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.

Fortunately, the USDA is currently taking a strong stance to acknowledge and rectify any past issues for both women farmers and other historically underserved populations, like Native Americans and African-Americans. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has made public his mission of “a new era of civil rights” within the USDA and has made it clear that the USDA will have zero tolerance for discrimination. In 2011, the USDA opened a claims process for women farmers to apply for compensation if they felt they had been improperly denied farm loans or other benefits because they are female. A similar claims process is also happening simultaneously on behalf of Hispanic farmers. For some programs within the current Farm Bill and other USDA programs, women farmers are classified as “socially disadvantaged farmers” and receive priority funding.

“Women in sustainable agriculture need to continue to champion our collective voices to ensure that female farmers, and all of us advocating for a healthier food system, continue to be accurately and equitably represented on Capitol Hill,” advises Leigh Adcock, executive director of the Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN), an Iowa-based non-profit linking women supporting sustainable agriculture nationally. “By both championing each other and educating ourselves on policy that affects women farmers and sustainable agriculture, we can truly start changing what’s on our plate.”

“As one of the fastest growing groups of new farmers, women can be the change makers that transform our agricultural system into one that provides organic, healthy and fair food to us all,” advocates Faye Jones, executive director of MOSES. “Women play a critical role in our food system’s future, working together and supporting each other to spark new collaborations and ideas.”

One of the qualities that sets women farmers apart is they typically don’t take a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture. Each woman’s individual story reflects her own interests, resources and talents, adding up to a diverse, colorful and tasty array of local food options to Wisconsin. These very different women farmers, however, all share a passionate commitment to bringing healthy, sustainable options to her local community, working collaboratively to continue fostering Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage in new and innovative ways. Here’s a sampler of women farmers around Southern Wisconsin who are doing new and interesting things and growing the woman farmer community each day.

Diana Kalscheur Murphy: The Accidental Cheesemaker
Dreamfarm, Cross Plains

Diana Kalscheur Murphy did not jump mid-life into goat cheese making for a reason to regularly beat the sun awake at 4:45 a.m. to start milking. Nor did she base Dreamfarm on extensive research data showing a growing goat cheese market or Wisconsin’s burgeoning local food scene. No, Diana’s successful launch of a cheesemaking career started with an unadulterated love for what she does, from starting the day with her “babies” in those early morning hours to the smiles on satisfied returning customers’ faces at market.

“Cheesemaker wasn’t in the master plan,” confesses Diana with a grin. “I first just wanted to have a few goats, then I ended up with extra milk and started experimenting with goat cheese. My friends gave me rave reviews and encouraged me to start producing cheese for sale.”

While Diana’s first cheesemaking experiments erupted through those first few prolific goats, her successful cheesemaking operation today, based in Cross Plains, is no haphazard venture. A visionary entrepreneur, Diana exemplifies how today’s Wisconsin women championing sustainable agriculture strategically cultivate a smart business plan to launch a successful venture.

Motivated by those vocal cheese-loving friends, Diana joined a training and apprentice cheesemaking program and received her cheesemaking license in 2004. She then completed required courses at the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, followed by 240 apprenticeship hours at a cheese factory. Diana fully credits the support of other Wisconsin cheesemakers in helping guide and shape Dreamfarm. Prior to investing in her own on-farm cheesemaking equipment, Diana assisted and made cheese at Fantome Farm in Ridgeway (between Mt. Horeb and Dodgeville) and mentored under Ann Topham, one of the female goat cheese making pioneers who exemplifies this collaborative, supportive nature among women in sustainable agriculture.

By 2008, Diana produced approximately 4,000 pounds of goat cheese and expected to hit around 5,500 pounds this year, selling at Madison area farmers markets and food co-ops. Diana also partners with neighbor farmers and friends at Vermont Valley Community Farm and offers their community supported agriculture (CSA) members the option to add a “share” of Dreamfarm cheese delivered with their weekly produce.

“My goal is not growth but keeping things small-scale and artisan,” explains Diana. “My cheese is and will remain hand-produced, from carrying my buckets of milk to hand-packing the final cheese.”

Gini Knight: Pioneering the Next Generation
Sweet Magnolia Farm, Marshall

You may have read headlines reporting the decline of young people going into farming and the doom and gloom around agriculture careers. Rest assured, those statistics haven’t caught up with Gini Knight of Sweet Magnolia Farm, an “early-thirty-something” finishing up her second official growing season. Blending passion with practicality, Gini exemplifies this new, savvy farming generation, who are launching agriculture careers early on and doing so with strategy, vision and steadfast commitment to growing healthy, fresh, seasonal food for her local community.

“Starting small and staying within my resources made a huge impact in my ability to start farming,” Gini says. Farming on one rented acre 11 miles outside of Madison toward Sun Prairie, Gini grows for her 24 CSA members as well as some restaurant sales. Her farming hat balances with her other job as community program manager for the Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC), working on educational outreach around CSAs. By renting land and balancing another job, Gini can build her farm business without taking on debt. “I’m busy but happy and feel passionate about and connected to all pieces of my work and livelihood,” she says.

Gini quickly thanks the strong network of farmers and grassroots organizations in supporting her successful farm launch. “We’re fortunate in Wisconsin as we have access to a ton of fantastic resources, from organizations like MACSAC and MOSES to knowing I can always ask other farmers for advice, particularly other women,” explains Gini. “I’ve often asked Blue [Strom] and Diana [Murphy] questions, and they have always been so helpful and supportive.”

For young women farmers like Gini, her reasons for growing food reach way beyond the Madison community. “Eating is a political act and I want to help people realize that our daily food choices connect to different aspects of our lives.”

