Women own more than half of Iowa’s farmland and, as new book shows, they’re rethinking some practices.
After moving to western Iowa to farm in 2010, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann was shocked to find the local grocery stores selling California-grown produce. She was even more shocked to discover the farmers around her weren’t growing food. In fact many had never eaten an organic hamburger, squash bisque or an heirloom tomato.
“Nobody knew what kale was!” exclaimed the mother of two young children in an interview last week.
Having worked at a food co-op in Ames, interned with Practical Farmers of Iowa, and married into the Rosmann family, which farms 700 acres organically near Harlan, Walsh-Rosmann was all about sustainability and local, chemical-free foods. So she got organized.
She’s one of several female farmers helping to reshape the nature of farming in Iowa. Several dozen are featured in a gorgeous new book, “Women and the Land,” written by Barbara Hall and photographed by Kathryn Gamble. It’s published by Ice Cube Press.
Studies from Iowa State University have said women own or partially own at least 51 percent of Iowa’s farmland. That caught the attention of Hall and Gamble, who had previously worked together at Meredith Corp., and inspired the book.
“It started out to be ladies on tractors,” confessed Hall. But in the five years since they started scouting out subjects from different parts of the state farming different things, one thing was striking. “It was really hard to find conventional farmer.”
Featured in the book are farmers raising herbs, wind and crickets as well as traditional cattle, hogs, corn and soybeans. Des Moines-based Cyndy Coppola inherited a Webster County farm with her sister after their father’s death in 2006. Though she raises conventional crops (corn and soybeans), she’s hardly conventional in her orientation. She was arrested for standing in front of a bulldozer to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, which runs through her property. Jan Kaiser, who plans and promotes literary events in Des Moines, raises goats in Boone County.
Heidi Vittetoe joined her husband, Jerome, in his large hog-farming business and they were later joined by their two daughters, Rachel and Amanda. “They have taken that business and really humanized it for farmers,” says Hall. Their employees have insurance and 401(k) plans.
There are also well-known farm advocates Liz Garst and Denise O’Brien. In the book’s foreward, Garst wrote that since her family began farming in the 1880s, Iowa has lost half its topsoil and half the organic matter (which holds in nutrients and water) in what remains. Those losses contribute to flooding and decrease drought resilience while increasing reliance on petrochemicals, she observed.
The monoculture of corn or soybeans (which comprises more than 70 percent of Iowa crops) leaves cropland unprotected from heavy rains and leads to erosion, she wrote.
Garst promotes more sustainable farming practices like terracing, no-till and cover crops. She writes, “All Iowans would benefit if women acted more like they own it (the land). Making decisions, taking responsibility and implementing their unique values.”
I asked Hall if she thinks women practice farming differently. She said they didn’t compare male and female farmers’ practices but that there was an obvious gendered approach. Some of their subjects observed that as the ones who do the grocery shopping and take responsibility for their children’s nutrition, women “understand the connection between food and how it’s grown.”
O’Brien, an organic farmer in Cass County, for example, wonders about the connection between food and autism and attention deficit disorder. She wants to see more schoolyard gardens, agriculture “and other practices that put folks face-to-face with the food they eat.”
She co-founded the precursor to the nonprofit Women, Food and Agriculture Network in 1994 to link women, food systems and sustainable agriculture. It has promoted community networks and educational opportunities for women on economics and environment. Hall said it has helped women feel comfortable in what used to be a clatch of men sitting around a co-op coffee house.
Lynn Heuss, who helped connect Hall and Gamble with female farmers, used to work for WFAN. She said women who inherited farmland from men might face challenges from people who wanted to control them. One woman whose husband had died recounted to Heuss how six people approached her at his funeral to say they had exclusive rights to hunt on her farmland. Heuss conducted guided “learning circles” with female farmers to help empower them to champion healthy food and farming systems.
Walsh-Rosmann has found other ways of engaging rural communities. She started a food hub in 2014 that transports food from 40 food producers across Iowa to restaurants and other consumers such as schools. She said farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture groups (CSAs), which rely on clients who sign up in advance, don’t provide enough income for farmers. She also opened a farm-to-table restaurant, Milk and Honey.
“In rural America, we’re a food desert,” she observed ironically. She even said so as a speaker on a World Food Prize panel. “I asked why they’re putting farmers on a pedestal as if they’re feeding the world. Then why do we still have hunger?”
You get the sense from the book that with more women in farming, that issue will become more front and center. Its author says she was always interested in feminism, but “I did not see it at all as a feminist book. And it is totally a feminist book.”
Rekha Basu is an opinion columnist for The Des Moines Register. Contact: email@example.com Follow her on Twitter @RekhaBasu and at Facebook.com/ColumnistRekha. Her book, “Finding Her Voice: A collection of Des Moines Register columns about women’s struggles and triumphs in the Midwest,” is available at ShopDMRegister.com/FindingHerVoice
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