Women in Agriculture
By Lisa Kivirist | Photos By Various 0
Changing the Food System, One Wisconsin Farm at a Time
It’s the oldest, newest story: Women raising food to feed our communities. The media today flashes stories of women farmers achieving rock star status and vividly sharing their stories with popular Instagram accounts. But dig a little deeper, and the story of women farmers in Wisconsin, as throughout the country, is one of complexity and challenge. While there’s never been a better time to be a woman farmer, there’s still much change to plow.
Sure, women working to bring you what’s on your plate—both raising food as well as serving it around the table—has been going on since the dawn of modern agriculture. Today’s fresh and vibrant generation of new women farmers make up one of the fastest growing groups of new farmers, increasing more than 20 percent over the last 20 years nationally. In Wisconsin, over 14 percent of farms have a woman serving as the primary operator. This number may seem low, but it is about double what it was 20 years ago and is on par with our Midwest neighbors like Minnesota and Iowa. But more than blooming numbers, this inspiring crop of new farmers is cultivating change, viewing their farms not only as businesses producing income, but also as platforms for food system change.
Understanding the Past
Gender plays a long and complicated role in the history of women in agriculture, yet it remains an important lens to look through in order to understand where we are today. It often surprises younger women in agriculture today that women farmers were not specifically counted until the 1970s. This refers to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the national census that takes place every five years that counts the number of farms and farmers in the country and what they are producing.
These census numbers drive the Farm Bill and agricultural policy and, ultimately, what’s on our supper plates. Up until 1978, the census only had one spot on the form for the name of the primary operator, which traditionally went to the male head of household. Although women contributed to the farm business, their contributions were not recognized. The good news is the USDA now embraces and champions the fact that farms today are more diverse in ownership, and the new form for the current census includes multiple spots for primary operator to reflect all sorts of partnerships, including more women-run operations.
“There has historically been discrimination against women farmers when it came to receiving—or not receiving—various farm loans through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) because of gender bias,” explains Kara O’Connor, government relations director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “Because of this, women qualify as a ‘socially disadvantaged’ farmer group, as other groups such as African Americans or Native Americans, which can be advantageous when applying for some FSA programs such as farm ownership loans.”
Dela Ends epitomizes the pioneering Wisconsin women farmers. She plowed new ground way before our state’s organic movement took off, launching Scotch Hill Farm in 1994 in Brodhead, one of the first organic farms and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms in the area.
“In our local rural community back when we started, I was still perceived as the ‘farmer’s wife’ versus ‘the farmer’ in local ag places from the feed store to insurance offices,” she recalls. “I remember feeling annoyed and frustrated because I was the main farmer as my husband had an off-farm job, but I also learned to move on and ignore it. I had work to do.”
Women Farmers Today
Flash forward to 2018 where your farmer, increasingly, is someone like Katy Dickson, owner with her family of Christensen's Farm in Browntown. Now running an organic vegetable farm and CSA on the family farm where she grew up, she can vividly see the differences over the four decades of her lifetime. Like on most Wisconsin family farms, Dickson helped with everything from driving the tractor to unloading hay while growing up. But it was still her dad who was viewed as the farmer and her brothers who received more of the tutoring on planting and tillage and haymaking equipment than she did.
“I don’t think I ever knew a female farmer when I was young, so I didn’t really consider it as a possible future for myself,” says Dickson. “I remember once when I was a teen and got a ride home with friends on the swim team, also a farming family. The mom driving started lecturing us never to marry a farmer. You could sense she had an inequitable position and overall didn’t thrive in the agriculture lifestyle.”
Dickson adds, “While I am the full-time farmer, the farm positively works because my husband, Mark Dickson, fully supports what I am doing, and we share the belief in the value of our farm to our family and community.” Committed to growing her local food community closer to her and not relying exclusively on the Madison market as many area farmers do, she built the first CSA delivering regularly to Monroe. She did this by thinking out of the traditional marketing box and tapping into education.
“I talked to any and every local group that would invite me to speak, from women’s clubs to Optimists,” explains Dickson. “My real underlying mission was to help educate folks about what a CSA is and why it’s important to partner with and support these farms, and help champion all CSAs in our area, not just my own.” Now that’s a very female-led, collaborative strategy you don’t typically hear in more male dominated industries: Champion others and we all succeed.
It’s that cooperative spirit that drives Soil Sisters, a local women farmer network in the Green County area that Dickson is a part of. This informal yet vibrant network has met regularly for over eight years and showcases the fact that women farmers thrive in a peer-based learning model, regularly sharing information, advice and most important, support.
“Many new ventures have come out of our local women farmer network, from a new Wisconsin Farmers Union chapter to the annual Soil Sisters tour,” shares Ends, who helped found and lead this group. Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life takes place the first weekend in August and offers a variety of on-farm workshops, tours and culinary events—all on area womenowned farms. “If you would have told me 20 years ago that we’d have over 200 women on a local email list committed to sustainable agriculture and run the largest womenfarmer- led tour event of its kind in our country, I’d have called you crazy. But it showcases how women-led farms run and succeed on relationships and how empowering it is to branch out and try new ventures when you know another woman farmer has your back.”
Future: Step Up to Lead
What’s next for Wisconsin women farmers? A burning realization that for things to truly change in a lasting capacity, we need to think beyond our fields. Women need to be at the planning table, stepping up to positions of leadership, determining policy and, bottom line, making sure diverse voices are collaboratively heard.
“A record number of women are running for office in 2018, with the biggest and most numerous opportunities in rural communities, such as county commissions, where women in rural communities are woefully underrepresented,” says Liz Johnson, co-founder and board member of VoteRunLead, a national, nonpartisan organization supporting women running for office. VoteRunLead partners with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) on a special leadership training initiative focused on encouraging and preparing women in sustainable agriculture to run for office, called Plate to Politics. “Research shows that women win at the same overall rate as men, we just need to be asked to run, whereas a man will typically just decide on his own to run. Therefore, we need to be asking our amazing women farmer community to step up to the leadership plate and run for office. There never has been a better time with more resources and support.”
Johnson points out that 2018 promises to be a game-changing year for Wisconsin women in agriculture on the leadership front. Sheila Harsdorf, former state senator from River Falls, now serves as the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the first woman to head DATCP in the department’s 88-year history. And throughout the state, you’ll see more women on the ballot running for offices of all kinds, from township and county boards to State Assembly, State Senate and beyond.
One such woman in Kriss Marion of Circle M Market Farm in Blanchardville, an organic farmer and now State Senate candidate for her southwestern Wisconsin District 17, running in the election this November. “My experiences serving as a supervisor on the Lafayette County Board opened my eyes to what is needed to bring fresh perspectives and success to all people in Wisconsin,” she says. “As women farmers, we have a particular knack for being nimble and getting things done that naturally translates very well to leadership roles. We prioritize children, family, clean water and conservation. Collaborative values are needed now more than ever in Wisconsin.”
Marion adds, “We women farmers share a deep commitment to championing and celebrating the agricultural heritage of our state. The healthy future of Wisconsin goes beyond gender and can frankly unite all sides in a shared commitment to steward our land and rural communities for our children and generations to come. Now is the time to cultivate that change.”