“Amplifying the voices of women farmers adds up to a win-win for all of us.  As this new crop of female farmers prioritizes organic and healthy growing practices along with diversified, local agriculture, we hold the power to truly start shifting the industrial paradigm currently dominating our food system.” Lisa Kivirist

Lisa Kivirist
Lisa Kivirist. Photo credit: Josh Witzel, Brava Enterprises

A national advocate for women farmers, Lisa Kivirist is a Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. Together with her husband, John Ivanko, Lisa owns the family-run Inn Serendipity Farm and Bed & Breakfast in Wisconsin. She and John have co-authored a number of books including Homemade for Sale, Farmstead Chef, ECOpreneuring and Rural Renaissance.

Her most recent book – Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers – is an interesting, information-rich guidebook for female farmers. Written in a conversational and inspiring tone, there are practical tips ranging from diversifying farm income to selecting the right tools to applying for a loan. Scattered among the pages, Lisa has included case studies and interviews with women farmers of all ages, from around the country.  The individual stories bring alive this book by showing the diversity of approaches, as well as ingenuity and hard work. This collaborative hands-on guide for female farmers belongs on your bookshelf, whether you’ve been farming for decades or just starting out.

Soil Sisters BookWe’re honored to report our editor Rose Hayden-Smith and her Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I were cited in the Soil Sisters book. Rose explained how the female farmers in the Women’s Land Army of America served a significant role in feeding the nation during World War I and helped spearhead the suffrage movement.

Meanwhile, I’ve known Lisa for years, since I first reviewed her Farmstead Chef cookbook. I was eager to hear her thoughts on female farmers and a sustainable food system. As always, she didn’t disappoint!

Q) Why was it important for you to write Soil Sisters? How is it filling a niche for these women farmers?

Lisa Kivirist: While women make up one of the fastest growing groups of new farmers, we lack representation on multiple fronts, from the Farm Bill to ergonomically correct farm tools.  On the upside, the cooperative and sharing spirit amongst women in sustainable agriculture is tremendous.  Networking and sharing ideas, information and resources are simply how women farmers get things done and Soil Sisters came to life in this spirit.  By gathering input and insight from more than 100 women in sustainable and organic agriculture, we now truly have a collaborative toolkit to amplify our message and movement and, above all, grow more women farmers.

In my work launching and facilitating the Rural Women’s Project, a venture of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) eight years ago to support fledgling female farmers, I immediately saw a strong interest and response amongst women. The Soil Sisters book grew out of inspiration and observations from this work, as there is a real consistent lack of resources for women farmers today.

Faye Jones photo. Credit: Mark Plunket.
Faye Jones, MOSES. Photo credit: Mark Plunket.

Q) What are some of the biggest challenges facing women farmers? Why should we care?

Lisa Kivirist: Women farmers share the same challenges as all beginning farmers, such as access to land and start-up capital. However, women also come to the agriculture playing field with other priorities and obstacles.  Integrating a family into one’s operation, launching a farm as a solo female operator or starting a farm mid-life all represent unique challenges women face.  Soil Sisters brings together a range of perspectives on issues such as these, blending a dose of seasoned advice with an inspiring reality check that is particularly important for women starting out.

Amplifying the voices of women farmers adds up to a win-win for all of us.  As this new crop of female farmers prioritize organic and healthy growing practices along with diversified, local agriculture, we hold the power to truly start shifting the industrial paradigm currently dominating our food system.  It is therefore important that the unique challenges and barriers that women farmers face be recognized and addressed, so that we have equal opportunity to both run successful businesses while shifting the current power structure controlling agriculture.

Q) You feature a number of women farmers in your book. Why were these stories important to tell?

Lisa Kivirist: Women growing food to feed their families and communities is hardly anything new; we’ve been doing this for centuries, since the dawn of domesticated agriculture.  What’s changed in only recent decades is the full recognition of this contribution, both from an economic and legal standpoint.  For example, it wasn’t until the 1970s that women truly achieved property rights.  Before that, if her husband was widowed or the couple divorced, the farm ownership would automatically go to the next male kin.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about a forty-nine-year-old Springfield, Nebraska farm wife named Doris Royal, and her work to end a “widow’s tax” that burdened the wives of farmers (who were often farmers themselves). Stories from Nebraska History Quarterly and Nebraska Historical Society’s blog.

