Enthusiastic Crowd Embraces Ideas and Information at Women in Farming Workshop
by Rachel Myslivy
Fifty women attended the Kansas Rural Center’s recent Women in Farming workshop in Emporia, Kansas, to learn about soil health and cover crops, livestock and grass management, specialty crop production and season extension, farm credit and other resources available for women farmers. This was the final workshop in a series of similar KRC workshops this year offering women practical how-to information and access to resources to manage risk in farming.
“Over the last thirty years, the number of women farmers has tripled,” explained KRC Director, Mary Fund. “The number of women inheriting land and farm management decisions is also increasing, so it’s really important that women learn how to make better decisions on the farm and learn the practical skills needed. We’ve had great reception to these workshops and tours. The energy and optimism at the women’s round table also encouraged us to seek ways to facilitate more networking among women farmers.”
Fund was referring to the informal panel discussion and round table held Friday evening prior to the workshop, which attracted 25 women to learn about some of the things Kansas women farmers are doing on their farms. KRC selected seven successful women farmers and ag professionals to share their stories. These mentors talked about ideas, successes, and failures along the way. Conversations at the round table reflected the diversity of modern-day agriculture. Many are coming into farming with fresh new ideas and excitement, but often with little technical agricultural training. Informal networking events help to break down barriers and open doors to new relationships between women farmers at different stages and locations throughout the state.
“Women farmers are very interested in specialty crops and small livestock or poultry production as a way of diversifying operations and income, in addition to their interest in overall farm management issues,” stated Fund. “It became clear that size and scale don’t really matter on women’s farms, it’s the intensification and the diversity that is key,” reflected Fund. “We all share the desire to feed ourselves, our families, and our communities.”
The full-day workshop on Saturday began with demonstrations and presentations about soil health, diversity, and agroecosystems by NRCS staff Candy Thomas, Alex Miller and Terry Karcher, giving an overview of ways to positively impact soil health using demonstrations, including a slake test and a desktop rainfall simulator. “In the past, we’ve seen diversity as kind of an adversary. Over the centuries, we’ve taken a lot out of the soil,” Miller explained. “The main goal is to bring life back to the soil.”
Rancher and rangeland specialist Dale Kirkham encouraged a systematic approach to grazing management asking, “How do we harvest a whole pasture?” Grazing plans should focus on the things you can control. For instance, you can move mineral, but you can’t easily move water. Farm Service Agency representatives, Eric Guenther and Kurt Schweinler, explained Loan Programs and Resources of Special Interest to Women Farmers, including financial assistance, micro-loans, and help putting together farm plans, and budgets.
While the FSA representatives got the participants thinking about creative financing, Dan Phelps, KRC Program Coordinator and Specialty Crop Specialist, presented ideas for extending the growing season. “From a fruit and vegetable perspective, Kansas is an untapped market,” he said. “We have the opportunity to start growing the things we’re importing from California.”
High tunnels help bridge the gaps between growing seasons while also providing new income streams. Phelps described many options for high tunnels, from expensive and permanent to temporary and DIY. Clearly outlining both the challenges and opportunities with high tunnels, he encouraged participants to think outside of the box with season extension but to, “Do your homework and realize what you’re investing in.”
In the final formal presentation, Gail Fuller, Emporia farmer and tour host, insisted that regardless of the operation, soil health should be a primary focus. “Our whole emphasis is soil first. Chickens, corn, wheat, pigs, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how will it affect your soil today, tomorrow, next week, next year or in 50 years?” Fuller and Lynnette Miller work together in a diversified no-till operation, incorporating cover crops, grains, livestock, bees, and direct marketing. Fuller cautioned that there are often more failures than successes, but with a diversified system and healthy soils, there are many great opportunities.
Participants found the presentations encouraging, and for at least one participant, they served as a catalyst. Lynette Petty reported, “I came away with a sense of urgency. I knew that we wanted to rehab our land and nurture it back to health. After the workshop, I now feel that we need to act sooner and not let the traditional practices of the past continue to stifle our soil and environment.”
While the presentations contained technical and specific information, the content was accessible to a broader audience. Lynn Stephan from Wichita commented, “Being a ‘city girl,’ I’ve been unaware of the wealth of research and information that now guides farming decisions. The cover crops and soil health presentations were eye-openers. I am so impressed.”
Presentations will be made available on the KRC website for broader audiences on the Women in Farming page.
The day ended with a tour at Fuller Family Farm just outside of Emporia, where Gail Fuller and Lynnette Miller demonstrated the benefits of stacking enterprises. The first stop on the tour was the sheep pen, including a discussion of breed characteristics of Katahdin sheep, and strategies for fencing, water, and care. Fuller and Miller rotationally graze their herd using portable electric fencing.
The next stop was the egg-mobile, a converted stock trailer used to move laying hens behind grazing cattle on pasture. The egg-mobile makes it easy to move the chickens around to graze. Participants also learned about cover crops while witnessing the practical methods used at the Fuller farm.
A fencing demonstration included solar gate-latching systems, step-in posts, polywire, and solar chargers. Although heavy rains the night before removed some of the planned stops for the tour, the day ended with a pasture walk on a native prairie led by Dale Kirkham who identified plants, noted indicators of health, and answered questions about grazing systems overall.
Farm tours provide a unique learning experience that positively supplements a traditional workshop. Regardless of experience level, seeing practices in action makes fast impressions. Risa Kearn explained: “Some of the examples left me feeling wary and with a sense that I would do things differently and others were exciting or opened my mind to trying things I had previously rejected, like sheep.”
While many of the tour attendees picked up new ideas to implement on their farms, Lynn Stephan came away with a new perspective. “I left the day impressed with how incredibly hard farm women work, how physically demanding their work is, and how devoted they are to producing positive outcomes. I left feeling I had met and rubbed shoulders with true American heroines.”
The women on the tour got a good sense of the value of diversity for both soil health and resilience and also for the farm resilience, economically. Diversifying farm enterprises benefits soil and water, and also diversifies and spreads out cash flow. Additionally, diversified agricultural systems build community, as demonstrated by the reciprocal relationships Fuller worked out with his neighbors. Utilizing small patches of neighboring pastures to rotationally graze sheep increased available grazing land while cleaning up brushier areas for the neighbors. Mary Fund commented that, “Community relationships grow along with the variety of crops and small livestock.”
Connecting women farmers across the state, the four workshops have reached over 150 women with diverse operations and backgrounds. Gearing programming towards women has the potential to change the course of agriculture in Kansas. “Projections show that 70% of farmland is expected to change hands over the next 15-20 years. Much of that will end up under the management of women,” Mary Fund explained. With adequate funding, KRC hopes to expand educational opportunities for women in agriculture in the coming years. Educating women on farm management and building supportive networks across the state is an excellent investment in our agricultural and food future.
Workshop co-sponsor was the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops. KRC’s Women in Farming Project is by a grant from the USDA Risk Management Agency Risk Management Education Program.
Rachel Myslivy is a free lance writer who prepared this article for the Kansas Rural Center.