Intersecting Identities and Land Meanings: BMP Use Among Non-operating Landowners
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40% of farmland in the United States is rented out, mostly from Non-Operating Landowners (NOLs), or people that own land but do not themselves farm it. Nearly ⅔ of these NOLs are over the age of 65. NOLs represent a sizeable, but vastly understudied, portion of landowners in the United States, and my research as part of the sociology team this summer focused on use of conservation agriculture Best Management Practices (BMPs), such as conservation tillage, cover crops, buffer strips, and nutrient management plans, among others, on farmland owned by NOLs.
Our initial research questions sought to discern how factors like age, gender, conservation values, and relationship with one’s tenant affect BMP use and BMP lease agreements. These questions guided our decision to talk to widowed women NOLs and framed the questions we asked NOLs in our survey. Ultimately, my project aimed to understand how the intersecting identities and meanings NOLs associate with their land, as collected through survey and interview data, predict the levels of BMP use on their land.
My research partner Alexis Econie and I interviewed seven widowed women NOLs in the Red Cedar Watershed. We asked each of them the question, “What does your land mean to you?” Interviewees provided a variety of answers ranging from tax money, income, family memories, an attachment to place, and something to take care of. However, we found that throughout the conversations, interviewees often ended up focusing on the importance of many aspects of their land. Those that said outright their land provides income spent more time talking about their family and vice versa. From these responses, it became clear that NOLs associate a multiplicity of intersecting meanings with their land, and we turned to the survey results from over 100 survey respondents in order to capture how these various identities might affect BMP usage.
Our statistical model demonstrates that NOLs with higher incomes, higher self-described conservation values, that are located inside the watershed, and are women who talk to their renter about what is being produced on their land use 68.2% of possible BMPs. Those with average incomes and conservation values, who live outside the watershed, and are women who do not talk to their renter about what to produce only use 0.57% of possible BMPs.
This tells us a few important things. First, as NOLs increasingly represent a population on Social Security, financial stability matters for BMP use. Interviewees noted that neither Social Security nor income land provides enough income by themselves to get by, and survey data shows that those making more money off their land use more BMPs. If we want more people to use BMPs, the baby boomer generation must be able to retire comfortably and maintain reliable sources of income.
Second, it’s important for women NOLs especially to talk to their renters about what to produce on the land. When controlling for all the other factors mentioned above, when women have this conversation with their renters they use about 44% of possible BMPs, compared to only 6% when they do not ask their renters about what they produce. The organization Women Caring for the Land, originally based in Iowa, hosts workshops for women landowners, and our results indicate the potential benefits their work could have for the Red Cedar Watershed. Empowering women NOLs should become a priority for conservation and water quality improvement.
Finally, location matters. NOLs located in the Red Cedar Watershed reported higher BMP use, when controlling for noted factors. The landowners we spoke to felt an attachment to their land and harbored a keen sense of place and love of the area. Further efforts to improve water quality should build upon and speak to the attachment landowners have to this area and try to spark a connection with those located further away.
Overall, policy efforts should take into account actors like NOLs who may not have previously been targeted as a group with the power to encourage BMP use and set the tone for conservation agriculture in the watershed. Empowering women, promoting higher incomes, and encouraging a sense of community and place among NOLs can help make water quality improvement goals a reality.
I sit here writing this in my home state of Vermont. While I am often happiest here in the mountains, I am definitely missing the rolling hills and open skies of Menomonie as well as all the people that make it such a vibrant community. At the community forum at the Raw Deal in early August, so many people thanked us for coming and for our research, but we really ought to be thanking you for bringing us to Menomonie, teaching us about the place you call home, caring about the work we do.