give these women the tools they need to best take care of their land.

In Illinois and Indiana, we convened learning circles for women inspired by work the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) had done in Iowa. Women-only learning circles bring women landowners together with conservation professionals – also women – to have an informal discussion about their hopes and dreams for their land.

Over 50 percent of the women who attend these sessions take a conservation action within six months of attending a learning circle, according to WFAN findings. As a result of their value, we are supporting continued learning circles in both states while expanding them to Maryland and Virginia. AFT’s Farmland Information Center uses the findings from these circles to better provide the information and resources these landowners need.

Already through our focus groups we’ve uncovered many regional differences among women landowners in terms of how much land they own, whether they live on the land, what decisions they share with their tenants, and the particular challenges they face.

We will keep you apprised as this exciting project moves forward and as we gain insights that guide our work as the nation’s leading resource for saving the land and keeping it healthy. To learn more about our work with women landowners, visit www.farmland.org/programs/protection/Empowering-Women-Landowners.asp.

Click here to read the preliminary report on this project.

 

 

 

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Setting the Course for Improved Water Quality: Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana Sign Groundbreaking Agreement to Protect Water and Support Farmers

Nestled on the north bank of the Ohio River, Cincinnati is a stone’s throw from the bluegrass of Kentucky and Indiana’s horizon of corn and soybean. This month, the city served as the perfect backdrop for representatives from all three states to sign a historic agreement that will set the tone for the future of water quality across the region.

Ohio River

The groundbreaking agreement launches interstate water quality pilot trades in the Ohio River Basin, a program aimed to reduce the release of excess nutrients running off of farm fields into the network of waterways leading into the Ohio River, the largest tributary of the Mississippi River. The project, led by Electric Power Research Institute with assistance from American Farmland Trust, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, Hunton & Williams LLP, Kieser & Associates, LLC, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, marks the first time three states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

What is Water Quality Trading?

The goal of water quality trading is to improve the health of water sources, in this case the Ohio River and its tributaries, by reducing the excess nutrients leaving cities, factories and farms. It is an innovative market-based approach to reduce the release of excess nutrients from non-point sources – such as farm fields – into waterways. Water quality trading is:

  • Completely voluntary;
  • A source of revenue for farmers who can make further reductions in nutrients through planned conservation practices; and
  • A cost-effective alternative for regulated utilities, wastewater treatment plants and industries to meet environmental regulations by buying nutrient reduction credits from farmers.
A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

A field tour of conservation practices on Schroer Farm in Patriot, Ind., showed possible credit-generation practices in action.

By offering a financial incentive for farmers in the Ohio River Basin to implement conservation practices while at the same time improving water quality and saving money, water quality trading is a win-win for all involved. (Though geared toward similar AFT work in the Chesapeake Bay, our video “Nutrient Trading in Maryland” helps to highlight the pilot program now being established in the Ohio River Basin.)

A Voice for Farmers. A Vision for the Future

American Farmland Trust’s role in the project is to ensure that the water quality trading program is developed in a way that allows for full participation of farmers. Not only will these practices improve the health of the entire river basin, but they will help keep farmers on the land and actively farming by adding a new source of income to their operations – the sale of nutrient reduction credit to utility companies, wastewater treatment plants and other regulated point sources.

The plan will serve as the basis for the three states to implement pilot trades beginning in 2012 through 2015. Although some states have adopted trading policies or rules to govern trading within their jurisdictions, this is the first time that several states have come together to develop or implement an interstate trading program where all states operate under the same rules and a water quality

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan

Representatives from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio sign the Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading Plan credit generated in one state can be applied in another.

After three years of hard work, we’re just getting started. We plan to have the first pilot trades in place before the end of 2012 with the remainder implemented in 2013-2014. The water quality pilot trades will take place in up to 16 counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, and are expected to engage at least three power plants and up to 30 farms implementing conservation practices on up to 20,000 acres. Reduction of nutrients running from farm fields into waterways is expected to total approximately 45,000 pounds of nitrogen and 15,000 pounds of phosphorus annually.

At full-scale, the project could include up to eight states in the Ohio River Basin and would potentially create credit markets for 46 power plants, thousands of wastewater facilities and other industries, and approximately 230,000 farmers. There is much work left ahead in order to get there, but with the signatures transcribed on a balmy August day in Cincinnati, we have taken a critical giant leap in the right direction.


About the Author: Ann Sorensen, Ph.D. is Director of Research at American Farmland Trust. She currently sits on the EPA’s Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee.

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Women and the Land: The First Illinois Lady Landowner Learning Circle

The face of American agriculture is undergoing a dramatic shift. As the overall farm population ages over the next 20 years, 70 percent of farmland is expected to change hands and women may own up to 75 percent of the land that is transferred.

Along with this changing demographic comes a new set of stories about what brought them to the land and a unique vision for it into the future. On April 16, we worked with the Woman, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and local partners to gather women farmland owners together for the first Lady Landowner Learning Circle in Illinois. It was a chance to learn from each other and to learn together about how their stories and visions may shape the landscape over the next several decades.

Learning circles, pioneered by WFAN, are participatory meetings where 12 to 25 women landowners come together in an informal, female-only setting to discuss their land and their hopes for that land.  Their concerns guide the discussion.  Although local female agricultural professionals join in to help provide answers, there are no formal presentations and everyone talks and listens and responds.

