She was never made to be inside, behind a desk, staring at a screen.
Jean Eells was made for something more. Rain or shine, summer or winter, this is a woman who is confident in nature.
Many of her contemporaries have already retired, but Eells continues reaching forward in her mission to help others, especially women and children, gain their footing in the great outdoors, and even becoming better stewards of the land.
Once the environmental education coordinator for Hamilton County Conservation, Eells has long since branched out into independent consulting and is the owner of E Resources Group. She specializes in soil and water conservation issues, in particular for women land owners who are seeking help to better manage their land.
That work, in the last year, has gained considerable accolades on a state and national basis.
“I was astounded,” Eells says. “It was a big year.”
Indeed, Eells earned two national awards and one state level award:
• Conservation Professional of the Year for 2021 from the International Soil and Water Conservation Society.
• Conservationist of the Year for 2021 from the National Organization for Professional Women in NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service).
• Iowa Conservation Woman of the Year for 2021 from the Conservation Districts of Iowa and Iowa NRCS Federal Women’s Program.
“All three of these awards are for my work with women land owners in conservation; talking about soil and water conservation,” Eells said.
But why women?
For Eells, her focus on providing education and support to women landowners started when she realized how many women own land independently, and how they are often under-served in accessing programs that are available to all landowners.
“In 2002, I was at a conference — and I had been doing conservation workshops for decades — when a speaker talked about land ownership in Iowa and how 47 percent of the land, almost half, is owned by women,” she said. “Up to that point, I didn’t know that.”
A long-time soil and water conservation district commissioner, Eells was very familiar with programs such as CRP, but seldom saw women take advantage of the program. Out of 50 applications, perhaps only three would be from women land owners.
“That launched me into a Ph.D. program,” she said, recalling that she knew she would have to be better educated herself in order to better educate others.
Eventually, she developed a strong working relationship with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.
“I started doing programs specifically for women land owners, not necessarily women farmers, but women who are land owners and who tend to be behind the scenes,” she said.
Eells has led workshops on soil and water conservation issues for women in dozens of states, from Maine to Kentucky and beyond, meeting with more than 3,500 women in the process. She also teaches a course for NRCS at the federal level.
While travel had once been a big part of her work, as with all business travel since the pandemic began, her work has changed.
In 2020, when most of the world sheltered at home, Eells sought to find new ways to communicate and continue her work.
“I spent most of 2020 pouting because we couldn’t do anything, couldn’t go anywhere,” Eells said with a grin. “So, I invested in a course in how to do Zoom meetings, and I drank the Kool-Aid.”
It’s hard to imagine the last two years without Zoom, but not all ‘Zooming,’ is created equal.
“What I found is that people don’t mind Zoom meetings that are well facilitated,” Eells said. “They hate ones that are long and boring and dull. I’m allergic to staff meetings.”
This spring, she is offering a series of online workshops to help women land owners with soil and water conservation issues, as well as women in conservation who may not own land but work to help protect the environment.
And men will not be left out entirely. There will also be workshops that include others who may be a part of the farm, such as a husband, siblings, or out-of-state land owners.
While a great part of her mission is with women land owners, she also keeps her hand in other projects. Eells particularly enjoys research and finding ways to interpret history to audiences of today. She has consulted with street car projects in Des Moines and was instrumental in research and finding ways to bring to life a veterinary pharmaceutical lab that is part of the Floyd County Museum.
These days, visitors may find Eells inside, in front of a screen, but her heart is always outside. She still remembers the children she worked with as environmental education coordinator. Many of them are now parents themselves, and she hopes they remember how she sought to instill a love of nature.
“I want to know that they had fun,” that’s what is important to her. “That joy of being outside, of learning outside, can carry a person through a lot of different things.”
And as for the women land owners who are now a big focus for Eells, she wants to help them preserve that land for future generations.
“I want them to be confident enough and knowledgeable enough so that they can ask good questions. They need other women to talk to, and they need to feel supported,” she said.
Not hardly. With all those awards on her wall, Eells might just be catching a second wind.