Female Farmers Fight Water Pollution

emily-snl-badge-02-300x300-2In many Midwestern states, water pollution is on the rise. However, the government resources that could be used to combat increasing pollution are drying up because state and local budgets are decreasing.

As a result, the government is turning to the private sector to find innovative ways to solve these issues. One of the most intriguing potential solutions came from four graduate students who created a grassroots initiative to tackle Minnesota’s water pollution problem head on. Currently funded by a $5,000 grant, Plum Creek Initiative works to empower women farmers to educate their male counterparts on feasible solutions to water pollution.

Julie Barton, co-founder of Plum Creek Initiative, sat down with Emily Jarvis on GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight to talk about how she got involved in grassroots government water pollution initiatives.

Barton explained that water pollution is a growing issue in rural areas. Farmers continue utilizing lakes as a dumping ground for fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorous that make the water unsafe to swim and fish in. Barton painted a picture of the severity of the situation, noting her co-founder “used to be able to play in the lakes and swim and fish when she was a child but now she can’t do that with her own children because the water is so polluted.”

Barton and her co-founder wanted to find a way to reopen those lakes and waterways to swimming and fishing, but they knew they needed to gain local communities support first. “We don’t need more regulation because farmers are resisting it,” Barton said. “We need to get them on board first, then we can get them to make changes.” She emphasized the problem must be approached from within their communities in order to produce the necessary change.

For Barton and the Plum Creek Initiative, a grassroots approach has taken the form of empowering local women farmers. “Women make a lot less money, especially in rural areas, so we want them to get a chance to be able to network and develop leadership. This gives them a really good chance of changing things.”

Women’s role in farming is also growing. It’s Barton’s hope that women farmers will be able to convince resistant farmers of the importance of cleaning up the state’s waterways. The initiative is working towards this by paying rural women to teach their neighbors about water quality issues and inform them of how they can reduce pollution on their farms.

Looking forward, Barton is working to expand the Plum Creek Initiative’s funding and network as well as set up informational workshops in order to get the initiative off the ground. Barton explained, “the man might be the brain, but the woman turns the neck” and by working together, she is optimistic that alleviating water pollution will remain a policy priority and eventually be achieved.

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Karen Munze

The initiative is an interesting approach. I’m a little uncomfortable with the concept of “the man might be the brain, but the woman turns the neck”. It’s a New York State thing, I think, where it’s not common to bring gender differences into play. Although when I entered high school, it was exotic for girls to imagine working in an environmental regulatory fields, my work as a female environmental regulator (in wastewater pollution control) now puts me in the “brain” (and “brawn”) category along with many other women in my agency.

I live in a state where a heavy regulatory presence has pretty much come to be accepted by the regulated public. Although all but NYC are either rural or surrounded by rural areas, the farms are small enough where violations are hard to hide from an engaged public.

This doesn’t give me much appreciation for the challenges that face concerned folks in areas that have much more spread out properties where more “traditional” gender roles are still a big part of the community. It’s just not something I’ve been exposed to in my work.

I do know that in my job, we get much better compliance with what can be costly or cumbersome (at first) requirements when the regulated parties see some benefit to themselves, their families or their business. We often have to “sell” our programs. The better sales job we do, the less we have to take civil action against businesses. Kudos for the women who came up with this grass roots way to work around the failure of the state to adequately address the water pollution problems. If their approach comfortably fits the community, they might just be on to something, because true buy-in is much more effective than a heavy governmental hammer.