All in the Family: Kentucky Mother Shares Passion for Land with Daughters

by Ash Bruxvoort

Donna Solly’s grandparents were not big farmers. They worked very hard to purchase the land Donna grew up on in Princeton, Kentucky. From a young age, Donna learned the importance of hard work and showing pride in your land through maintenance and conservation. The land provided the majority of the food her grandparents ate.

Donna’s grandfather, Herschel Phelps, encouraged her to do anything she set her mind to. As a teenager, she mowed hay with an old propane tricycle tractor and racked hay. She went on to become an electricity teacher. Herschel deeded 14 acres to Donna before he passed away, which is where she built a home for her family. Eventually, the original property was split between Donna and her three siblings. She now owns approximately 100 acres, most of which is leased to a tenant for a corn and soybean rotation with a winter cover crop. Donna carried on the family tradition by providing land for her two daughters, who built homes on the property.

“My house is built where my great-grandmother always wanted a home, so it’s very meaningful to me,” said Michelle Wyatt, Donna’s daughter. “You know someone has done a lot to preserve the land for you and so you want to do the same for your children.” Michelle hopes to pass land on to her two sons, currently ages 8 and 4.

Women Caring for the Land in Kentucky

When Donna was invited to attend a Women Caring for the Land meeting about soil management in Princeton, Kentucky, she thought it would be a great opportunity to learn and share knowledge with her daughters. She said the meeting did not disappoint.

“It was a very informative meeting where we learned about soil structure. I can’t speak highly enough of the instructors,” said Donna. “Women are not encouraged to farm or buy property. A lot of women inherit property and a meeting like this is a great space for them to learn.”

Michelle says that while she grew up on a farm and was familiar with the importance of soil pH, she never learned about soil structure. “The workshop helped me understand why it’s important to focus on tenants that will give back to the soil and why my mom chooses to work with the tenant she does,” she said. In addition to learning about soil structure, Michelle said she took away a lot of information that will help her in her job in the lending department of a local bank.

Improving and Maintaining the Land

Donna said her grandfather taught her the importance of knowing about conservation programs, where to sign up and when. “When I inherited my farm and had never leased property the FSA office was the first place I called. If you want to know about your soil type and conservation, that's the place to go,” she said.

Donna has utilized government programs to make several improvements on her land, including a current grant to put in a restructured waterway. This year she added a high tunnel to her farm, which she uses to grow beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers, and sweet corn. She said the ground under a high tunnel will really only be effective for five years. She hopes to use a no-till system to help maintain the soil. Her daughters will help her in the high tunnel and with marketing her products.

Michelle started a small orchard with apple, pear, and peach trees, for her son. “I’ve always loved bees and they had a lot of information about pollinators at the workshop,” she said. “A few weeks after the meeting a swarm of bees came to my orchard. I called a local beekeeper and had them help me start a hive. The materials from the meeting were great in the process.” She said while the meeting topic was soil management she learned much more than that.

Encouraging the Next Generation of Daughters

Donna would like to see more women actively engaged in purchasing farms and involved in Kentucky's farming industry. She said women will be successful regardless of gender expectations, as long as they know what they’re doing and ask questions.

“Women are very suited to farm,” she says. “We have always been the consummate gardeners in the families. There's no reason women cannot operate large farms and large equipment. It doesn't take muscle, but rather good managing skills and women have that down pat.”

Interesting in hosting a Women Caring for the Land meeting near you? Learn more here.