MADISON — When Ruth Rabinowitz first became an active manager of her family’s Iowa farmland, she had a steep learning curve to determine what steps to take to improve the property.
And she had to do it from afar, living in the Monterey Bay area of California while overseeing land-improvement projects more than 1,500 miles away.
Rabinowitz and her sister, Shauna, eventually took over management of the land from their father, a physician who began buying Iowa farmland in 1978. Over the years, he accumulated about 1,675 acres in six Iowa counties and one farm in South Dakota.
Her father, who lived in Arizona, visited the land every year as a “gentleman farmer,” but didn’t know much about waterways, erosion or what was happening with the land’s streambanks. He rented the farmland to crop farmers, but didn’t get involved with a real hands-on approach, Rabinowitz said during a workshop on “Healing the Land” Nov. 3 at the Women Food & Ag Network conference in Madison. Both of her parents died earlier this year.
When Rabinowitz took over management of the property, she made frequent trips to Iowa to see for herself what the farms looked like and what they needed for long-term sustainability.
“I decided it didn’t make a lot of sense to turn everything over to some other person I didn’t know and let them run the show,” she said of the family’s farms. “We were cash renting, so with 10-foot-tall corn we really couldn’t see what was going on on the land. I started going to the farms in the spring. You get a lot more information about the land in April than you do in August.”
She began working with local Natural Resources Conservation Service officials to see what was happening on the land and what could be done to improve the properties.
“I found out that (the renters) were farming the land right up to the streambanks, and you could see chunks of erosion that were falling into the streams,” she said. “I just knew that wasn’t right. I learned we had tons of erosion happening.”
During the past three years, 24 waterways have been installed on the farms to prevent further erosion. Buffers have been added to separate crop fields from woodlots and steps were taken to regenerate native prairies.
Rabinowitz said when she got out on the farms, she discovered that in some cases the erosion had gotten out of control.
“We were going to apply for an EQIP grant to do a prescribed burn and regenerate a native prairie, and I was told by an NRCS employee that we were looking at severe erosion in that field,” she said. “You could walk off this cliff and lose your life. It was so deep it was like looking at the Grand Canyon. We had no idea.”
Rabinowitz oversaw the addition of two 1-acre ponds on the property to help heal the land where the severe erosion had taken place.
“Now we don’t have this lose-your-life cliff anymore,” she said. “I got quite an education on building ponds and how the USDA program works.”
Rabinowitz said she has made the job of farm management manageable by breaking it down into pieces. She’s also built relationships with tenants so they know her goals for the land.
When she began getting rent checks for the 1,675 acres, Rabinowitz was able to quit some of her other jobs and spend weeks and months at a time in Iowa. She urged other absentee landowners to get more involved in the management of their land.
Sylvia Spalding, another absentee farmland manager, is the communications officer for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council in Honolulu, Hawaii, so like Rabinowitz, she has been managing Iowa farmland from afar.
Her family owns 117 acres near Oskaloosa, Iowa, and she has been managing it since 2006.
Spalding, who represents the seventh generation in her family to be tied to the Iowa land, spoke of the forest management plan she has developed on the property in cooperation with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. She encouraged more people to take advantage of the forestry services offered by state and federal agencies.
“Less than 20 percent of citizens avail themselves of DNR services, yet much of the (forest) land is unmanaged,” she said.
A district forester marked the trees in the farms five forest areas and helped her acquire cost-share funds through the Rural Energy for America Program to prepare the site for natural regeneration once the area was logged.
Most of the 117 acres are now enrolled in conservation plans and 15 acres of the farm were recently seeded with native prairie grass.
While she said she likely won’t be around in 60 years to see the farm management plan become fully developed, Spalding said it is good to know the land is being managed properly for the future.