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She leads the country’s agri-women

American Agri-Women President Heather Hampton-Knodle and her husband, Brian, farm in Montgomery and Christian counties with their four children.
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American Agri-Women President Heather Hampton-Knodle and her husband, Brian, farm in Montgomery and Christian counties with their four children.

Heather Hampton-Knodle grew up walking beans and raising cattle on the family farm, not too far from Lake Shelbyville in east central Illinois.

Currently, she, husband Brian Knodle and their four offspring grow corn and soybeans, winter wheat, and Black Angus cattle in Montgomery and Christian counties.

Since November of 2021, Hampton-Knodle has been president of American Agri-Women. She talked in March to reporter Maureen McKinney. The following is an edited, excerpted version of that interview:

On the changing role of women in agriculture:

There's definitely been a shift. I think agriculture at the farm level has probably been one of the first places where we've seen true equity in terms of gender because the work needs to get done. So everybody pitches in, and you just get it done. … But as we look at the evolution of the agricultural industry, we look in terms of trade associations to represent different producer groups in their interests, and just more specialization, as we've all learned more, learned how to do things better.

Also, looking within the industry, what I've seen and observed and definitely in the last 15 years, is there have been many women in support positions over time, maybe clerical or bookkeeping. Or in the case of associations, you would see them in marketing, consumer engagement.

But there's definitely been even more women moving into management and executive-level positions. And finance. Like when I think about companies (like) Compeer, the farm credit system — banking in general – that's a big area where I see a lot of women in leadership, in addition to marketing, grain trading, agronomy, more and more certified crop advisors, who are very capable women. So it's been really exciting to see that growth and development.

Why she wanted to join the organization and its importance:

In 1995, some members of Illinois Agri-Women had met me at some other meeting in the state because I was working with Illinois Pork Producers Association at the time right out of college. And they picked up on that I really enjoyed policy. I enjoy the issues. I do not like politics at all. But I like good policy. And they said, 'Hey, Heather, we were going to have a meeting at the Wildlife Prairie Park at Peoria. Why don't you come and join us?' So I went for the issues, but I stayed for the friendships. And it's really been really rewarding to meet women from not only across Illinois, but across the entire United States. It's been great.

We think there's still a uniqueness about being women in agriculture. Even though it was founded in the early 1970s. Because at that point, in the organizational realm, men were mostly the board members, and then women would help with maybe the potluck, or making sure people were fed in the hospitality aspects or representing the product, maybe in a grocery store and giving out samples. But there were enough women who said no, and their husbands also said, you have more to offer than this.

The issues for Agri-Women:

(American Agri-Women’s major issue is the federal Farm Bill )… we're looking at everything from rural health care and rural development, telecommunications, to natural resource issues like carbon credits and water regulations and trade and global issues. So it's very comprehensive, and then being able to speak out together is really powerful.

We also provide opportunities for women in agriculture, to speak out and meet in person with (lawmakers, regulators and policymakers).

We've also been engaged in issues related to access to critical minerals in our country, access to energy supplies, the resulting impacts of the … green energy movement on land use and farmland in particular, and trying to raise awareness and educate ourselves, better understand it, and raise awareness about the issues. (We) can make people who are legislators make more informed decisions. Those are really some critical pieces.

We’re concerned in general that there haven't been any major trade agreements for years, more than a decade. Having said that, when we bring it down to an Illinois level, it's been very nice to see like Ambassador (Rahm) Emanuel, and Senator (Tammy) Duckworth and others working to help us. with Japan ... helping Japan understand the carbon balance when it comes to ethanol, and getting them up to speed … that this is truly a renewable fuel that you can feel good about using in terms of the overall reduction in emissions, and the fact that we can replicate its production every year.

And it ultimately is a win- win for them economically, and for the environment, and a win for farmers. So that's been an issue that kind of definitely hits close to home when we think about Illinois.

What are the effects of the green energy movement on ag:

We have many landowners right now who are pressured because the cost of land is just skyrocketing. And there's a lot of economic pressure to try to grow the size of a farming operation. If that's what you do full time that's your living. Then there are economic pressures with the cost of equipment, the cost of inputs, and so on. But just in our area, in November, there was a large land sale – approximately 500 acres and the average cost per acre for farmland was more than $16,000. That is really hard to understand how that cash flows over a 30-year note or 20-year note whatever their banking agreement is. So, that leads landowners and farmers to look for enhancements to how they can get revenue on that acreage, besides just growing commodity crops.

