Growing role for state’s women farmers

August 15, 2018

Pheasants Forever, Farmers Union workshops help women make conservation management decisions


Article reprinted with permission from Outdoor News | By Dave Carlson


OSSEO – From the hilltop Donna Kehrmeyer can see a grassy set-aside field bursting with early summer wildflowers attracting wildlife along a winding trout stream – all of it a testimonial to her and her husband Jim’s stewardship values.


“Jim always told me about caring for the land,” said Kehrmeyer. “He loved nature.”


The Kehrmeyers, both born and raised on farms in southern Wisconsin, came to the hilltop spot nearly every evening on a ride around their 200-acre Trempealeau County farm where they raised crops and tended a small beef cattle herd, a few chickens, geese, a donkey and peacock and a small apple orchard.


“And a lot of nature,” said Donna, 67, who like Jim also worked away from the farm they bought about 20 years ago. Conservation efforts on their farm included enrolling the farm in the farmland preservation program, adding buffer strips and planting trees and pollinator habitat.


Donna’s future changed quickly when Jim died of a heart attack at age 72 two years ago. She became part of a growing trend of women becoming owners and primary operators of farms across the country.


Of some 69,754 farms in Wisconsin, about 33,000 are operated by women, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. In that survey, some 12,000 women indicated farming is their primary occupation and 7,000 serve as the farm’s principal operator. Wisconsin also has many women farmland owners who lease a land to a tenant.


Nationally, women owned about 25 percent of the land rented out for agriculture and 46 percent of them were non-operator landowners, according to a 2014 survey of agricultural land ownership and transfer.


On this Friday, Aug. 17, Kehrmeyer will host a day-long workshop sponsored and organized by Pheasants Forever and the Wisconsin Farmers Union to educate women about conservation practices, something workshop promoters say has been overlooked by agencies for decades.

Julie Peterson, one of four women out of seven Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists who work in Wisconsin, said surveys have shown that women have a strong interest in conservation and sustainability of their farmland but a lack of information inhibits implementation of conservation practices.


“As men retire or pass away, research showed a lot of land going to women inheriting the land,” Peterson said.


Following a program developed several years ago in Iowa called Women Caring for the Land, Wisconsin Pheasants Forever and Farmers Union are working with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network to provide conservation outreach to women who, like Donna Kehrmeyer, want to continue farming, yet are not accustomed to making conservation management decisions given farming’s male-dominated role.


Since starting several years ago, the agenda involves a dozen to 20 or so women participants sitting down in a learning circle to discuss the chosen topic, then moving on after a potluck lunch to tour the host farm. Last year about 100 women participated in a series of workshops held across the state.


Peterson, stationed at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) area office in Appleton, said that while the workshops are not focused on financial matters, participants do talk about financial benefits of conservation management.


“We have folks who have worked with government (conservation) programs, and we have people who have never heard of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agirculture),” Peterson said.

“They arrive a little cautious and they leave energized, connected to folks who can help them achieve their conservation goals,” she said.


Kehrmeyer, with four grown children and 15 grandchildren, said she is honoring her husband Jim’s passion for conservation by hosting one of seven events scheduled through September in Wisconsin. She plans to keep farming “as long as I’m able.”


“Jim taught me about farming and taking care of the land,” Kehrmeyer said. “This is where I want to be.”


Upcoming Women Caring for the Land workshops include:

  • Friday, Aug. 17, 8:30am to 3pm, Donna Kehrmeyer Farm, 15388 County EE, Osseo. Learn how Kehrmeyer honors her husband Jim’s life by continuing his love for stewarding the land where they’ve planted wildlife habitat and run a cow/calf beef operation.

  • Thursday, Sept. 6, Green Briar Farm, 8:30am-3pm, W936 County N, Colby. Deb Esselman and her husband raise grass-fed beef and horses on an 80-acre farm.

  • Wednesday, Sept. 12, 8:30am-3pm, Bossie Cow Farm, W6174 County SS, Random Lake. Thelma Heidel-Baker, organic dairy farmer and insect conservationist for Xerces Society, highlights her pasture grazing for cows and habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.

  • Tuesday, Sept. 18, 8:30am to 3pm, Fenn’s Folly, 12041 Severson Road, Ferryville. Former Madison librarian Amy Fenn turned a 40-acre hilltop depleted hayfield and unmanaged woods into a savanna/silvopasture for grazing heifers while designing and building infrastructure like fence, water and an off-grid home.

  • Thursday, Sept. 27, 8:30am to 3pm, Long Winter Farm, W1446 Lawlor Road, East Troy. Rachel Anderson’s mission is to farm efficiently and profitability with low environmental impact. This 1,500-acre farm uses no-till, strip-till, GNSS-based application, advanced cover crop systems and water quality monitoring.

Each workshop will include a potluck lunch; please bring a dish to pass. RSVP to 715-723-5561 or at




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