In Her Boots
Sustainable Farming for Women, by Women
No picture of the traditional farm family is complete without the dependable farmwife/mother anchoring the clan, with a busy hand in everything from the house to the barn. However, the image of farmwomen has shifted in recent years from “the farmer’s wife” to “the farmer,” as more and more women have moved into the role of farm owners and operators.
According to the last U.S. Census of Agriculture, the number of farms owned and operated by women nationwide has increased by 30 percent, despite the fact that the total number of farms has been declining for years.
And it’s not just the face of the actual farmer that’s been changing. As owners and operators, women have been steering farming beyond traditional agriculture ventures and into a variety of sustainable operations that are typically smaller in scale and more local in focus than traditional farms. From raising organic fruits and vegetables to making goat cheese to finding sustainable ways to manage a small dairy herd, these new women farmers are combining entrepreneurial energy with a passion for producing healthy food.
“Women farmers are providing some needed vibrancy to agriculture by bringing fresh ideas and commitments to farming,” said Lisa Kivirist, director of the Rural Women’s Project, a program of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). “These women tend to be locally focused people who are interested in growing businesses that do more than provide a paycheck. It’s more about passion—for bringing healthier, fresh food to the table; for creating stronger communities; for just wanting to leave the world a better place.”
Wisconsin has been on the forefront of this trend; Ag Census statistics show that the number of women-owned farms in the Dairy State has increased by 58 percent over a 10-year period, and most of these women-led farms are smaller, diversified operations.
“Wisconsin is really a hotbed for a lot of change in agriculture,” Kivirist pointed out. “There’s a lot of leadership coming from Wisconsin and also a lot of informal networking among women who operate farms and food-based ventures.”
Kivirist herself is a leading advocate for women in sustainable agriculture issues. In addition to her work with the MOSES Rural Women’s Project, she runs an award-winning bed and breakfast with her family and has co-authored two books as well as a cookbook with her husband. She is actively involved in Plate to Politics, an initiative by the MOSES Rural Women’s Project in collaboration with The White House Project and the Women, Food & Agriculture Network that seeks to strengthen the influence of women in the healthy food and farming movement.
At least some of women’s rise in leadership in the agriculture industry—specifically sustainable farming issues—can be attributed to women’s traditional roles as the family caregivers.
“This is not a gender-specific issue,” Kivirist said, “but historically, women have always been connected to the food system, so it’s not really surprising that women have been leaders in the movement to get healthier foods in the schools and in homes.”
Combine women’s historical connection to food with Wisconsin’s strong presence in the organic and local-foods movement and the setting is ideal for women to emerge as leaders in this state.
“Wisconsin is really a hub of the revitalization of the local food movement, and that movement is making opportunities for new businesses,” Kivirist said. She noted that Wisconsin leads the nation in organic produce and dairy production and is home to the largest organic farming conference in the country. Many of these organic and local ventures, she pointed out, are not really new ideas but rather a return to past practices, only with a fresher approach. For example, Kivirist said more smaller-scale agriculture producers are growing hops, which was once a common crop in this state. With a renewed interest in local microbreweries, the demand for locally produced hops is growing, creating a new market for producers.
Also contributing to the emergence of women farm leaders, Kivirist said, is women’s tendency to turn to each other when facing challenges or working toward big goals, which works well within the smaller-scale, sustainable farming environment.
“There’s a real creativity amongst women who go into farming about how to make things work, whether it’s renting farmland to keep costs down or finding different ways to finance something,” Kivirist said. “Women tend to be each other’s best resources; you’ll see a very collaborative spirit in finding ways to move forward.”
In Her Boots
This spirit of collaboration helped launch In Her Boots: Sustainable Farming for Women, by Women, a workshop series facilitated by the MOSES Rural Women’s Project that focuses on women farmers and food-based business owners. Kivirist explained the In Her Boots series strategically builds on the results of a recent University of Wisconsin study that examined all different types of education to determine where women farmers most often turn for information. Study results showed that women primarily reach out to other farmers for information rather than traditional sources, such as extension offices.
The workshops, which began in July and continue through early September, are day-long events held on a variety women-operated farms and food businesses throughout the state. They offer practical information, skill building, farm tours, resource connections, and networking opportunities.
“In Her Boots workshops are designed to be helpful in a variety of different ways to those women who want to branch out in sustainable enterprises, and they’re also for people who just want to branch out into rural life,” Kivirist said.
Hosts of the In Her Boots workshops represent a wide variety of agriculture and food-related ventures and came to their businesses from all different directions. Some traded in their urban roots for farm life, while others took a fresh approach to the traditional farm life they grew up with.
Holm Girls Dairy
Among the hosts is Mariann Holm, who runs Holm Girls Dairy in partnership with her husband and six daughters. A member of Dunn Energy Cooperative, Holm Girls Dairy is an organic operation located in Elk Mound. At the workshop, Holm and her daughters will be sharing more than just organic farming concepts, such as rotational grazing and holistic herd health management. They’ll also offer their perspectives on integrating family into the farm operation, something that Holm said organic farming is well suited for and is the reason she traded urban life for country living in the first place.
Although she and her husband both have Wisconsin roots, neither grew up on a farm. They spent some time in California early in their marriage living a corporate life that left little room for the kind of lifestyle they wanted for their growing family. Their decision to return to Wisconsin and get into farming—at a time when many others were trying to get out— was driven less by the lure of farming itself, which Holm says she knew nothing about at the time, and more about what farm life would mean for their children.
“We were attempting to establish a strong family,” Holm explained. “We were looking for something to do where the children would be an asset and we could all be together.”
Because they didn’t grow up on farms, the Holms had to learn the business from scratch, taking guidance from some area farmers who mentored them. Switching to organic farming was a bit challenging simply because there weren’t a lot of organic farmers around at the time to learn from. Ironically, Holm credits the couple’s lack of farming background at least in part for the family’s successful transition into organic farming. They became certified organic in 2005.
“Going organic can be a stumbling block for people who are set in their ways, but since we were new to farming we just didn’t have a lot of habits to break,” Holm said. “If you’re going to be organic you have to able to think, and you have to be able to think outside the box. You have to be willing to be different.”
Holms added that since organic farming has become more common, mentoring sources and vehicles for sharing information, such as the In Her Boots workshops, are more readily available, so a switch to organic farming is not as daunting these days.
Other In Her Boots workshops offer insights into different kinds of agriculture. For example, Bayfield Electric Cooperative member Claire Hintz, owner of Elsewhere Farm in Herbster, will host a workshop that will focus on permaculture techniques, perennial fruits and nuts, and using winter hoophouses and greenhouses to extend the growing season. In addition to operating Elsewhere Farm, Hintz serves as the campus sustainability coordinator for Northland College in Ashland.
Still other workshops will highlight topics as diverse as agritourism, launching value-added food businesses, land stewardship practices, and edible landscaping. Each workshop offers something different, but all will provide inspiration for those women who are interested in learning about different ways to farm, different ways to bring healthy food to families, and different ways to live.—Mary Erickson
For more information about the In Her Boots workshop series, please visit www.mosesorganic.org/womens projectinherboots.html or call Lisa Kivirist, (608) 329-7056.