Women are the fastest growing group of organic and sustainable farmers in America, and they are forming groups to support one another, foster creativity and help make better laws for small farms
By Jill Henderson
Anyone who has ever farmed knows that women are as integral to farming operations today as they ever have been. In many early cultures it was the role of women to grow food, tend small livestock, preserve everything that wasn’t eaten fresh and create household products such as baskets, soap, fiber, clothing, rope, tools, jewelry and much more.
Yet despite their long history on the land, women have not always been given their proper dues as true farmers. Neither have they always been afforded the legal rights to inherit or own land or businesses, nor to vote or be fully engaged in the political arena surrounding these rights.
Women today are generally liberated in the sense that they are able to choose their employment and participate fully in the political process. However, women were not counted as farmers by the annual Ag Census until 1978. And since then they have often been profoundly under-counted due to the vagaries and complexities of the questionnaire.
Yet according to the 2012 census, at least 30 percent of all farm operators in America are women, and women are currently the fastest growing group of organic and sustainable farmers. According to the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics, female farmers are out-earning their male counterparts by approximately 16 percent.
Part of this new wave of female farmers includes women like me who have farmed for many years but for one reason or another were never counted. I am among those that slipped through the cracks largely due to my own vision of what I do as a profession. Despite years of tending the soil, raising food for my family and farming right alongside my husband, I considered myself a gardener and homemaker, not a farmer.
Like me, at least some of the women now being counted as farmers are simply redefining themselves as such, based on what they’ve been doing for years. Others are women who have always farmed but were not the head of their household. Then of course there are women who have dreamed of farming but lacked the skillset, support or nerve to start a farm-based enterprise; these pioneers are quickly finding new ways to do just that and are jumping into the farming arena in striking numbers.
“Women indeed have been raising food and feeding their families and communities since the dawn of agriculture,” says farmer, activist, mentor and author Lisa Kivirist. “However, in the last century, particularly in the past fifty years, women finally achieved stronger economic and legal rights when it comes to recognition of their work. Couple that with the growing local food movement and farm and food business scene and there’s never been a better time for a woman to launch her farm dream.”
Farming and Ecopreneurship
Lisa and her husband, John Ivanko — along with their adult son, Liam — have been farming five lush acres in the rolling hill country of Browntown, Wisconsin, for the better part of 23 years. Both grew up in the city and worked high-stress corporate advertising jobs in Chicago. By the time they met, both were already dreaming of escaping the rat race.
“Back in our twenties, John and I were very much on that expected societal track: get a college degree, corporate job and paycheck, and a house in the suburbs — in that order. Fortunately for us, we realized early on that corporate cubicle life was not for us,” says Lisa. “We started ‘escaping’ across the border to Wisconsin, heading out from Chicago for weekends of typical tourist stuff like hiking and camping. It was those weekends in Wisconsin, where we could see stars and rolling green hills that went on for miles, where we first connected with this idea of rural living, sparking visions of the farm journey we continue today.”
Part of their farm plan was to operate a cozy bed and breakfast that served fresh, homegrown foods and allowed visitors to soak in the beauty and serenity of the countryside. So, shortly after they bought their land in 1996, they set out to build their dream of offering hospitality through ecopreneurship.
“We prioritize looking at things from a ‘Seventh Generation’ perspective, always considering how our actions will affect future generations and what can we do today to work towards a better future,” John says.
Their creation, Inn Serendipity, has become a world-class, award-winning ecological bed and breakfast. “The farm-stay works very well in partnership with our farm, as increasingly people are looking for this type of agritourism experience,” says Lisa. “We love giving guests farm tours, and they appreciate and are drawn to the fact that our seasonal breakfasts are ‘ten feet from garden to plate.’”
As exciting as it was to move onto their new place and into a new way of life, Lisa sometimes found herself wishing she had other female farmers that she could turn to — not only for friendship and experienced advice, but to cultivate creative ideas and to develop a support network of like-minded women.
“When I first moved to the farm and jumped into this diversified agricultural livelihood, it was quite lonely and overwhelming,” Lisa says. “I found back then, and still most definitely do today, that I need support and inspiration through other women farmers.”
Not one to sit around and wait for something to happen, Lisa got busy organizing her own kitchen table gatherings of farming women. This eventually grew into the South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture (SCWWSA) group.
