Feature Stories Fall 2011 Issue

See Jane Grow

By Lisa Kivirist | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

How Wisconsin's Women Farmers are Transforming our Food System

Cue the new rock stars of the sustainable agriculture movement: Wisconsin women. Building on our state’s long-standing agricultural roots, women today are plowing forward with new farming and food-based business ventures, cultivating entrepreneurial start-ups around their passion for bringing local, seasonal, fresh food to our communities.

Women-owned and -operated farms increased nationally by 30 percent, according to the last USDA Census of Agriculture in 2007. This encouraging growth of women farmers serves as a bright spot amid rather dismal overall statistics showing the continual decline of the total number of farms. Most of these women farmers are new entrants to agriculture, operate small acreages but own their land, and are more likely to raise vegetables, fruits and, increasingly, flowers, herbs and other specialty crops. Wisconsin reflects this positive national trend with women-owned farms increasing 58 percent over a ten-year period. With women launching more small-scale operations that prioritize organic and sustainable growing practices, this female farming influence is important to our state’s premier role in the national organic movement. Wisconsin leads the country in organic dairy and livestock production and is home to the nation’s largest organic farming conference, hosted by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) in La Crosse every February.

But this inspiring growth comes on the edge of decades of discrimination against women farmers, resulting in lack of representation in everything from policy priorities to federal program dollars. Additionally, women farmers often experienced inequities when applying for federal farm loans or other agriculture programs—anything from unjustifiably denied approval to being told to come back with their spouse or father. There are women farmers even today who may have been milking cows alongside their spouse or children for 30 or more years and who still have not been counted. The organic sector is especially underrepresented since the USDA Agriculture Census only recognizes an enterprise as a “farm” when revenues reach a certain level.

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