Why Women Could Be the Key to Curbing Water Pollution

In Minnesota, women will be paid to persuade resistant farmers to care and do something about the state's increasingly polluted waterways.
by | April 6, 2016
Plum Creek (FlickrCC/Aaron Carlson)

Water is crucial to the identity and economy of Minnesota. The state, known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, draws more than a quarter million visitors every year to canoe and explore its Boundary Waters wilderness area. The Mississippi River also begins in the state.

But Minnesota's lakes and streams are increasingly polluted, and that pollution is starting to take its toll. Less than a fifth of the lakes and streams in the southern portion of the state are swimmable or fishable, mainly because of nitrogen and phosphorous from farm fertilizers that wash off into nearby waterways.

Attempts to curb the pollution -- including a state law passed last year requiring farmers to leave unfarmed "buffer" areas between their crops and waterways -- have been sporadic, hard-fought and, so far, insufficient. The resistance among farmers is formidable.

"Whether it's rational or not, there is a real skepticism about anything coming out of the Twin Cities that has to do with rural policy," says Nicole Helget, a University of Minnesota graduate student who hails from a rural area. "There's a distrust of the government."

That sentiment is not unique to Minnesota.

Other states -- including Iowa, Maryland and Ohio -- are struggling to get farmers to cooperate with efforts to clean up streams and waterways. In Iowa, Des Moines' water utility resorted to suing outlying rural counties last year hoping to force farmers to reduce the amount of nitrogen-heavy fertilizers they were applying to their crops. Des Moines spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year filtering nitrates out from its drinking water.

Helget and a team of four other graduate students think they can engender change by recruiting rural women to do the persuading. They've launched an effort, called the Plum Creek Initiative, to pay women to teach their neighbors about water quality problems, show them how they can reduce pollution on their own farms, test local bodies of water for pollution and even help farmers fill out paperwork to get government grants. Initially, Plum Creek plans to hire 27 women in one county.

"Women's role on the farm is changing. They're starting to make more and more decisions … and running the business," says Monica Bolinger from St. Catherine University, another member of the team.

Women are either the primary or supporting operators on a quarter of Minnesota farms, and they're especially active in running small farms.

Bolinger says rural women are also more receptive to environmental concerns than men.

"Women are more open to hearing a message that might affect their family and their community," she says. "They're more apt to communicate that message with their neighbors, their spouses and their partners."

Rural women are also more likely to convey that message in a way that shies away from shaming farmers, pointing fingers or relying on partisan arguments. Instead, they're likely to appeal to profit motives, the importance of stewardship and scientific facts -- possibly even emotion, the organizers say.

In fact, the project's name itself has some emotional appeal. It's a nod to On the Banks of the Plum Creek, the fourth book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. The book describes the Ingalls family's time living in a dugout house on a farm in Redwood County, the same county that the Plum Creek Initiative plans to start its work in. These days, the creek is in bad shape, like many of the waterways in the area. When regulators last checked it in 2006, they concluded the creek was unfit for recreation or for aquatic life.

Organizers plan to kick off the initiative in August. In the meantime, the team is lining up support, including financial backing, from other groups active in rural Minnesota causes. It has already won a modest grant of $5,000 as a finalist at the National Public Policy Challenge in Philadelphia, a competition that judges proposals from public policy schools across the nation.

"Our key goal is to complement and cooperate with existing organizations," says Bolormaa Jamiyansuren, another Plum Creek organizer, "so that the end goal is to improve the water quality."