Right now there seems to be a rush – a green rush – of lease opportunities to buy companies that say we want to locate a solar field on your acreage, 40 acres, 80 acres whatever it may be, or wind turbines. Another thing to know is in Illinois, we have more than 60%. I think it's actually closer to 65% absentee landowners.

What that means is a lot of farmers are renting the land they farm from somebody else. And so the financial benefit of that lease would go to the landowner, not the farmer, yet the farmer, or the tenant, will have to figure out how to work around it. Or understand who is responsible. It's not clear in a lot of these contracts, who's actually responsible for the management of the land itself, while these green energy projects might for their lifespan,

We've seen problems already. Colorado is one example where wind turbines had been in place for 20 years, now it's time to decommission them. And the company has changed hands multiple times. So the farmer, the landowner rancher, is in a position where he doesn't even know who's on the other end of the contract. And they're saying, we're not going to take those turbines down, it'll cost almost half a million dollars per turbine to take them down.

In this, farmers received approximately $1,000 per-turbine, over 20 years, so $20,000. He's not going to be able to take those down. So, the reality is the expense at the end of the life of the project, there's really not a guarantee that the land will be returned to a farmable position, especially in the case of solar.

Plus, there are concerns…I was having a conversation and on a webinar, actually with an attorney who lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, grew up in Illinois. She said during (a) hurricane, they witnessed a solar panel piercing a concrete structure.

So, that opens up a whole other issue – we live in tornado country. What if that terrible thing to think about, but whose liability is it if that solar panel (gets) ripped out and goes through someone's home? Or cause worse damage? Take a life, for example, then who becomes liable for that?

There's a lot of issues we're seeing also with wind turbines, graveyards of spent wind turbine blades. I've only been made aware of one pilot project where they're trying to grind up wind turbine blades and maybe put it into asphalt. But that's not at scale. Yet, these wind turbine blades have to be replaced. So they're graveyards, picture like landfills, of just blades. So that's another land impact of something that will not degrade ever.

We're also concerned about things like microclimate impacts. When you look at really large solar field installations, there become different temperature inversions and things that happen in terms of what you can grow around it, or under it, and how you can actually maintain that. Yet, We want to make sure that there is very accurate information on who they're doing business with, and that they understand the terms of those contracts and it's not vague.

This is really a big issue, because we've got a Co2 pipeline that's being proposed just in our backyard. And at the same time, the General Assembly and the governor approved a bill a law to say that local counties zoning (rules) on solar and wind is null and void. And basically the state has said counties don't have any authority over siting those projects. That's a problem.

So, they’re basically removing any local voice in that the state is capturing the economic gain And then there's also some consideration of things like eminent domain. (It is) highly unlikely they're going to be reimbursing a farmer for that $16,000 per acre land. For those who, you know, I mentioned that sale from November. It's not that every acre is worth that. But it is rare that when eminent domain is deployed, that it actually is a fair market value. And it's really hard to, again, have transparency in that process as well.

How climate change is affecting farms:

Talking about extreme climate and variability, we're saying it is so important that we invest in public research. Right now, a kind of a scary fact is that for the last 12 to 15 years, the United States has been outspent by Brazil, and China, and India, in our investment in research in agriculture, and food production. So we're being outspent. Traditionally, a lot of our innovations on things like seed, which it's been tremendous to be able to boost yield without increasing our land acres.

In fact, we've decreased land acres that we farm as a country since the 1960s. And yet, our yields have just exponentially exploded. And it's not just because of fertilizer, and the Green Revolution, a lot of it in the last 20 years is attributed to genetic advancements.

And the public research sector had a role in that groundwork. And there's still a lot of good things happening, but we need to be investing more. Here’s an example of a really cool project at University of Illinois: They have a project in the Institute for Genomics…that is called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiencies or RIPE, then they have I think, 11 or more research projects underneath that. One of those is looking at how they could help a soybean plant, and other plants, be more efficient and how it captures more Co2 and releases more oxygen in that process. Just at a very molecular level, how can we impact that with genetics, and still have a safe, nutritious product on the other side?

They're also looking at things like the root elasticity and how it can respond in either wet conditions or drought conditions, and still help those plants thrive. That kind of research is so critical when we think about those climate extremes. …As we look at a changing climate, how do we deal with this? So we're really relying on those advances to help us … We've already seen benefits, and hope we can continue that.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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