Sharing Stories

Challenges faced by female landowners were at the forefront of the discussion. What happens when sons and daughters decide not to return to the farm? As one woman explained, she lives on a centennial farm—meaning it has been operated by the same family for at least 100 years— is now leasing the 300 acres to the neighbor to farm. Her children plan to remain in their off-farm jobs, a far cry from the days when she and her husband rented additional acres, are not interested in farming. When she farmed with her husband, they rented additional acres.

Illness or death of a husband or other patriarch was another common theme among the participants. One woman grew up on a 25-acre strawberry farm in Massachusetts and married an Illinois farmer.  When her husband died 11 years ago, she took over farming their 200 acres. She now leases the land to her husband’s best friend and insists on conservation practices on the land.

Turning a Conservation Ethic Into Practice

Female landowners tend to have different goals for their land (like conserving their land and soils, having a diversity of crops and farm projects, protecting their families and contributing to the community).  They see land as a community asset, a place of beauty and a legacy and these characteristics make them perfect conservation partners.

While most women possess a strong conservation ethic, they are often unsure of how to translate those values into action.  WFAN has shown that peer group information sharing is very effective with women.  Within a year of attending a WFAN “learning circle” meetings, over 50 percent of participants take at least one conservation action on their land and become motivated advocates for improved conservation.

The day culminates with a bus tour to see first-hand how some of their concerns can be addressed by conservation practices. We toured the Upper Salt Fork watershed where AFT and its partners are actively working with  many of the approximately 130 farmers in the Upper Salt Fork segment of the Spoon River to significantly reduce the run-off of nutrients from farm fields. From the questions and comments on the bus, it was clear to see that the conversations and tour had really made an impact as several women appeared determined to get more conservation practices on their land.

The Next Chapter of Farmland Ownership

The next 10 years represent a significant window of opportunity for engaging women landowners in conservation. For various reasons, this audience has traditionally been under-served in agency outreach in spite of their interest in conservation.  Efforts like those by WFAN show that once women landowners are given the information and encouragement they need to take action, they will do so. Effective outreach to this population can have significant impact on the soil and water quality of the Mississippi River basin, if we act now before the next wave of land transitions begins.

American Farmland Trust would like to recognize the partners that made this day possible: Woman, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), Prairie Rivers and the Champaign County Farm Bureau to hold the first women’s learning circle meeting in Illinois.  The Lumpkin Family Foundation and WFAN (through a McKnight Foundation grant) provided funding for this effort.


About the Author: Ann Sorensen, Ph.D. is Director of Research at American Farmland Trust. She currently sits on the EPA’s Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee.

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Midwest: A Year of Progress

Another year has passed, and with it a year of exciting new projects and partnerships to protect the priceless farmland resources of the Midwest. Farmers throughout the region are finding ways to be better stewards of the land, while farmers and citizens alike are fighting for policies and programs that keep farmland in farming even with state budget issues and shifting farm ownership demographics looming.

Just as farmers glance back at the rows they’ve just planted or harvested as they continue moving forward, I wanted to take this chance to share with you some of the successes we’ve had over the past year:

Farm and farm fields in the MidwestFinding New Ways to Help Farmers and the Environment Thrive

In the Upper Salt Fork watershed in central Illinois, our work with farmers to reduce fertilizer and soil runoff into the Mississippi River basin has so far resulted in new conservation practices on nearly 4,000 acres of the 27,000-acre watershed. In Lake Erie, where a record toxic algal bloom spread, adding to the “dead zone” threatening the area’s $10 billion annual tourism industry, we’re working with farmers to reduce phosphorus runoff, which contributes to the problem. And in the Ohio River Basin, we’re starting to recruit farmers to participate in pilot trades that could lead to the nation’s largest water quality trading program.

Keeping Farms in Farming While Safely Controlling Pests

Working with the Environmental Protection Agency, we have five projects underway to help fruit and vegetable farmers in the Midwest control insects, weeds, plant diseases and other pests while protecting the environment and remaining profitable. In Michigan, we’re helping cherry growers manage pesky flies, while in Minnesota we’ve helped strawberry, pumpkin and potato growers control weeds without chemicals.

Bringing Farm Owners and Operators Together

Currently, nearly 90 percent of farm owners are not farm operators, with absentee landlords owning 44 percent of the nation’s farmland. Along with key partners in Iowa, we launched a project to learn about the impacts of absentee landowners, the adoption of conservation practices on leased land and how to help owners and operators discuss conservation challenges.

Saving Farmland Protection in Wisconsin

Just two years ago, we led the drive to pass Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative and create a new Farmland Preservation Program, much needed in a pivotal farm state losing its fertile farmland to development. But when Governor Scott Walker put promised funds for the program on hold and called for eliminating it entirely, American Farmland Trust mobilized farmers, activists and citizens. The state legislature listened, keeping the program intact and restoring funds for already approved projects.

Women: America’s Emerging Agricultural Leaders

Due to the age of many farmers, within 20 years about 70 percent of farmland will change hands, and women may own up to 75 percent of it. While possessing a strong conservation ethic, many women are unsure of how to take action to protect and conserve their land. We’ve started the planning process to hold women-only meetings to educate women who own farmland in the Midwest, helping to address such barriers.

A Look Ahead

For more than 25 years, we have been working to protect farmland through preservation and conservation efforts throughout the Midwest. In the breadbasket of the nation, we know we can’t afford to take these priceless resources for granted. That’s why we will continue our work throughout the Midwest in the coming year and beyond.


About the Author: Ann Sorensen, Ph.D. is Director of Research at American Farmland Trust. She currently sits on the EPA’s Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Federal Advisory Committee.

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