Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 023 – Women in Agriculture featuring Jen Filipiak and Maud Powell
Jen Filipiak: So in Missouri, 35 percent of Missouri’s farmland is rented and 40 percent of the principal landlords in Missouri are women. So they play a significant role. They have a place in agriculture and a voice in agriculture that’s valuable, but not of our materials are really reaching non-operating landowners and definitely not women. Because we’ve marketed to our targeted audience which traditionally has been male farmers.
Mallory Daily: This is our Farms Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. For this episode, two women in agriculture discuss their projects to create more access and support for women-identified farmers in the U.S. That was Jen Filipiak, Midwest Director of the American Farmland Trust, a national organization that seeks to protect farmland and promote sound farming practices. She’ll be speaking with Maud Powell, veggie farmer, Oregon State University extension agent, and coordinator of a Southern-Oregon based growing cooperative. Maud believes getting women started in agriculture begins with robust networks of mentorship and support.
Maud Powell: We did get a SARE grant on how to write a toolkit on how to start farmer networks. We went to three different states. We went to Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and helped start women’s networks in each of those states. And also did a Train the Trainer program for extension, NRCS, other agencies, nonprofits who wanted to start farmer networks.
Mallory Daily: Maude and Jen will discuss how these networks of women farmers push the agricultural community toward innovation and collaboration around practices that restore the land. But first a little background on their interests and careers. Here’s Jen.
Jen Filipiak: So I grew up in and around Chicago. So very urban background, through weird, I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but my dad grew up in an inner-city neighborhood and met someone who did archery and he got really into bow hunting. So through that he just developed this love of nature and just kind of ecological systems. And so we used to go hunting for sheds in the forest preserves and, you know, so he kind of instilled that in me. And so I came at this through conservation. I became a wildlife biologist and a deer biologist specifically. My dad still jokes that he paid for all this school, and I still haven’t found him a good hunting spot. But then I moved to Iowa and I worked for the Nature Conservancy. I got a job there and found myself working with farmers. And Iowa is something like 88 percent of the land is farms, so it underlies everything. And I really got to work with farmers a lot and I really started to see Aldo Leopold’s land ethic in action, people who didn’t even know they were spouting his land ethic, you know. Like the whole idea of leaving the land better than you found it and just these ties, these very emotional family connections to the land. And I just realized how much potential impact I could have thinking of farming as a kind of a partner to conservation. Yeah, so, I married a Minnesota farm kid and he was finishing up at Iowa state and we ended up moving to Illinois for his career. He teaches ag. And then I got with American Farmland Trust. So I’ve been doing that. And I find myself now, I’m potentially buying some farmland. It just kind of happened really suddenly about a month ago.
Maud Powell: Wow! And would you be farming yourself?
Jen Filipiak: We don’t know. We do want to farm, but it’s more, you know, he’s a professor. We’re both scientists. I’m a wildlife biologist, he’s a professor. And so our real interest, this land is pasture and it’s never been cropped and it has a remnant prairie on it, which is the main reason why I was really interested in it. And the main reason why he’s really interested is because there’s a lot of really good outbuildings. So there’s potential to raise a lot of different kinds of animals. So I’m curious about, can I restore a prairie and use domestic livestock to provide some of that disturbance and have a really healthy biologically diverse native system with like meat goats or something? So we both have full time jobs. It will definitely not be a for-profit endeavor.
Maud Powell: It sounds like a research component! Time for a SARE research grant.
Jen Filipiak: It will be a research and demonstration farm. Yeah, definitely a research and demonstration. I would love to get a network going of the women farmers in that area. Because there are some and I’ve met a few. There’s another network in Southern Wisconsin of women farmers.
Maud Powell: Of women farmers, particularly?
Jen Filipiak: Yeah. So I know they’re out there, and I would love to be to get that network going in Southwest Wisconsin, which is where I am.
Maud Powell: Will you tell me a little bit more about a prairie? Cause I actually don’t know what that really is.
