Women landowners showcase their land and legacy during learning circles

Farm and Food

More than half of the farmland in the U.S. is owned or co-owned by women. In Nebraska, women own or co-own 42% of farmland.

Whether the farmland was recently inherited, owned for years in a trust, or is going through a transition, women landowners need opportunities to connect with programs, resources, and one another.

The Center for Rural Affairs works to support women who are aspiring, beginning, or already farming through a variety of program partnerships, workshops, and resources. Since the late 1970s, the Center has led learning circles in which participants are considered the experts on their own production, farmland, and conservation needs and are encouraged to talk about their experiences and goals to learn from each other.

In May, Dawn Nielsen and Marilee Polacek, who have practiced conservation on their farms and participated in learning circles within the last few years, will present during an event that showcases their knowledge and experience with other women landowners.

Farming with conservation in mind

Growing up on her family’s 140-acre farm outside of Scribner, Nebraska, Dawn takes great pride in the land inherited through her mother’s side. Over the years, she has observed how the neighbors have managed their land—bulldozing trees and dredging creeks and waterways—and she knew she wanted to retain natural vegetation and watercourses to protect soil and water quality and wildlife habitat on her own land.

In 2005, after both of her parents had died, Dawn and her siblings sold 60 acres and kept the remaining 80. A local farmer then took on farming part of that land, paying cash rent and putting the land in alfalfa rotation; he has a cow-calf herd and feeder cattle on his own place 5 miles away.

“My husband and I live in Blair, and have had careers as educators, not farmers,” said Dawn. “But, I’ve read many articles and books that have made me more environmentally conscious. My tenant farmer has not been interested in conservation, but has put up with my projects. He has been resistant in the past, but planted a cover crop last year for the first time, so maybe things are changing.”

Dawn and her husband established a 2.5-acre riparian buffer along a stream and put in 1 acre of pollinator habitat. Both are part of the Conservation Reserve Program, and Dawn hopes other landowners will consider similar ideas.

“It has been an interesting process working with (not against) nature,” she said. “We now have beaver in the stream for the first time in my memory.”

Great minds think alike

Marilee Polaceck also strives to treat her land with care and respect through the practice of conservation.

Owning land outside of Bruno, Nebraska, that has been in her family for more than 100 years, Marliee and her daughter Katie got involved in conservation when Katie noticed that much of the nearby creek bank was caving in and the bank of the creek was getting closer to their fence lines, in some cases washing away fences altogether. They were also aware of chemical drift killing some of the trees around their house and fruit and vegetable gardens.

The Polaceks have also worked with tenant farmers since the early 2000s. Through trial and error and trying to find the best match for their land, the family has had a few tenant farmers over the years. Today, they’re working with one who is a better fit for them, though they are still working on finding the perfect balance.

Coming together through shared opportunities

Both Dawn and Marilee have attended the Center for Rural Affairs’ Women’s Learning Circles to learn more about conservation practices and to get advice on caring for their land.

Information, experience, and resources are shared at each circle, allowing women to implement what they’ve learned into their own farm businesses or operations.

“We started going to learning circles back in 2017 and heard speakers on soil health and conservation,” said Marilee. “Then we wanted to get some projects started on our farm.”

Right now, the Polacek farm consists of 280 acres, 204 of which are in crop rotation, with the rest in pastures. It is a dryland farm, with a small buffer strip along part of the creek, a 5-acre wildlife habitat plot, a 12-acre Environmental Quality Incentives Program grass project, and other areas where Marilee and Katie hope to remove invading cedar and elm trees.

“I’ve enjoyed the few times I’ve been involved in learning circles with other women,” said Dawn. “They seem to be more sympathetic with my view of the land and conservation than many men I’ve interacted with. Meeting other women and hearing their stories, frustrations, and successes helped me learn something new each time.”

Both landowners have also been involved in a project through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) funded by a North Central SARE Partnership Award and led by Dr. Andrea Basche, UNL assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture and Dr. Angie Carter, assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University.

Through the project, the researchers and Center staff recruited three women landowner/partners and have followed their progress in working together to adopt more conservation on their land since 2019. These pairs also worked alongside Andrea’s senior capstone course in fall 2019. The researchers have brought the landowners’ stories into their classrooms as teaching tools.

“This is important, as our students will be the future decision makers, consultants, farmers, landowners, etc., and it is valuable for them to gain experience in the complexities of some of the landowner-tenant relationship dynamics and decision making,” Andrea said.

Student groups prepared farm improvement plans and conservation recommendations for these farms while communicating with both the landowners and tenants and trying to keep the goals of each in mind. They visited both farms at the start of their course and presented their results at the end.

“This gave students good experience and exposure to the needs of both tenants and landowners,” said Angie. “It was also the very first exposure these students had as far as working with landowners.”

Supporting women landowners and sharing in success

The landowners also presented their experiences at the Nebraska Women in Agriculture Conference and the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) International Annual Conference.

“Presenting at these conferences gave women landowners a voice,” said Angie. “It helped to educate other conservation professionals about the importance of reaching out to women landowners and showed what they have been able to do and what more they can accomplish with proper support and resources.”

Andrea says farmer operators are typically the focus of research and programming around conservation practice adoption even though there are many others involved with the potential to support shifting practices.

“Conservation and diversification strategies are critically important to reducing negative impacts of environmental impacts of agriculture,” said Andrea. “Research on and support for women landowners is critical because we know from prior work that female non-operator landowners are often very willing to work with their tenants on conservation, but typically are excluded from conversations about what is happening on their land, as gendered power dynamics in this relationship may influence if and how women landowners access and utilize information about conservation.”

Kirstin Bailey, senior project associate with the Center, agrees, and says finding common ground on which to share information is essential.

"Sometimes, when women get into these male dominated spaces, communication style differences create an environment in which information is shared in a way that does not invite follow-up questions, or the information is explained in a very technical way, with sector-specific terminology, that can be hard to understand and apply,” said Kirstin. “By gathering women together, they can talk about their experiences, and share information in a way that better suits their communication styles."

Continuing the conservation conversation

On May 31, the Center and UNL will host a free event featuring both Dawn and Marilee. Participants in “Women's Learning Circles and Farm Tour: Farming with Conservation in Mind” will visit Bruno and Scribner.

The event will focus on Dawn and Marilee’s experiences as women landowners working with tenant farmers, as well as their thoughts on participating in UNL’s teaching/research project. Other women landowners are invited to enjoy the farm tours and to learn more about conservation, working with tenants, and to meet with others.

“More than anything, the learning circle gives us a window to share experiences and learn what works for others in similar situations,” said Marilee. “It's an opportunity to grow and learn and share and it is visual—it’s one thing to read up on something or see a video, but it is best to see something for yourself in an actual farm setting, and then modify or copy it to work on your farm.”

She says the opportunity offers a great sounding board, and provides everyone attending with a chance to make connections and network with other women who have similar interests.

”It also gives us added incentive to get things shaped up and share what we have found works for us and what hasn’t worked so well,” said Marilee. “It can feel pretty overwhelming if you are setting out to do a task you haven’t done before, but with learning circle contacts and melding of ideas, dreams can become realities and feelings of being overwhelmed fade when you can see steps toward progress.”

For more information about the upcoming Women’s Learning Circle, and to register to attend, click here, or contact Kirstin at kirstinb@cfra.org.