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Women Take Over The Farm


Staying in the middle of the country, you might have heard that America's farmers are getting older. Something else you probably know: women tend to outlive men. So do the math and what do you get? More women in charge of land and some who aren't really sure how to take care of it. So as Iowa Public Radio's Sarah McCammon reports, female conservationists are reaching out to this growing group.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Say you suddenly had 40 acres all yours. What would you do with it? Well, that's kind of a big question, especially if the land has a few issues.

MARY ELLEN MILLER: Oh, this is a pest. Just wait'll you get out in the timber. It's everywhere. It just spreads like wildfire, takes over the landscape.

MCCAMMON: That's Mary Ellen Miller. She's pointing to a prickly shrub planted by farmers in the 1930s as a natural fence for livestock. Trouble is, it's invasive and grows like crazy.

MILLER: And when I inherited this land I really wanted to be thoughtful about what I was going to do with it.

MCCAMMON: Miller grew up on farms in Iowa, but she moved off the farm, had a career in public health and swore she'd never go back. Then, her brother died unexpectedly several years ago leaving her the land. Miller says she feels a sense of responsibility for how she cares for it. So she's been coming to workshops specifically for women led by women like biologist Helga Offenburger with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

At a recent workshop, Offenburger leads a small group of women on a bus tour of southern Iowa. She points out ways to make the land more attractive to wildlife, like planting native grasses to lure quail and making sure there's plenty of space for mating and nesting.

HELGA OFFENBURGER: If you were a bird and you were here and you were looking for a spouse who's over there, how are you going to get there? The dating scene is sometimes kind of scary, I think, for them.

MCCAMMON: Scary as the dating scene for birds may be, what's also scary? Sometimes being the only woman in a room full of men. Think conservation boards or the local farm co-op, places men traditionally go for camaraderie and advice. Ann Sorensen is with American Farmland Trust, a national conservation group. She's been working with women through a similar program in Illinois.

ANN SORENSEN: When you go to a meeting and you're listening to a lot of people talking about issues that you might not be familiar with, you're a little bit intimidated. You don't really want to raise your hand and ask a question because you don't want to feel stupid.

MCCAMMON: At last count in 2007, only about 14 percent of the nation's farms were run by women. So even when women co-own farmland with a spouse, it's often the man making the decisions about land use. But Sorensen says that's changing as farmers age and more women inherit property. Similar networking programs, mostly led by female experts and designed for women landowners, are popping up across the country from Pennsylvania to Oregon.

Mary Ellen Miller says she has lots of ideas for her land: planting grapes for local wineries, finding a young farmer to grow fresh produce, even raising rabbits for meat.

MILLER: It's all a possibility. We have to have our dreams. You know, I don't know who it was that said, if all of your plans you can achieve in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.

MCCAMMON: For now, Miller says she's OK with starting small with a little help from a few good women. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.