Carrie Johnson: An Evolving Recipe for Farming Success
Jordandal Farms, Argyle

The word is out: Carrie Johnson knows the secret to farming success. The good news is she’s very willing to share. Sure, you need tasty products, strong soil fertility and all the usual pieces of the sustainability puzzle. But there’s a quality Carrie realizes and embraces above all: A commitment to diversity, innovation and change.

“I’ve always believed in being diverse because you never know what the future might bring,” explains Carrie, who runs Jordandal Farms in Argyle (about 15 miles northwest of Monroe) with her husband, Eric Johnson. “It’s important for me to remember to see the big, long-term picture but realize things are changing and to keep innovating and evolving.”

Such creative entrepreneurial spirit led Carrie to Jordandal Farms' current, successful, sweet spot since their start-up over a decade ago. “We started growing mostly vegetables and just a little meat, which added up to a lot of labor hours for the two of us,” Carrie reminisces. “We’ve since done a full circle and expanded the meat side and just raise potatoes, garlic and onions.” Carrie sells at Madison farmers markets and to a couple dozen restaurants and retailers. She rotates the animals on pasture which builds up the animals’ natural immunity.

Carrie praises Madison area chefs for backing businesses like hers and contributing to the snowballing local food movement. “I’ve heard horror stories about working with chefs, but I’ve truly never experienced that. Chefs around here really understand and embrace the importance of buying local, and they want to connect with and develop relationships with area farmers like myself.”

Carrie’s change mantra led her to diversify into value-added products as well. She makes a variety of soups and pasties—a meat pie with a flaky crust—using Jordandal Farms meat and those garlic, potatoes and onions they raise, which she then sells at market. Committed to local to the core, even the pasty crust is made with lard rendered from her hogs. “We’re the only ones selling these kinds of products at the market, which really differentiates us.”

Born and raised in the Green County area, Carrie confesses she never dreamed of being a farmer. “I wanted to be somewhere I could get pizza takeout,” she laughs. But meeting her husband opened her up to the idea, and her love of farming took root. “I truly love what I do. When customers excitedly tell me about the wonderful meal they made with our meat, I feel an amazing sense of happiness.”

Blue Strom: MacGyver Meets Farmer Meets Foodie
Shady Blue Acres, Richland Center

“Sometimes this venture feels more like directing an orchestra than farming,” says Blue Strom with a smile as she gently leads one of her heritage breed pigs through a flock of chickens, goats and menagerie of other animals. Diversity reigns at Shady Blue Acres, the vegetable and meat operation she and her husband, Skye Zitkus, run outside Richland Center. From a vegetable CSA of over 80 members to heritage breed meat sales to canned food processed in an on-farm commercial kitchen, Blue is the master conductress of this farm operation jamming in good food harmony.

Listening to Blue as she walks though their 36 acres, one quickly realizes farming reaches way beyond a job and paycheck for her; it is a calling based in land stewardship—and in her case, land revitalization. “When we came to this land, we knew the landscape had been neglected and we were taking on a lifelong project of restoration,” explains Blue. “I’ve learned, too, that sometimes you need to live with something a while and listen to the land to understand what it is calling for, like fruit trees,” she says, pointing to their apple plantings.

Blue’s agricultural career first sparked in an unexpected way. “I was originally training to become a firefighter and was looking for a side job that would give me a good workout and complement my training, so I took a job on a farm,” Blue explains. “The farm life immediately grounded me. A little unexpectedly, I wonderfully found my life’s calling. I feel fortunate to be able to raise enough to be able to share it with other people.”

Blue fuels her farming lifestyle with an amazing talent for creatively using whatever materials and resources are available, enabling Skye and her to craft Shady Blue Acres without the typical burden of business debt. Free shipping pallets transform into hog huts, and she barters canned goods with a designer to create their website. Animals play an important role in Blue’s farming orchestra, both adding fertility to the soil and protecting rare and endangered heritage breeds such as Black Mulefoot hogs. “We started with this particular breed because we researched that it does well on poor pasture land, which we had. Now I’m hooked on the taste; it is a full-flavored pork, dark red in color.”

Collaboration also plays a key element in Shady Blue Acres’ success. “I learn so much by talking to the old-time farmers in my area, and I now try in any way I can to help other new farms get established,” says Blue. “I’m a Virgo at heart, so I’m naturally earth-based. Every morning I wake up needing to play in the soil again.”

Support the Women Farming Movement
There are multiple ways for everyone to help champion this women farmer movement. One of the best is to seek out women growers at your local farmers market and support them with your purchase dollars. As women nationally control 80 percent of household purchase decisions, this is a tremendous opportunity for women to support other women passionately working for food system change. Take advantage of opportunities to bring young daughters and girls to women-owned farms, introducing them early-on to the idea of farming careers and understanding where food comes from.

Perhaps you are a woman germinating that urge to plot a farming career? Maybe you’ve been gardening prolifically the last few years and would love to explore expanding into a food-based business? Wisconsin wonderfully offers a range of start-up resources and educational opportunities. Here’s a starter list of organizations offering beginning farmer resources targeting women:

Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service's (MOSES) Rural Women's Project
Offers educational workshops and resources

Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN)
National network for women in sustainable agriculture

UW Extension's "Heart of the Farm" Program
Offers a variety of training programs for women farmers

Lisa Kivirist and her family run Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B outside Monroe, which is completely powered by the wind and sun. She is co-author with her husband, John Ivanko, of the new cookbook Farmstead Chef, along with Rural Renaissance and the award-winning ECOpreneuring.

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