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Conference provides tools to women landowners

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 03/20/2013 9:05 AM

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CLEAR LAKE — It can be difficult for elderly women landowners to ask tenants to change the way they do things.

Leigh Adcock, executive director of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, said one of the worst stories she's heard involved an elderly Wisconsin woman who didn't charge her tenant rent because he cleared snow from her driveway.

Adcock has also heard about social barriers to changing tenants. The current tenant may be someone that a woman's late husband hired. They often go to the same church or are related.

It took seven years of prodding by her children to get an elderly western Iowa woman to terminate a lease with a tenant who used bad farming practices and caused erosion.

"She's still dealing with what she perceives as social fallout in her community from that decision," Adcock said. "Sometimes you just have to face the music. It's your land and your decision to make, but it is hard for women my mother's age — she's 77 — to do that."

Adcock said women now own or co-own half the land in Iowa, and more are sole owners.

"Northern Iowa has the highest concentration in the state of single women landowners," she said.

Adcock said a lease can start a conversation on how to address conservation issues or other landowner goals.

If a tenant isn't willing to make changes, many others want to farm, Adcock said. Practical Farmers of Iowa has a data base of 1,300 beginning farmers who seek land. The Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State University also has a farm match program.

"We also hear about farmers who would like to do some type of conservation or try something new, but their landlady doesn't want to spend the money," Adcock said. "So it's not that all farmers are going to gouge you or that all landowners are doing the right thing or vice versa. We hear both kinds of stories. A lot of landowners say, 'My tenant is doing a great job.' Iowa would look a little bit different if everyone was doing everything they could do to be good stewards of the land. I think on both sides of the equation we could be communicating better and doing better."

Edward Cox of the Drake Agricultural Law Center provided resources and answered questions on fencing, drainage and boundary law at the event. Kathy Koskovich of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Connie Roys of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service shared information on conservation and water quality programs and cost-share.

Algona attorney Scott Buchanan, who specializes in helping landowners work with wind energy developers, urged them to protect their property and spend the money for qualified legal advice before signing wind easement agreements. John Baker, attorney with ISU's Beginning Farmer Center, outlined farm transition options.

The day concluded with "Look Who's Knockin,' "a one-act play on the future of family farming, performed by local actors Marc and Michelle Murray.

The play, written by Doug Nopar and produced by the Land Stewardship Project, was created from interviews and stories of beginning and retired farmers.

The play explored the dilemma faced by long-time conservation farmers Nettie and Gerald and whether they should let their farm go for top dollar to a large farmer or help out a young farm couple.