Jen Filipiak: Well, much of the United States’s prairie is dominated in the central United States and they are a fire dependent system. It’s basically a grassland, but it’s a hugely diverse grassland. Lots of wild flowers, you know, forbs as well. Lots of different kinds of grasses. But the main thing is no trees, and the prairie plants grow very, very deep root systems. And so they can survive all different kinds of precipitation.
Maud Powell: And this is what the moldboard plow destroyed in the 1920s?
Jen Filipiak: Yeah, so what happened is the prairies, they created–because of this huge amount of the biomass that it puts out and the huge amount of roots–they created these really rich soils. And so the Mollisols of the Midwest basically of Illinois and Iowa, Nebraska.
Maud Powell: Is that a soil type?
Jen Filipiak: Yeah, Mollisol is a soil that developed under prairie and it’s considered some of the most organic, rich, most productive agricultural soils in the world. So yeah, when we came through, when we plowed the prairie, which was very hard to plow because of all the root systems. But the soil was so rich, it was just this, you know, black gold. Actually farmers in Illinois, still tell me, they’re like, “I’m farming black gold.” They have these huge, there’s just lot of organic matter. Very, very fertile.
Maud Powell: But then that caused the Dust Bowl, right?
Jen Filipiak: Yeah, it was a lot of plowing and then followed by a drought.
Maud Powell: Right. The weather.
Jen Filipiak: The historic records tell us now that when we first started plowing the prairie, we were in a climate situation where it was unusually wet, but we didn’t know that. And so when it went back to its normal dryness, now there’s nothing to hold the soil, and we’re dealing with it still, now. You know, I work on soil health issues. I’m with American Farmland Trust. A research grant that I got from SARE was to have a network of soil health specialists in Illinois learning about these new concepts of soil health and understand the biology of the soil and how we can kind of mimic that system that the prairie did naturally. How can we mimic that and you know, be able to farm these soils and hold them in place and rebuild organic matter and you know, enable them to hold water instead of let it run off or not even infiltrate at all.
Maud Powell: So on the property you’re looking at, you said there’s part of it is prairie and then parts just pasture, permanent pastor?
Jen Filipiak: The property that we found has, yeah, most of it has never been plowed because there’s these rock formations so it’s just not suitable. So it’s always been pasture and because it’s never been plowed, there is still remnant, there are still prairie plants there. Because they weren’t consistently plowed under. So they, you know, they’re very hardy plants, you know. So tell me about the network that you work with, with women farmers.
Maud Powell: Well, we started it in 2007. It was when I was first starting to work with extension and I actually did a job share with another woman at that time who also has a farm. And so we were in similar situations. We were both mothers of young children. We were doing part-time extension work. We were also working on our own farms and kind of struggling with, what does it mean to be a farmer and a woman and looking for role models, looking for community. But yeah, just struggling with this idea of what does it mean to be a woman farmer. And then immediately, you know, put emails out and had just a fantastic response. It seemed like a lot of the women in our community that farm were hungry for that kind of network. So it’s been 11 years I guess. And we meet, you know, the structure of our network has changed just to meet, you know, depending on how much funding we have for a program assistant to what the women farmers are asking for. So we’ve done monthly potlucks and farm tours. We’ve gotten some funding–not from SARE, from somewhere else–but we got funding to do a series on organic production. We now, we’ve done five annual coast retreats. So we actually get a group of 15 women farmers to leave their farms for three nights in January and go the Oregon coast.
Jen Filipiak: An actual retreat!
Maud Powell: Yeah. And we do goal setting and slideshows. And then it’s a lot of fun, too. But, so it’s really information sharing, networking. We’ve had business partnerships that have come out of it and we’ve done some impact reporting because the University likes that. So it’s been good to see.
Jen Filipiak: So do your funders, right?
Maud Powell: Right, exactly. But I think, you know, in the reporting we’ve done, and just anecdotally, I know the women are really grateful for the opportunities to connect more. And it is interesting, and I hate to essentialize genders, but there is, I have worked to get other farmer networks set up and it’s been harder to get men to show up to networking events. I don’t know if they see less value in it. But yeah, it’s been, anyway, that’s just been interesting. And maybe it’s because I’m a woman, so I don’t know why. But the response has been great. And then it’s led to a couple of larger regional and even national projects. So we did get a SARE grant, a Professional Development Grant back in 2011 to write a toolkit on how to start farmer networks and not just women farmer networks, because the principles are really the same.
