Category Archives: Illinois

Protecting Farmland by the Acre—and the Inch—in the Midwest: An Interview with Mike Baise, Midwest Director, American Farmland Trust

What first brought you to American Farmland Trust (AFT) and what has kept you engaged in your first year with the organization?

I grew up on a grain and livestock farm in central Illinois and worked in agriculture in Illinois and Indiana most of my professional career. Shortly after graduate school, I began working at the Illinois Department of Agriculture where they had programs involving farmland protection and soil conservation. I became aware of AFT through the Department in the early 1980’s and respected their work and found it appealing. I also viewed agricultural policy as being driven more and more by environmental concerns and I thought of AFT as being a bridge between the agricultural and environmental communities. I still think that is an important function of the organization and I am interested in being a part of that effort.

I think most folks who have heard of American Farmland Trust immediately think about preserving acres of farmland. If you’ve ever flown over or driven through Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, you know there are a lot of acres of farmland also with prime soils. I’ve thought about AFT’s work and approaches to promote the AFT brand in the Midwest and the best visual idea I’ve come up with is preserving both precious acres of farmland and precious inches of topsoil.

What would you say was one of your favorite or fondest memories from the past year?

Early in the year, I think it was probably the first weekend in February, John Hardin, who is on AFT’s board of directors and a Purdue Trustee, asked me if I wanted to attend the Purdue Ag Alumni Fish Fry with him. It’s a big event in Indiana agriculture and anybody that’s anybody in Indiana agriculture attends it. I happily went along and was delighted to find out that the luncheon speaker was a guy named Howard Buffet. Howard is the son of financier Warren Buffet and also is an Illinois farmer and has a charitable foundation.  His message that day struck me as being perfect for the Purdue alumni audience. It was all about food security, not just U.S. food security, but global food security and the importance of soils and soil health and tillage systems and cover crops. It was a fascinating speech and I was really jazzed by his remarks.

Also later that same month, I had an opportunity to attend a meeting at Purdue Research Farm about cover crops, the growing crops you put on the land after the corn and soybeans are harvested. They’re not commodity crops; they’re considered something that prevents soil erosion and adds to organic matter and other wonderful things that help with the health and the conditioning of the soil.

I would say those two events probably did more than anything else to shape my thinking about what I might be able to do with AFT in Indiana and Illinois.

In Illinois, AFT is working with partners to host Lady Landowners Learning Circles. Could you talk a bit about that project?

For many years I worked for the Indiana Farm Bureau, an organization that represents the interests of agriculture, farmers and farm families. One thing I observed was that as farm couples age, typically women live longer than men. After they become widows, women are frequently in charge of a very valuable asset, meaning the farmland, and they may or may not have been engaged in dealing with government programs or some of the institutions that impact the farmland itself. I thought there’s an opportunity here, a niche for American Farmland Trust to play in helping educate and empower women who own or control the land. Through conversations with my new AFT colleague, Anne Sorensen, I found that we both had that same thinking in common. So we are making the case those women landowners have a lot of influence on who rents the land and whether or not conservation will be applied to the land.

My father and mother were a team in their farming career. Their goal in life was to buy a farm, own their own land and raise and educate their two sons. And they were successful in that both of their sons have college educations and they bought and paid for a modest farm in west central Illinois.  My dad passed away in 1993. My mother, as a widowed land owner, was fortunate in that she had a son as her tenant. But a lot of other women in that same circumstance don’t have a son or a daughter or that trusted tenant. There’s this challenge of women having enough information and knowledge to be able to deal with their tenants in an empowered way. When your partner passes on, there’s the immediate shock of the loss and then there’s the secondary shock of, “Well, what am I going to do? How am I going to manage? How am I going to take care of this asset that we spent our entire lives building?” They need information and confidence to make informed decisions and there could be a role for a national organization like AFT.

What do you think are the most important steps for AFT in the Midwest in the coming year?

First, I would say the cultivation of women landowners. Accelerating of adoption of cover crops would be important. Also, I had a recent and interesting phone call with the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District. They had been contacted by the Urbana- Champaign Sanitary District, the water treatment utility. They are really interested in exploring work with farmers to reduce phosphorus and nitrates in surface waters so that they might avoid having to build a large and expensive addition to their water treatment plant. Their thinking parallels our Ohio River Basin Water Quality Trading pilot in the states of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

If other Illinois municipalities were to decide to support on-farm conservation to address surface water nutrient loading that could be a significant new source of conservation funding. If a city like Chicago were to support conservation practices being applied over land in the Illinois River Valley that would be a very big deal. If we can be successful in the Ohio River Basin and have a couple good examples to go to big municipalities like Chicago, maybe we can sell them on a way of cleaning up the water in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.


About the Author: Mike Baise joined American Farmland Trust in January 2012 as the Midwest Director. Baise’s primary responsibilities include managing projects that help farmers improve water quality, engaging stakeholders to develop policy, and finding practical solutions that result in viable farms and an improved environment.

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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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