Land Stewardship Project representative Caroline Van Schaik listens as Mary Bailey speaks about how she manages her land.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Land Stewardship Project representative Caroline Van Schaik listens as Mary Bailey speaks about how she manages her land. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
"Boys Strongly Discouraged."

(They meant "boys not allowed.")

"We're here for this workshop, 'Women Caring for the Land,' a title we borrowed from the Iowa organization, and it's for the girls only...we'd like to let the boys in today, but this is about how women deal with owning land," said Land Stewardship Project (LSP) representative Caroline Van Schaik.

At the time she made the statement, she was standing in rural Chatfield resident Mary Bailey's garage on Monday, June 24, addressing a gathering of women - both young and experienced of years - who wished to explore the tenets of being farmers, acreage owners and women dealing with adversity.

Bailey first explained how her property came to be hers, noting that she and her late husband, Leonard Suttinger, had chosen it in 1992 and wanted to build a house right in the middle.

The land, however, had not been for sale, but the owner decided they were the right buyers for his land. Soon after, Leonard died suddenly, leaving her to tend the acreage by herself.

Providence, a good friend and some square dancing introduced her to Chatfield-area farmer Bill Bailey, whom she married and to whom she introduced the art of blue birding. She observed that while she had originally intended to stay on her land, her mother, who came to Minnesota with her, was the only reason she would have stayed. "If my mother had passed away before I met Bill, I probably would have sold and gone back to Indiana. I had never gotten on the tractor before, but now I had to mow, and I think I've done pretty well learning to drive it," she pointed out.

The parcel now is a private wildlife sanctuary, boasting over four miles of trails on which Bailey monitors bluebird nest boxes, homes for the birds she learned to love as a child in Indiana.

"I saw my first bluebird when I was 5 years old. My brother told me it was a robin, but I knew it wasn't," she recalled. "It eventually became my priority to purchase a home that would be good bluebird habitat, and southeast Minnesota has some of the best bluebird habitat in the state."

Bailey is also the county coordinator for the Olmsted and Fillmore Bluebird Recovery Program (BBRP), and the organization is going 1,000 strong.

Bailey led the women on a short tour of the immediate yard, showing them her pond just off the north end of the yard, home to Canada geese and an occasional duck family. She then introducing them to Phantom, the very rare wildlife sanctuary cat, allowed only because he lives by a "bird-free-diet only."

Bailey added, "My land is changing...it has come to the point where I need to make some decisions about it and what it will become."

The workshop attendees then trekked up and down Bailey's somewhat soggy trails, sidestepping mud puddles, as the recent heavy rain had saturated the land.

They stopped to peek into bluebird boxes along the way, learning about what makes good bluebird habitat and what does not, as well as inquiring of Bailey what she does to keep her trails groomed and her ponds active.

Upon the group's return to the garage, Van Schaik shared that some of the fundamentals of women landowners are paradoxical in that women want to be independent, caring stewards of their own land but are still often not taken seriously enough by the banks, contractors, livestock salesmen, feed elevator operators and even other farmers. Some feel they may not conduct business without conferring first with a man, or if they do feel confident enough, they have to muster up twice the assertiveness to convince the male majority of the industries that they can do what they plan to do.

She pointed out that "there's strength in numbers" and that "women think differently about what to do and how to prioritize what's done with their land."

Bailey noted that many have observed that she is taken seriously by men when discussing land issues, and it's "because I use my teacher voice...when you're talking to young men in a classroom, you use your teacher voice, then, too."

Participants were then given the opportunity to select words from a list describing how they feel about land ownership, then summarized their feelings in a statement.

Sam Cooke spoke of her farm outside Chatfield, its grass-fed beef, how it offers good food, has woods for her to wander through and use for personal reflection, and how being a landowner connects her with her creator.

Winona farmer-hopeful Tracy Morjan told of her dream to build a farm that would have a riding arena, a community garden and opportunities to share farm experiences with visitors. "I like the tradeoff, the sharing," she related.

Bonita Underbakke of rural Lanesboro said she "was raised on Old McDonald's farm," and her sentiments about land have changed over the years.

"The land used to be safe for me," she shared. "When the time came that I didn't have anyone to take care of, I chose to stay here instead of going back to the Twin Cities. When I had trouble, I was able to walk in the woods and think, but the land is not here to take care of me...being a steward of the land, I'm here to take care of more than what's in my fence boundaries, particularly in terms of elected offices and world energy."

Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) representative Donna Rasmussen arrived in time to hear some of the last statements, after which the workshop continued and resources were offered from LSP and the SWCD.

Participants enjoyed lunch together before closing the workshop and departing for their respective acreages, taking with them new resolve and ideas how to manage the dirt they own, with or without help from the boys.