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  • Writer's pictureKriss Marion

Happy International Women's Day!

Today we here at WiWiC celebrate YOU, and women like you all across the globe. Women are of vital importance to rural and urban food economies both here in the states and abroad, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Women are responsible for some 60% to 80% of food production in developing countries. On average, women comprise 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, ranging from 20% in Latin America to 50% in Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. If they had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30%. In many farming communities, women are the main custodians of knowledge on crop varieties. In some regions of sub-Saharan Africa, women may cultivate as many as 120 different plants alongside the cash crops that are managed by men.

Due to legal and cultural constraints in land inheritance, ownership and use, less than 20% of land-holders globally are women. In North Africa and West Asia, women represent fewer than 5% of all agricultural landowners; while across Sub-Saharan Africa, they make up 15%. This average masks wide variations between countries, from under 5% in Mali to over 30% in Botswana. Latin America has the highest share of female agricultural holders, which exceeds 25% in Chile, Ecuador and Panama.

Here in America, the number of women landowners is over 25%, and in Wisconsin women are now 35% of the primary land operators. Yet in the US, as abroad, women have traditionally been underserved by the agencies and programs that help farms succeed and help incentivize conservation stewardship practices. That, of course, is why Wisconsin Women in Conservation exists - to connect women farmers, landowners and land stewards to the knowledge, support, and tools they need to achieve the conservation vision they have for the land. Women are an increasingly powerful force on the landscape, and we applaud you for all of your efforts to walk with hope, purpose and impact.

This International Woman's Day, we are proud to announce the first-ever Wisconsin Women in Conservation Educator Network Spring Conference, to be held April 28, in Stevens Point at the Sentry World Atrium. This all-day non-traditional event is for ANYONE - man or woman, professional educator or volunteer mentor, agency staff or college student - who is interested in reaching out to women with conservation resources. The theme is "Lighting the Fire with Women Landowners."

Registration is open now and is just $25 until April 1. That price includes breakfast, locally-sourced lunch, and a charcuterie networking hour, thanks to generous sponsorships from The Nature Conservancy, American Farmland Trust and Tallgrass Land Conservation in partnership with the NRCS! Space is limited, so RSVP now.

The conference will be headlined by ground-breaking researchers Jean Eells and Rebecca Christoffel, award-winning experts in the field of women-led conservation.

What IS the key ingredient to supporting women who want to learn how to best steward their land? According to research done by Eells and Christoffel for over two decades, the answer is conservation educators who understand and use educational strategies and outreach that work best for women. Wisconsin Women in Conservation (WiWiC), a national leader in women-focused conservation education, is hosting this first-of-its-kind gathering to bring together conservation educators from across the state to learn about these best practices to support the increasingly powerful and growing demographic of women landowners. Women are now 35% of the primary operators on Wisconsin’s farmland. 22% of the women in this group have been farming for ten years or less.

“I feel it's so important to learn to work with women landowners on conservation because women own or co-own almost half of the agricultural land in the USA, including Wisconsin. In addition, women generally view their land as community rather than commodity and are interested in learning how all of the pieces fit together. This mindset is a natural fit for ecology and conservation,” says Dr. Rebecca Christoffel. “This is an important, long under-served audience in conservation.”

Dr. Rebecca Christoffel holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from UW-Madison in Wildlife Ecology and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University in Fisheries and Wildlife. Her work focuses on the human dimensions of natural resources management. Dr. Christoffel has served as the State Wildlife Extension Biologist and a faculty member at Iowa State University. Christoffel is now a researcher at E Resources Group, and is the primary evaluator on the WiWiC project.

“At this conference we will introduce the Learning Circle model and how it works to support best practices in women landowner education, based on years of research in how women land stewards learn best,” explains Dr. Jean Eells. Eells is the founder of E Resources Group, and the leading researcher in this subject nationally. She facilitates the evaluation component of WiWiC. “Our research has shown that peer-based, interactive learning environments work extremely well to provide support for women to take action on conservation plans and vision for their land.”

Dr. Eells works from the prairie pothole region of north central Iowa, and partners closely with a tenant farmer to care for the family farmland. She has operated E Resources Group, LLC since 1997 and led the movement to reach women farmland owners with conservation information across the nation after obtaining her Ph.D. in 2008 from Iowa State University.

In 2021, Eells won Conservation Professional of the Year from the International Soil and Water Conservation Society, Conservationist of the Year from the National Professional Organization of Women in NRCS, and Iowa Woman Conservationist given by the Conservation Districts of Iowa and the NRCS Federal Women's Program in Iowa.

“This whole conference will very intentionally reflect the interactive Learning Circle approach to women’s education, reflecting how our research shows that women best learn by interacting with each other,” adds Christoffel. “Anyone interested in this topic is welcome to come, whether you are a conservation volunteer or paid staff, to experience creating welcoming settings for women-focused education and bring home new ideas for your work.”

“This upcoming gathering celebrates the growth of women in conservation in Wisconsin and provides tools for educators to amplify that even further,” said Dr. Esther Shekinah, WiWiC project lead at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. “We are honored to have over twenty conservation organizations partnering in this inaugural event. We started the WiWiC Educator Network to bring together all people in our state dedicated to conservation education for women and are thrilled to have this opportunity to meet and learn together in person.”

“What I think is really the biggest lesson that I've learned through the work I've done with Jean Eells is that if women are provided the information and resources they need, they are apt to take action on conservation. Greater than 50% of women will take some step in their conservation journey after having attended a single event,” says Christoffel. “This is an incredibly important audience for us to capture and cultivate. We satisfy the women landowners' interest in stewarding their land and then they nurture the myriad natural resources that are found on these lands. I daresay we also cultivate more advocates for conservation including clean air, clean water, and reduced soil loss. Now who can argue with that?”

The WiWiC Educator Conference will also include opportunities for conservation educators to network, connect and mentor each other. Conservationists early in their careers are encouraged to attend. Please email us if cost or travel is a barrier.

The WiWiC Educator Conference will be held in the open, spacious Sentry World Atrium. Sentry World is a premier golf course and event center located in central Wisconsin, near UW Stevens Point. A small city on the shores of the Wisconsin River, Stevens Point has gained a reputation as an outdoor destination, a cultural and artistic hotspot, and a thriving, welcoming community. Its geography is distinctive, as rivers converge and northern forests meet southern fields. Its location—the meeting point of Interstate 39 and US 10, comfortably within four hours of Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Madison—makes it among the most accessible cities in Wisconsin. Stay tuned for networking activities at this beautiful setting following the conference.

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