Because of this historic underrepresentation, sharing and championing stories like the ones in Soil Sisters is vital, because it finally earns well-deserved recognition on a wider public platform. Additionally, these stories provide support for new women farmers, particularly those without current direct ties to agriculture. By reading about other women “in the boots” they themselves would love to fill one day, a future in farming becomes real and tangible.

Relinda Walker of Walker Farm. Photo credit: John D. Ivanko.
Relinda Walker of Walker Farm. Photo credit: John D. Ivanko.

Q) Talk to us about how women farmers are exploring new sources of revenues, from farm stays to pizza nights to homemade food products.

Lisa Kivirist: Innovation rules amongst this crop of new women farmers.  Women in sustainable agriculture today are not trying to “fit” into the current cookie-cutter, bigger-is-better industrialized model. Rather they are inventing their own new models and mantas that focus on care for the land, healthy communities and food access and equity.

Women farmers today prioritize diversity, particularly related to farm-based income sources.  By having multiple on-farm ventures, from farm stays to pizza farms, the business establishes a stronger base.  Mother Nature plants more than one acorn to grow an oak tree and, in the same spirit, women farmers champion the strength found in diversity.

Q) Why are cottage food laws so confusing and challenging in some states?

Lisa Kivirist: Cottage food laws vary so much inherently because each state has the right to set their own legislation, providing it overall fits under the federal Food Code.  Some states, like California and Arizona, passed cottage food laws very favorable and supportive to small scale, home-based food entrepreneurs and thereby created a thriving food artisan culture.  Other states, like my own Wisconsin, impose many restrictive laws under which these food entrepreneurs do not have much opportunity to produce and sell.

Homemade jam in Soil Sisters
Photo credit: Regina Dlugokencky, Seedsower Farm.

In most cases, state-specific cottage food laws came about through citizen-led, grassroots initiatives.  Democracy at its finest, someone simply approached their elected official to introduce such a bill and the process flowed from there.

Q) Why was it important to offer women farmers advice on topics such as using the right tools or preparing the body for farm labor?

Lisa Kivirist: As women in agriculture, we need to view our body as the most important tool we have; one that needs to be treated with care and respect.  Using the right tools and taking care of our bodies remain the most important investments we can make to ensure a farm career that healthfully lasts into the long term.  This is particularly important as more women launch farms mid-life, often coming into the farming scene with no prior agricultural experience.

Q) What issues keep you up at night? What fills you with hope?

Lisa Kivirist: As both a glass-half-full optimist and an early-to-bed gal, nothing keeps me up at night!  I hit the hay early.  However, I’m an early riser and morning-fueled person.  I wake up early, ready to take it all on again.

I’m continually filled with hope thanks to the inspiring women I meet along this journey – women committed to a land stewardship, healthy food and protecting our planet for generations to come.  I’m particularly inspired by the growing numbers of young women coming out of school and fully committed to careers in organic and sustainable agriculture.  This young and vibrant, innovative energy can truly transform our food system.  We more “seasoned” women in this movement must reach out and support these women starting their journeys however we can.

Q) Anything we haven’t mentioned that you’d like to add?

Lisa Kivirist:  We women in the sustainable agriculture movement share a responsibility to support and champion our fellow female farmers globally, many in countries where they still do not receive equitable representation or economic justice.

Female farmers today in the sustainable agriculture world beautifully embrace and incorporate their feminine side into farming.  What this means, at its core, is expressing one’s self fully and authentically, whatever that may mean to you.

Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms in Homestead, Florida, farms in skirts simply, as she puts it, “because I can and they are much more comfortable.” She paints her outbuilding walls vibrant shades of pink and purple to celebrate her feminine side.  These women do not fit a template of what a “female farmer” is today, but rather use their farms as a platform to showcase and share their authentic selves.

UC Food Observer salutes these female farmers!

More about Women Farmers:

Traci Bruckner, Center for Rural Affairs

Shirley Sherrod, Civil Right Lead