Jen Filipiak: I think I have that handbook.
Maud Powell: Do you?
Jen Filipiak: Because with the landowners that I work with, I’ve been thinking about how to network them.
Maud Powell: So we published that, I think, that came out in 2013 and then we went to three different states. We went to Washington, Idaho and Montana and helped start women’s networks in each of those states and also did a Train the Trainer program for extension, NRCS, other agencies, nonprofits who wanted to start farmer networks. So we did that as well. And then the other thing we did, which was really fun, was in 2016, also through a SARE grant. Well, there were several funding sources, but we got a large grant from SARE. We hosted the National Women in Sustainable Ag Conference in Portland. So that’s a conference that happens about every three years. They’ve just announced it’s going to be in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2019.
Jen Filipiak: Some of the women that I’ve met in Southern Wisconsin, there’s a network. It’s just has the name of Green County Women in Sustainable Agriculture and it really just started as kind of an email group. But it’s really grown and become this really supportive network for these folks. And yeah, there was a whole contingent that shared expenses and went out to that conference in Portland and now they’re helping to organize the Minnesota conference.
Maud Powell: Oh, that’s great.
Jen Filipiak: I’m looking forward to working on that. Do you have a feel for what kind of barriers maybe that are specific to women that these networks overcome?
Maud Powell: Well, I’ve had a number–and I was going to ask you this, too, especially about the women that you work with that are landowners. And I saw on your email that some of them, they don’t always work on the farm, but they own the land. And so I do think the identity issue is really interesting because I’ve had a lot of women that I’ve recruited to come to our network meetings say, “Well I’m not really a farmer. I’m not on the tractor.”
Jen Filipiak: I get that, too. Yeah.
Maud Powell: And I say, “Well, wow, but you’re doing the taxes. You’re doing the marketing. You’re, you know, updating the website. Oh, you’re taking care of the greenhouse.” Whatever the components are.
Jen Filipiak: You’re growing the kids!
Maud Powell: Yeah, exactly. And I really struggled with that when our kids were young. Because my husband and I, we were on the same track. And then as soon as I got pregnant–well, I worked through my pregnancy on the farm, but then as soon as I gave birth, I was breastfeeding and he was off, you know, learning to drive the new tractor, which I still don’t drive. So I think the identity thing is really–so overcoming that was a barrier that I think the network really has helped with. And then the other piece, and I just think this is so interesting, is the idea of like having equipment that’s more ergonomically appropriate for women. And we had the women from, um, Green Heron Tools who are in Pennsylvania. Are you familiar?
Jen Filipiak: I’ve heard of that group. Yeah.
Maud Powell: They’ve gotten some USDA funding to design, like a walk-behind tractor that’s lighter weight for women. And they came and did a focus group with us years ago. And I just remember they said, and I can’t remember the exact number now, but they just said, “Yeah, women have 30 percent less upper body strength than men. And that’s just like a biological fact.” And I remember thinking like, oh, it’s not because I’m lazy and don’t hit the gym enough to do pushups. It was this epiphany for me of like, oh yeah, we’re built differently. And it doesn’t mean anything except the, you know, the equipment’s been designed to work for men. They make gloves that are, they make lots of things for a smaller hand size, like hoes. And so that was really an epiphany for me, just realizing like, oh, so much of the system is designed for male bodies and we’re just physiologically different. It has nothing, it’s not values-based. So that was interesting. Oh and one of the things they said that I love to say, and again, I can’t remember the exact number, but they said, you know, “Worldwide women are two-thirds of the farmers. Because in so many countries it’s the women that are tending the farms.
