By Wren Almitra
Fifteen years ago a group of women were brought together by Iowa’s USDA State Outreach Council and tasked with finding an effective outreach program for Iowa’s women landowners and farmers. These women represented an array of non-profits, government agencies, faith-based organizations, producers and landowners. I recently interviewed Carol Smith and Tanya Meyer-Dideriksen, two of the founding members of the group and who continue to serve on the Women, Land & Legacy State Team today.
Q: Can you talk about some of the beginning stages of getting WLL going? How and why you personally got involved?
TM: WLL became the USDA State Outreach Council’s (SOC) outreach project for women. The directors of agencies involved in the SOC fully supported forming a committee and developing a project. When WLL first started, I was the State Outreach Coordinator for USDA-NRCS. It was a perfect fit to be part of the team that developed this tremendous outreach effort for Iowa’s agricultural women.
CS: At the time I was a member of the SOC and became involved in WLL, I was a program manager for National Catholic Rural Life (now Catholic Rural Life or CRL), a national non profit. My program was focused on rural community action and support—and it was very evident that women were a key to that issue. I have a background in extension and in classroom teaching. My great interest (and eventual expertise) in process and program design framed my work in all areas.
Q: What were some memorable moments from meeting with other partners about figuring out a women’s outreach program? Did you use a particular meeting style that informed WLL program development?
TM: WLL is one of the most unique partnerships of government (federal, state and local) with non-profit organizations, small businesses and other groups. That was a very important component, especially in the beginning. The state and local teams all had this diversity, which allowed us to develop a better project for women through a diversity of voices, resources, and talents.
An early memorable moment for me was during the very first committee meeting. We found ourselves beginning to plan a statewide conference and were even listing the topics that we thought the women across the state would like to hear about. Then the light bulb went on and we realized…we needed to ask them! We knew there would be regional differences that we needed to address. Through that “aha moment”, Women, Land and Legacy was born and we began designing listening sessions. During program development, we used the style that we promote for use in WLL today. Every team member had a voice and we all listened.
CS: The first memorable moment for me came at what must have been the first or almost the first meeting of this committee. The committee was sitting in a sort of circle and introducing ourselves by sharing thoughts about what we thought was important to rural women as we/our agencies heard from them. This was leading us to the title of the project—Women, Land, and Legacy. The question was then asked “well, where and when should we hold this conference?”
Silence—and reflection—led most or all of the committee to realize that even if we had
been thinking about a conference, that would not accomplish HEARING from women. So a new direction was set. We decided to develop a listening format and to pilot that format directly with rural women. The one pilot then became five—one in each of the four corners of the state and one closer to the center.
I think that the idea of listening set the stage for the interaction of the committee as well. The “meeting style” became a roundtable of conversation with lots of input using the considerable experience of the women involved. Listening also gave us the idea of developing local teams to plan the sessions around a listening process and to tailor it to their local women. We thought that USDA agency people who participated in the session development could learn a lot about the women on local teams in their area and their concerns from that experience AND the women could learn a lot from them.
Q: What do you see as some of the most significant moments of the program so far?
TM: Overall, the thousands of women that have been involved and become empowered. We started out with 5 pilot counties and honestly, we weren’t sure it would go beyond that. Before we even were through those pilots, we were receiving more requests from additional counties than what we had the capacity to deliver. The interest of women across the state and also the agencies was so wonderful and unexpected!
CS: We have listened and learned from the women, and evaluation showed a great deal of what we learned and that we accomplished the original focus of the project—to help agencies to understand and serve women better. The development of local teams was key to accomplishing that task. AND THEN…the women began to lead the way and this led us to develop a second format, the learning session, using the conversational process of the listening session. They took the information from the listening sessions and began to set up ways to learn about each topic from local speakers AND from each other.
Q: Do you think WLL today is meeting the vision of 15 years ago?
TM: Definitely! We are still listening to women at the local level and it is a locally led
project. There are some different approaches today than there were 15 years ago, but that is exciting and that is where the local leadership plays such an important role.
CS: Yes, the initial evaluation from 1,100 women turned listening into information about ideas rural women have on land and legacy (and how different they can be from men). Just that understanding has been important—and they are still telling us about it! Then, the leadership of women leading to the learning sessions…showed that agency personnel have used that understanding to improve their service to this audience. Now we have given many rural women in Iowa a tool to learn more about their concerns and connections to the land and to inform others about that.
Q: Where do you see WLL going in the next 15 years?
TM: It’s a little bit difficult to predict. Agriculture has changed in the last 15 years and it will continue to do so. I think what we hear local women share at listening sessions will continue to evolve and change. I do believe that the foundation of listening to local women and taking action according to what they say will continue. That is the most important part of WLL.
CS: Agency structures have changed quite a bit and will continue to do so. This will affect the membership of the State Team and the leadership it currently provides. It could also change the listening and learning purpose of the program for the agencies. Some of the local teams have been in existence for 10 years or more—far beyond their original listening lists. How shall they be served and what linkages will they have with the program are questions that need to be answered.
Q: Do you see changes in opportunities for women in agriculture since you become involved in WLL? Do you think the need for this type of programming is being met?
TM: I see more opportunities for women to become small farmers on diversified farms. And, in recent years, it seems women are becoming more involved in political aspects. We’ve always tried to determine if WLL helped empower women politically. It never showed up as a significant component of what WLL women were interested in. I do feel that WLL women are becoming more interested in this in recent years.
CS: Women are participating more in committees and programs, continuing the work of
making USDA more effective. Women have a greater voice in the fastest growing sector of farming in the US—small farms. They are often younger and owners/farmers. We need to listen particularly to them about their views and needs from agencies as they grab this opportunity. We are seeing the growth (explosion??) of women involved in organizational and public life. We need to listen as this cultural change continues to help rural women create positive impact for their land and legacy.
Q: What else would you like to share about WLL, women in ag. outreach programming, or the state of women in agriculture today?
TM: I think it is an exciting time for women overall. That excitement transcends to agricultural women, who have more information and resources available to them now more than ever. I hope that the number of women and the number of WLL counties continues to increase so that thousands more women can gain a more comprehensive understanding about topics needed, feel more empowered and share their voice.
CS: Outreach programming is rapidly disappearing—it seems to always be the first thing on the chopping block! How can we strengthen one of the most effective outreach programs in USDA for the tasks that lay ahead in this environment?