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In what is being seen as a national trend, the number of female farmers in Wisconsin is on the rise. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture released in April, there are 38,509 female producers in Wisconsin — making up 35 percent of all producers in the state — which is a 16 percent increase from the 2012 census. Some of the increase might be explained by changes to the survey questions.
“Women are finally being counted,” says Lauren Rudersdorf, co-owner of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Evansville. “It used to be that the man got counted as the ‘farmer’ and the woman was the ‘farm wife.’” But Rudersdorf also believes that more women are getting into farming. “There is a movement of women who want to return to the land,” she says.
To honor the role of women in Wisconsin agriculture, the week of July 28 through Aug. 4 is officially “Wisconsin Women in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture Week,” a proclamation signed by Gov. Tony Evers in the beginning of July. The week coincides with three days of events starting from August 2 to August 4 led by the Soil Sisters, a group of 20 female farmers in the Green County area including Monroe, New Glarus and Blanchardville.
The first Soil Sisters event occurred in 2012 and was hosted by a group of women that are part of a larger group of female farmers in southern Wisconsin. “Locally we’ve had this group of area women farmers for over 10 years,” says Lisa Kivirist, owner of Inn Serendipity, a vegetable farm and bed & breakfast outside of Monroe. “We started getting together for potlucks and have grown to over 200 women in the Green County area.” Kivirist says the group was born from a desire to get together and share information with one another. “Farming can be quite isolating, especially in rural areas, and there is a need to feel connected.” Kivirist says. “These are women that you know that you can call on for support.” Kivirist says the group has an active online forum with information “on everything from goats to bug bites.”
“Women are naturally collaborative, and we learn from one another,” says Rudersdorf, who is a member Soil Sisters and will be hosting an event at her farm on Aug. 3. “Being a female farmer in this community has been beautiful because it’s encouraging and nurturing.”
Today the Soil Sisters event has grown from one day to three days and the focus has shifted from tourism to education and workshops. “We have women raising meats, vegetables, making value-added products and doing farm stays and you see that in diversity of workshops,” Kivirist says. “It celebrates the diversity in the agriculture history in Wisconsin. It’s still vibrant and led by women in the Green County hills.”
Workshops (tickets can be bought on the Soil Sisters website) vary from powering your farm or home on renewable energy to bus tours of farms to making your own body care products. Rudersdorf is leading a new five-hour “intensive” workshop for people who want to learn how to start their own Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm. Growing up on the land that she now farms, Rudersdorf is inspired by how the CSA model has transformed her land.
“My parents were farming here in the '80s and it was really difficult — it was get big or get out. The farm wasn’t worth the interest that was owed on it,” Rudersdorf says. “To come back to that land that my parents struggled with for 20 years and be able to turn a profit within the first two years with the CSA model was incredible. I fell in love with the revival of agriculture in Wisconsin. I am passionate about the potential for CSA to revitalize our system. I don’t think it’s a model that is dying, it’s a model that is powerful and resilient. It puts power back in the hands of the farmer which is so rare in today’s world.”
Kivirist believes that being a member of the group of female farmers, who still get together regularly for potlucks, is empowering. “It has propelled all of us to become rooted in our community and drive successful businesses. Women operate under that collaborative model. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed,” Kivirist says. “It has also motivated local women to run for office and take increasing leadership roles. We share a commitment to conservation and land stewardship, local foods and community building. We are a connected group of women, and we have each other’s backs, so we can take risks.”
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