Jen Filipiak: Well, and I think back, too. My grandparents came from farm families and I just remember they, you know, the huge kitchen gardens that the farm wife would maintain. I mean, she wasn’t maybe out chasing cows or tilling, but they were maintained. They were feeding, All the vegetables came from the farm, from these huge kitchen gardens. The women, the ones that come to, we do these learning circles. It’s kind of based on what you were saying, like just maybe men might not want to come to a workshop, networking kind of thing. Like you were saying. I have found that women don’t like to sit through six PowerPoints, you know, and that tends to be what field days are, you know, there’ll be a couple of presentations. You go out to the farm, stand around the tractor, you know, and talk about the practices. I mean, they’re really interested in the information, but it’s very top down. It’s very: well, I’m giving you this lecture. I’m the expert and I’m delivering this information. There is a lot of social science research that shows there are differences in how genders and there’s a lot of reasons for those differences. But women tend to really much prefer to learn as a peer rather than as a like teacher/student. And that’s kind of an adult learning thing, too. Adults like to learn that way, too. And so these learning circles, which were developed actually by the Women, Food and Agriculture network, that we’ve adopted their model and been using it in our programming. They do exactly that. It’s a circle. You sit in a circle. They’re very focused on conservation and sustainable ag–well, not necessarily sustainable agriculture, but conservation practices that you can use on your farmland. And it’s structured and it’s facilitated, but it feels very informal and it’s kind of like, we’re all experts here. We all have something to learn. We all have something to teach. And they’re super successful. They just love ’em. But I hear the same thing. You can ask to women who are in the same scenario, you know, her and her husband run a farm. You know, they have a family, they’ve run this farm. And one woman will say, I’m not a farmer. I never stepped foot in the tractor. And the other woman in the exact same scenario will be like, I’m just as much a farmer as he is. I keep the books. The farm wouldn’t be around if I wasn’t here to keep the books. And one woman calls herself a farmer and the other doesn’t. And then there’s so much in between. There’s so much. How engaged they are in farming versus they could be totally removed from farming, two generations away. They live three hours away in the city. And so, but the commonality is that they love getting together and talking about agriculture, they care about it. They care about the land. They have opinions. They don’t always feel welcome to share them. But in a women-only learning circle format, they absolutely feel comfortable sharing those opinions. And I’ve learned so much, I mean I don’t come from agriculture, so just hearing their stories has really helped me, just, you know, in my job dealing with farmers. And then I have farmers saying you need to come talk to my landlord and because he or she doesn’t understand what I’m doing on their land and why, maybe they should keep me on the farm and not the low bidder next door cause I’m taking care of their soil.
Maud Powell: So you must work a lot in succession planning then. Is that true?
Jen Filipiak: Yeah. American Farmland Trust does. I don’t personally. So we will get into those topics.
Maud Powell: Are you seeing a lot of that with–
Jen Filipiak: Absolutely. That’s like one of their top concerns is what’s going to happen to the land when I’m done. Oh, it’s just, it’s such, it’s so complicated. It’s just the most complicated business. Because it’s not just business. It’s family. It’s tradition. It’s you have multiple kids and someone wants to, or if no one wants to farm or–I’ve heard this story a couple of times and is they don’t have kids, but they have nieces and nephews who expect to get their farm and then they feel like the whole family is expecting them to pass this blessing to the niece and nephew. But maybe they’ve had a neighbor guy that’s been farming the land for 30-years and he has kids that want to farm that land and they would much prefer to give it to him, but they’re in this weird situation with their family where they’re expected to, but they don’t have to. They’re the owner, they can do whatever they want with the land. So it just gets really complicated really fast.
Maud Powell: Yeah, family politics.
Jen Filipiak: I’ve heard really heartwarming stories and I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of just families that can’t come together. So yeah, we broach that topic, but I’m very focused on the conservation side of things. Sound farming practices, how to manage the land well.
Maud Powell: Do you work a lot with the NRCS and other agencies?
Jen Filipiak: Yeah. They’re a major, major partner.
Maud Powell: So what are the main conservation practices? Is it a lot of cover cropping?