“The collaborative spirit of women committed to sustainability and land stewardship make this movement thrive,” she says. “These women’s stories are so empowering and yet underrepresented in the media that I love to champion their stories and further create these connections and networks.”
Lisa went on to create a farm tour she called Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life. This unique public food tour highlighted ecological and organic female farmers from around the region. It encouraged regional farm tourism in general, but it also generated a powerful sense of belonging and empowerment to the women who were involved.
In 2009, Lisa was asked by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) to head up a new project called In Her Boots.
In Her Boots provides “training, outreach and a voice for women in organic and sustainable agriculture, both in the Midwest and nationally,” explains the MOSES website. “It includes programs to facilitate collaboration and support the growing number of women starting farms and food-based businesses, strengthening local food systems and building committed, engaged partnerships with other non-profits and agencies such as the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN).”
The project is one of the longest-running educational efforts specifically targeting women farmers. “We host several In Her Boots workshops over the summer that are held on women-owned farms, celebrating the peer networking learning model that shows women learn best from each other,” Lisa says.
Lisa also continues to be involved in the annual Soil Sisters gathering, which has grown into the largest women-farmer-led event of its kind in the country. This summer’s celebration will take place in and around the southern Wisconsin farming communities of Monroe, New Glarus, Blachardville and Brodhead from August 2 to 4.
Farm Income Diversification
“I’m a big fan of diversification, which particularly resonates with women,” Lisa says. “Women naturally love to have multiple projects going on that then creatively support each other. Such a strategy also makes sense from a risk management perspective on the farm: having a diversity of businesses — from value-added products made in your home kitchen under cottage food law to running a farm-stay — all support a healthy bottom line.”
Like many farm families, John and Lisa have found many ways to diversify their income. Their bed and breakfast is one way; another is practicing the skills they had before they became farmers. Their son, Liam, has become a talented technical adviser, helping Lisa and John with a wide array of computer and technical issues. John is a gifted photographer and the author of two children’s books written for the Global Fund for Children. And the couple has authored six books together, including Farmstead Chef, Ecopreneuring: Putting Purpose and the Planet Before Profits and Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life.
In addition to writing many articles for publications such as Mother Earth News, Grit, Hobby Farms and Natural Awakenings, Lisa’s grassroots passion for ecopreneurship and women in farming led her to author her wildly popular book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers. Not only does this book coin a new description of women in agriculture — it goes a long way toward helping them find valuable information, inspiration and kindred support in their quest to run a successful business based on organic and sustainable agriculture.
Improving Cottage Food Laws
Lisa and many of her female farmer friends have taken it upon themselves to fight for better cottage food laws in Wisconsin. One the first issues they took on was the Wisconsin “Cookie Bill,” which was actually a lawsuit that two of Lisa’s friends — Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm and Kriss Marion of Circle M Farm — filed against the state of Wisconsin to lift the ban on the sale of home-baked goods.
“As I write about in my book, Homemade for Sale, the opportunity for farmers — particularly women — to diversify farm businesses through adding a value-added component through baking in their home farm kitchen is a tremendous opportunity,” Lisa says.
As a result of this experience, Lisa was appointed a Senior Fellow of the University of Minnesota Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. The position allows Lisa to further impact the cottage food industry, which is a key farm enterprise for women.
“They wanted someone outside of academia for this project, and my work continues to look at how we can increase and support more women farmers in leadership positions and how developing local networks can support this process,” she said. “We are currently working on developing packaging and low-moisture recipes for baked goods that do not require cold storage. And soon we’ll be releasing a toolkit for farmers in the cottage food industry to work from.”
Lisa Kivirist is a prime example of the impact that women farmers can have both on and off the farm. She was recognized by In Business Magazine as a “Woman of Industry” for her leadership in the sustainable agriculture movement. “While it’s great to see an increase in the number of women running farm businesses, we need greater representation on the leadership level — more women around the decision-making table in particular when decisions on policy and funding are being made.”
The key for women who want to work in agriculture — and for those who already do — is to just go ahead and jump in with both boots on, networking with other sisters of the soil and believing that the possibilities are endless.
- Inn Serendipity Farm and Bed & Breakfast: www.InnSerendipity.com
- In Her Boots: www.MosesOrganic.org/in-her-boots
- Soil Sisters Wisconsin: www.SoilSistersWi.org
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is editor of Show Me Oz, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.