Ask a woman farmer and homesteader what her best source of information is, and she probably won’t send you online to a website. Undoubtedly, it will be another fellow farmer. The strength of our sustainable and organic agriculture movement deepens and widens through our support of each other. Given this support network, it comes as no surprise that women farmers are among the fastest growing segments of new farmers today.
Take those connections a step further in your own community by creating a local farmer network in your area. That’s exactly what seeded over five years ago when a group of women committed to sustainable agriculture started meeting regularly for potlucks here in my south central area of Wisconsin. This area ranks in the heart of America’s conventional dairyland, where organic and small-scale farmers are still the underdog minority. For that underlying reason, it quickly became apparent that our fledgling group shared a priority to connect regularly and support each other.
Flash forward to 2016 and our “South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture” group’s impact can be felt locally, both from an economic and educational perspective. Our flagship annual event now lures both tourists and locals to over twenty women-owned farms to experience sustainable agriculture and rural living at its finest. Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life, the name for this event, is now a project of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and Renewing the Countryside, with funding support from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
The Soil Sisters event consists of a full weekend of engaging and interactive on-farm activities held the first weekend in August; the dates this year are August 5 – 7, 2016. From our MOSES In Her Boots workshop for aspiring women farmers to culinary events to a free Soil Sisters: Tour of Farms that involves eight women-owned operations, our local farmer network’s impact goes beyond dishes served around a potluck table. We’re positively impacting our community, from the food we grow, land we nurture and business we drum up.
Today, our South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture group boasts over 125 active area women that gather at six on-farm potlucks throughout the year, minus a winter break. What continually amazes me is the long, growing list of tangible outcomes that come out of women who informally, but regularly, gather over supper. A beginning farmer connected with a woman with extra land to lease, and a partnership formed. Some women started a chicken feed buying co-op to enhance their collective buying power. Countless baby goats, heritage hogs, and local insurance agent recommendations are shared.
The outcomes from these gatherings go beyond the sharing economy. They spark new businesses and dollars flowing into our community and local economy. For example, Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates met at a potluck and eventually formed a strong business partnership. Landmark was already on her way to earning her cheese making license but needed a partner to help with the business and marketing side. Bates, a food writer savvy on the food scene, gladly filled that role. The duo launched what is now an award-winning cheesemaking venture: Landmark Creamery.
“We’re both moms with kids in the same school district, but we never met until these women-in-agriculture potlucks,” reminisces Landmark. “Even if we had met in a school setting, I’m not sure we would have had the opportunity to connect in a way that we did over cheese and wine. The potluck provides a welcoming, supportive setting through which women like myself and Anna feel comfortable sharing our big picture visions and dreams.” At the Soil Sisters event, you can meet “the Annas” at their two workshops, two of many "Green Acres Workshops": Home Cheese Making and an All Local Wine and Cheese Pairing at Hawk’s Mill Winery with winery co-owner Teresa Joranlien.
“Twenty years ago, I felt pretty much like the Lone Ranger when we started,” shares Dela Ends, who runs Scotch Hill Farm with her husband, Tony Ends. Their CSA in Brodhead, Wisconsin, is certified organic. “It is so wonderful to see the growing number of sustainable and women farmers in our area thanks to this network and the connections made. We supply organic produce, meat and milk soap to Cow and Quince. We have purchased two Oberhasli Bucks we share with Lucky Dog Farm. Our South Central Wisconsin Farmers Union Chapter was born out of this group of amazing people, along with the Soil Sisters event.” Dela’s Scotch Hill Farm is on both the Tour of Farms and hosting two workshops: Baking the Best Buns Ever and DIY Body Care Products.
A local network can provide that support you need when you perhaps can’t find it elsewhere. “It really helps me to receive back-up verbal support from other women farmers because I don’t always get that from some members of my family or community,” adds Katy Dickson of Christensen Farm in Browntown, Wisconsin. Christensen will also be on the Tour of Farms and facilitating two workshops: Farmer for a Day and her sister will lead Plein-air Art on the Farm: Painting in the open air.
“The impact of these women farmers building local networks and resulting events like Soil Sisters bring strong economic ripple effects into our broader community,” shares Cara Carper, Executive Director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Soil Sisters lures tourists to the area who specifically seek out local and organic food options on the menu. This then prompts interest of other restaurants in the area to start incorporating locally-sourced produce and seasonal items on their menus, which in turn grows the successful businesses of our local farmers and restaurants, which bring more tourists.”
“Build it and they will come” may work for a baseball field of dreams in the middle of Iowa. But it also adds up to good advice when you harbor this need to connect with other local like-minded farmers. Start initiating, keep inviting and stay in it for the long term and you will amaze yourself with the women who show up around the table, thanks to your leadership.
Come visit during this year’s Soil Sisters weekend and meet our network firsthand. Hopefully you’ll return home with inspiration to launch your own area gatherings, changing your community for the better, one potluck at a time.
Lisa Kivirist is the author of Soil Sisters and founder of the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. She is also Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. With her husband John D. Ivanko, she has co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.
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