Original initiative evolved into a series of management workshops organized around the state
By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Heather Dowling of the state Department of Forestry remembers distinctly the phone calls she started receiving from the wives and daughters of deceased Virginia farmers 11 or 12 years ago.
They would call asking, almost pleading, for advice, she recalled. Many of them were from an older generation of farm women used to deferring to their late husbands in managing the family property and with little or no experience speaking to government officials,
"They just don't know where to go," Dowling said, "that silent generation of women who don't know how to ask questions."
Dowling said the callers seem relieved to have found a woman they could speak to about farm management issues.
One perplexed woman said her husband left her with two terse pieces of advice before his death: cut the woodland and call the department of forestry.
From such phone calls, Dowling, an assistant forester in Dinwiddie County, got the idea to organize a program for local farm women in her area. That initiative grew into a series of grant-supported workshops she has organized around the state, the latest one Thursday at the North Warren Volunteer Fire Department.
The event drew an audience of about 50 women, most of them looking for advice on how to manage land -- with or without male family members.
Dowling urged the attendees to create plans for themselves and listed some of the goals they may have. Success could be defined in financial, environmental, historical or generational terms, she said.
Whatever the reason for a property management plan, government agencies like hers are there to lend technical advice and support, not to dictate, Dowling said.
"Our goal is to help you reach your goals," she told the audience.
Several audience members made clear they were attending to learn how to ward off development pressures.
Ruth Pritchard of Berryville and her daughter, Betsy, said they own 400 acres, much of it in Jefferson County, W.Va., where it has come under increasing pressure from developers.
Ruth Pritchard said the land has been in the family for eight generations and she is determined to see her descendants and offspring keep it as farmland.
"I'll roll over in my grave if they don't farm it," she said.
The Pritchards are part of a surge of women taking control of farms.
Julie Hawkins, an assistant state conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cited figures showing the percentage of women owning farms jumped from 5.2 percent about 25 years ago to 30 percent in 2007. In Virginia, women make up about 17 percent of the state's 47,383 farmers, she said.
"I think it's important to have meetings like this so you can network with each other, meet each other and get the resources you need to manage the land," she said.