Jen Filipiak: Most of the farming systems that I’m working with–it’s corn/bean systems and so we really promote a system of rebuilding the soil. So we call it a conservation cropping system, but primarily, yeah, it’s cover crops, it’s trying to build some kind of diversity in the rotation. Maybe get wheat back in the rotation or something, you know. Reducing tillage to the extent possible. And yeah, that’s the primary thing. Those things can rebuild the soil, but that transition is really tough. So I feel like a big part of my job is explaining why that transition is so tough. And then how can you, as a landowner, not a farmer, not a farming expert, but as the landowner, how can you help your farmer beyond that journey? You know, what’s your skin in the game because it’s your land. If it’s an annual cash/rent lease, all the risk is on the farmer and not on the land owner. So if they want their farmers to do these kinds of practices, they need to put some skin in the game, too. And that’s kind of what the farmers told me, too. They’re like, you know, I do conservation on my home ground, but I don’t do it on the rented ground because I don’t know if I’m going to have that land next year. I don’t know if the rent is going to go up. There’s just so much uncertainty. It’s hard for them to invest in these longterm practices. So we don’t have a lot of data on non-operating landowners. But we do have one national survey that was done in conjunction with the 2012 census. It’s called the TOTAL survey–Tenure, Ownership and Transition of Agricultural Land. And this survey, rather than going out to the farmers, it went out to the landowners. So the interesting thing is USDA Ag Census, only farmers take that survey. So if you own land but you don’t farm, you don’t take that survey and we don’t know anything about you. But TOTAL went to the landowners. And so we know that nationally–what is the number–38 percent of U.S. Farmland on average is rented. And we know that most of that rented land is owned by people who don’t farm. So non-operating landowners. There’s a lot of farmers that own farmland and rent it out to other farmers. Here in Missouri, for example, we can look at the state level. So in Missouri, 35 percent of Missouri’s farmland is rented and 40 percent of the principal landlords in Missouri are women. And that is really a low indicator of how many women actually own farmland because that is only women that identify themselves as the number one landlord. “I am the principal landlord.” So if you owned it in conjunction with your husband and your husband’s considered the landlord, then you’re not counted. So Iowa has done some more intensive research. They have found that the women either own or co-own almost half of Iowa’s farmland and of Iowa’s rented farmland. If you only look at the rented farmland, I think women edge out just a little bit. They own a little bit more than the men do. They own more of the rented land than men do. So they play a significant role. They have a place in agriculture and a voice in agriculture that’s valuable. But none of our materials are really reaching non-operating landowners and definitely not women, because we’ve marketed to our target audience, which traditionally has been male farmers. And it’s super important in places like Illinois, 60 percent of our farmland is rented. Half of it is rented out by people who don’t farm. And so it’s a huge issue. If we want to meet nutrient loss reduction goals, for example, the Gulf hypoxia goals that we all have here and along the Mississippi River. If these practices aren’t happening on rented lands, we’ll never get there.
Maud Powell: Wow.
Jen Filipiak: So we have to work with landowners and women are very interested in this stuff. They might not say conservation but they say things like they want their farm communities, healthy farm communities, healthy land, healthy food, you know. To them, they think in terms of the system and it’s the whole thing. It’s not just my farm. It’s my community, and they want it to be managed well. That’s not to say that men don’t, it’s just that I work with women and this is what they tell me. They have a potentially a lot of influence, because it’s a lot of land that’s controlled by women.
Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Jen Filipiak of the American Farmland Trust, and Maud Powell of Wolf Gulch Farm and Oregon State University Extension. You can check out links to their work in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE – the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at sare.org. SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thank you for listening!
Table of Contents
- Land-based Livelihood
- Everybody Eats
- Water Challenges
- Creative Succession Planning
- Farming as Heritage
- The Early Years and Lasting Impact
- Building Community in Rural America
- Quality of Life in Farming Communities
- Maintaining Values While Making a Profit
- Finding a Better Way: Engineering On The Farm
- Making A Difference: Teaching Sustainability
- Production on Pasture
- Accessible Food Systems
- The Heart of Our Farms
- Serving Our Land: Veterans in Agriculture
- The Fight for Equal Rights in Agriculture
- Sustainable Agriculture: Nourishing Communities
- Sustainability on the Farm
- Advocating for Sustainable Agriculture
- Finding a Catalyst for Change in Agriculture
- Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide
- Women in Agriculture
- Protecting Our Pollinators
- Building Resilience
- Why On Farm Research Matters