Connections to Conservation
Women Conservationists Build Ground
In the 21st century, the future of agriculture is increasingly in the hands of women. According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT) and its Women for the Land project, about 43% of U.S. farmland today (nearly 388 million acres) is farmed or co-farmed by women. Another 88 million acres are stewarded by women landowners. These women, the AFT notes, remain underrepresented in their use of USDA and state-based conservation practices.
Women in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) work with AFT and a host of other groups to help bridge that gap. Known as WiN, the organization was founded in 2009 by female NRCS employees. The volunteer group initially focused on connections and building skills for NRCS employees.
Angela Biggs, 2014 president of WiN and a state conservationist for Wisconsin's NRCS since 2017, says WiN had a targeted goal of providing resources to women conservation professionals, whether in the form of mentoring, training or just professional development. That initial focus continues to evolve. Today, in addition to recognizing achievements within the profession of conservation, the group's work extends to producers embracing conservation methods in farming, ranching or overall land stewardship.
"Often, WiN members work with those efforts, and there are often opportunities to partner with projects around conservation," Biggs explains. "Our conferences have focused on training for conservation professionals, but more recently, we've included items to reach women landowners. As a group, it can be a challenge to balance out our priorities, helping both our members in their professional development and reaching outside of the organization to be sure landowners have the tools they need to make conservation a reality on their own land. Often, though, we find one helps the other."
That was certainly the case for Rachel Hopkins, recognized in 2019 by WiN for her commitment to conservation in her home state of Missouri.
Hopkins and her dad, Steve Yocom, run a 125- to 150-head commercial cow herd in the Huzzah Valley of Crawford County. Hopkins also wears the hat of Washington County Extension agent, where she works with other specialists putting on educational workshops, including grazing and hay schools. Much of what she shares comes from firsthand experience.
Hopkins says her connection with the land goes back to a great-grandfather who bought the farm she and her dad live on and work today.
"After World War II, he came home and started a dairy that lasted from 1948 'til 2000. After the dairy shut down, he went strictly to a beef herd. Today, we raise our own replacements, do a little stocker work and, sometimes, we custom graze depending on the season and forage availability. We work hard to be sure what we are doing makes sense for the land."
That means Hopkins and Yocom are focused on a lot more than cattle. They've worked hard to minimize soil loss from streambank erosion and to maximize the use of native forages across the operation.
Going back to 2009, Hopkins says they were seeing severe streambank erosion on a farm where they partnered with Ozark Land Trust (OLT) and the Missouri Department of Conservation. They beveled banks and planted trees trying to stop the erosion along Huzzah Creek. When that didn't work, they looked for other solutions, which came in the form of a new alliance.
"The OLT came to us and said they had a new partnership with The Nature Conservancy, and they wanted to work in the Meramec Watershed. They thought we were a good fit," she says. "That's how our partnership came about with The Nature Conservancy. We really saw what collaboration was all about. There is always give and take, but as a result of that work, we have made great strides in water quality by fencing livestock out."
Hopkins believes the upside from sustainability and their cattle business has far exceeded the ground cattle lost access to along the creek as renovation took place.
"Because we were willing to do that, we were able to get funding to help put in watering systems and fencing. As a result, our land is more usable today than it was before."
In addition, Hopkins says they continue to convert pastures and some forested areas to native warm-season grasses and silvopastures. They are trying to replicate what the Ozarks looked like 240 years ago. The shift has led to weight increases in calves, extended grazing days, reduced feeding expenses and improved soil health.
Hopkins has spent a lot of time at grazing and land-management workshops, so she knows firsthand how overwhelming the subject of intensive grazing can be. Most producers are convinced there is a huge amount of work tied to the practice and for one reason or another, it won't work on their home operation.
"People will tell you their pastures aren't square, they can't build this much fence or that, for whatever reason, intensive grazing won't work for them. I tell them that in 2012, my dad sent me to grazing school so we could participate in cost-sharing. He didn't want to go. I sat through it, and all I could think was that it would never work for us."
Given time, perseverance and a willingness to adapt, Hopkins came to understand there is no cookie-cutter solution when it comes to conservation.
"This takes practice. There are learning curves, with weather being a big one. Stocking density, the potential of your ground, forage quality. ... You have to weave all of this with whatever nature hands you. Sometimes, you get it right; sometimes, you get it terribly wrong. But you can't be afraid to make mistakes, because that's when you learn the most if you will keep moving ahead."
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