Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania. Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to hit the road and attend and speak at three different women farmer conferences, meeting over 600 inspiring female farmers, educators and activists along the way.
Now an average day for me back home on my Wisconsin farm usually requires a cup of coffee to get things jump-started. But I’m realizing my java intake seriously declined these last couple of weeks as I was instead “organically fueled” by being around such inspiring women, kindred spirits who share a passion for sustainable and organic agriculture along with a driving mission to transform out food system.
Starting with the annual Women, Food & Agriculture (WFAN) Conference in Nebraska City, NE to the National Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Portland, OR and wrapping up with the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network (PA-WaGN) Symposium in State College, PA, this trifecta of inspiration gathered women from all backgrounds and perspectives, yet sharing a soil sisterhood, a love for our land and supporting each other in our farm dreams.
A round-up of my five top themes harvested from these gatherings include:
1. Share what you know
Each one of these conferences came to life on the underlying premise that all women bring something to share, that we all have experiences and knowledge that others can benefit from.
“Women learn best from each other,” shared Carolyn Sachs at a pre-conference session in Portland that focused on women farmer training approaches. Carolyn is a professor of rural sociology and women’s studies at Penn State University, one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network and author of the new book, The Rise of Women Farmers & Sustainable Agriculture.
“It’s important to remember and respect that all women bring experience and insight to the table, whether you are a beginning farmer or seasoned expert.”
This idea came to life in the multitudes of workshops at these conferences, particularly the many panels offering various perspectives. What struck me continually was the open generosity of women willing to give both their time and knowledge. At the National Women in Sustainable Agriculture conference, I organized an evening author roundtable, “Write to Grow: How Women Are Cultivating Change through Words.” Different than the expected book event where authors talk about their work, this session dug into personal motivation and expectation: why do we write and how do we integrate it into our livelihood.
The program brought together a baker’s dozen of female authors, an unexpectedly large group because everyone I invited (most I didn’t know well personally) said yes. I honestly wasn’t expecting, but was thrilled by such enthusiastic response, as the diversity of open ideas and advice flowed.
2. Foster diversity
Speaking of diversity, the female force behind championing and creating diversity manifested throughout all the programs. On a practical business level, I led a workshop in Nebraska and Pennsylvania entitled: “How She Does It: Women Farmers Generating Income Through Diversification,” sharing stories of how women successfully craft diversified on-farm business plans, running multiple ventures from farm stays to value-added products through cottage food law, as I write about in Homemade for Sale.
I calculated that our farm received over one thousand pay checks this past year. While most were small – someone bought garlic or stayed a night at our B&B, Inn Serendipity – there’s strength in multiple income streams.
Women can also cultivate diversity by championing communities of color, bringing these inspiring stories to the forefront. That’s exactly what writer Natasha Bowens shared in her keynote at the National Women in Sustainable Ag Conference, bringing the stories of women farmers of color to the forefront in her book, The Color of Food. “We are not truly sustainable unless we are truly connected,” she shares.
3. Cultivate women’s leadership
“Tell me what our Department of Agriculture can do to serve you better,” asked Hannah Smith-Brubaker at the PA-WaGN Symposium. Fortunately for Pennsylvania women farmers, Hannah is in a position to both ask that question and act. She serves as Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture as well being a farmer herself, running Village Acres Farm with her family in rural Pennsylvania. Such openness and inclusion, particularly when it comes to policy and regulation, is a key trait female leaders bring when they are at the decision-making table.
However, it becomes quite evident at these women farmer gatherings that we need more of all of us at that leadership table alongside Hannah. We further fostered such discussion at a panel during the WISA Conference, Soil Sisters: How Women are Transforming Our Food System. With a historian (UC Food Observer’s Rose Hayden-Smith), writer (Natasha Bowens) and farmers (Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms and Paula Foreman of Encore Farm) – all women featured in my book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers – and inspiring fodder from the audience, we walked away hopeful and armed with steps we could take.
The National Farmers Union and the Women, Food & Agriculture Network also ran a special pre-conference session encouraging more women in agriculture to run for office: Plate to Politics.
“Women win elections at the same rate as men, we just need more women running,” explains Melissa Miller, Education Director for the National Farmers Union. “We especially need women farmers in key leadership roles, from local county board to Congress.”
4. Grow local networks
“Grow Together: How to Launch a Local Women Farmer Network,” a workshop I helped facilitate, brought together different stories and perspectives on bringing women farmers together and developing strong local connections. Lori Stern of Cow & Quince Café and Lucky Dog Farmstay and I shared how our local “Green County Area Women in Sustainable Ag Network” back home in Wisconsin has grown over the past eight years from a handful of female farmers to over 150 women strong, including running the Soil Sisters weekend annually now every first weekend in August.
In our case, it all started with and still draws its energy and vibrancy from regular potlucks, something easy to start during the slower winter season. Here are some tips to get started.
5. Show up in person
Cheers to those serendipitous in-person conversations over coffee – continued late-night over locally brewed hard cider! Sure, our social media driven world opens up doors of opportunities to connect and cross-pollinate over the miles in ways inconceivable a decade ago. Yet women still value and thrive through face-to-face contacts.
Increasingly with our online world, conferences like these provide fertile ground to in-person meet someone you met online, deepening the relationship. This happened to me in meeting Audra Mulkern of The Female Farmer Project. I admired her work and we connected online, and finally in Portland we could deepen the connection.
Showing up at farming conferences takes money and time, two elements that I know don’t prolifically grow like zucchini in July. Yet just like we add compost and nurture that soil surrounding that squash, these conference experiences over the last couple weeks reinforced to me how we all need to nurture and replenish our own personal landscape through connections with kindred spirited Soil Sisters.
On that note, a warm invite to come out to our MOSES Organic Farming Conference in February. It’s the largest organic event in the known galaxy with over 3,600 farmers, educators and activists descending upon Wisconsin, with a full slate of women farmer programming through our Rural Women’s Project. Let me know if you’ll be there and we’ll meet for that cup of coffee or a good local Wisconsin brew!
Mary Peabody, founding director Women’s Ag Network
Lisa Kivirist: Sisters of the Soil
Audra Mulkern: Picture Perfect
Rachel Surls: From Cows to Concrete
Mary Kimball, Center for Land-Based Learning