Meet the Soil Sisters: Making it as Female Farmers in a Man’s World
Photography by Cedric Angeles; Produced by Monica Michael Willis
Get the dirt on making it as a female farmer in a man's world.
In November 2009, Lisa Kivirist pulled out a map of Wisconsin. Using her Green County farm as the center point, she drew a circle with a 40-mile radius, then identified every female sustainable-food activist who fell inside it. Organic agriculture can be a lonely endeavor in the rural Midwest, the 50-year-old explains, and winters are long: “I felt the need to connect.”
The following month, 12 women gathered around the woodstove at Kivirist’s five-acre produce operation and farmstay in Browntown. One dairy owner sought counsel on dehorning goats. A vegetable grower posed questions about canning. Most guests were simply grateful for a night off, a glass of wine, and the company of kindred spirits.
Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B
Among them: Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm, an organic CSA founded in 1994. Ends had done it all—raised poultry, sheep, goats, and kids of the human variety; conducted seed trials for the University of Wisconsin; and educated Senegalese subsistence gardeners on the merits of composting. She had not, however, experienced a whole lot of acceptance in the hamlet of Brodhead. “My family didn’t cultivate the standard commodity crops. We were a postage stamp amid a sea of chemicals,” recalls Ends, 64. “That made us weird to our neighbors, except for maybe the Amish ones. And it’s hard to be the weirdos in a small town.”
Kriss Marion, on the other hand, feared that she hadn’t paid enough heed to her neighbors in Blanchardville (population 805), instead marketing CSA shares to urbanites in Madison. “I was working for people I didn’t know,” says the 50-year-old of her eventual decision to shutter the CSA and launch a farmers market and bed-and-breakfast closer to home. “Last year, I earned $26,000 renting out two bedrooms and a camper,” Marion reports. “I owe all of it to Lisa Kivirist and the group she assembled, because they supplied the guidance I needed to take the risk.”
Circle M Market Farm
In the near decade since Kivirist’s initial outreach, that group has swelled into a multi-generational gale force of 150-plus south-central Wisconsinites who maintain a lively Yahoo listserve, through which they share advice, swap goats and garlic, and offer up, say, 60 bales of organic hay on short order. Officially titled Green County Area Women in Sustainable Agriculture, the collective and its members are more commonly referred to as “Soil Sisters,” a moniker that signifies something “broader and bigger,” per Kivirist. “It encompasses all women tied to the land and each other. If a woman asks how she can become a Soil Sister, my reply is, ‘You already are one.’ We don’t have a bank account or officers or, frankly, expectations. But things get done when women cross-pollinate.”
Things get done when women cross-pollinate.
Especially when they get political. In January 2016, Kivirist, Ends, and Marion filed suit against the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture over a statute banning the sale of home-baked goods—a key revenue source for entrepreneurs of the agricultural and inn-keeping persuasions. Some 21 months later, Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Duane Jorgenson declared the law in direct conflict with the state’s constitutionally guaranteed right to earn an honest livelihood.
A few years ago, Soil Sister Jen Riemer, 40, learned of a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO—shorthand for a farm with a large number of confined animals—that threatened to put 5,800 cows on 128 acres abutting her Riemer Family Farm in Brodhead. Worried the resulting manure might contaminate area waterways and wells, Riemer helped launch Green County Defending Our Farmland to mobilize resistance. Says Kivirist, “When Tuls Dairy knocked on Jen’s door in the summer of 2015, asking to rent land, they had no idea they’d awakened the Erin Brockovich of Green County.” Last August, the county’s board of supervisors issued a moratorium on permits for new CAFOs and created a special committee to examine the environmental impacts of such massive livestock outfits.
Occasionally, agitating for change involves far more intimate arenas. Katy Dickson seeded a small revolution amid her family’s conventional soybean, corn, and hay fields by pumping out eggs and organic vegetables on seven acres she purchased from her parents. The imminent birth of Dickson’s first child spurred the globe-trotting Peace Corps volunteer to return home to Browntown in 2007, and the existence of the Soil Sisters enabled her to become comfortable there. “I don’t think I ever saw a female farmer growing up,” explains the 44-year-old. So how’s Dad handling the situation? “He’s happy to have his grandkids around, but the weeds, they bother him,” admits Dickson of her refusal to spray Roundup.
Raleigh’s Hillside Farm
Riemer Family Farm
Lauren Rudersdorf, too, has carved an organic sliver from her family’s sizeable commodity-crop operation. The 29-year-old and her BFF, Bethanee Wright, 26, have also proved instrumental in turning elder Soil Sisters on to the PR potential of social media. “Lauren got LindaDee on Instagram for the first time,” says Kivirist, referencing 70-year-old Monticello sheep farmer Linda “LindaDee” Derrickson. “She embraced the platform and really found her voice.”
We are agricultural educators, environmental warriors, champions of women farmers, and fast friends. Toss out an issue of importance, and this pride of mama lions will be on it with a vengeance. That’s what it means to be a Soil Sister.
By joining forces to promote and protect the independent farms of Wisconsin’s picturesque Driftless Area, the Soil Sisters have established Green County as a vibrant agritourism hotspot. After Marion set up shop in Blanchardville, for instance, the town sprouted several additional B&Bs, a hotel, even a Reiki studio. Lori Stern, 54, proprietor of Cow & Quince, a destination restaurant in New Glarus, sources a significant portion of her ingredients from fellow Soil Sisters—including her 51-year-old wife, LeAnn Powers, who tends to chickens, goats, and hogs at the couple’s Lucky Dog Farm
And for one weekend each summer, the Soil Sisters open their gates to the public, hosting farm tours and educational workshops aimed at empowering agri-curious females from across the country. Last year, the event drew nearly 1,000 visitors to south-central Wisconsin. These ladies did not leave hungry.
On Saturday night, as guests tucked into a comfort-food feast of slow-roasted pulled pork, potato salad, coleslaw, and fruit-topped panna cotta, April Prusia addressed the crowd gathered in her historic Blanchardville barn. “I have a relationship with everything on the menu,” said the 42-year-old of the heritage hogs she’d raised, the heirloom peaches her neighbor Bethany Emond Storm had provided, and the cabbages grown by Betty Anderson over in Brodhead. (Storm, it’s worth noting, moved to Green County from Chicago four years ago, after attending the 2013 Soil Sisters weekend.) “We need to keep the ‘culture’ in ‘agriculture,’” Prusia urged. “You’re helping by being here.”
LORI STERN AND LEANN POWERS
Cow & Quince and Lucky Dog Farm Stay
New Glarus, WI
“Why would you encourage businesses that compete with yours?” asks Kivirist. “Our M.O. makes no sense according to traditional business school wisdom, but we’ve learned that playing by the same old rules gets you nowhere. Collaboration is a much stronger marketing strategy. When the water rises, all of our boats float.”
Besides, who wouldn’t want to be part of this kick-ass clique? As Dela Ends defines the group: “We are agricultural educators, environmental warriors, champions of women farmers, and fast friends. Toss out an issue of importance, and this pride of mama lions will be on it with a vengeance. That’s what it means to be a Soil Sister.”