Female farmers cultivate sustainability and equality
Written and Photographed by Channing Smith
Food and wine. That’s the foundation of Soil Sisters, Dela Ends says.
Ends and I sit on the patio outside her house on Scotch Hill Farm in Brodhead, Wisconsin, about 40 minutes south of Madison. The top of her sunburned nose pokes out from her gray cloth mask, the marking of long days in the sun. An array of plants in mismatched pots decorate the patio among the first of falling autumn leaves. At Ends’ feet, an old Jack Russell terrier and a corgi puppy whip around, competing for her attention. The dogs are in good company with the sheep, pigs and chickens who also call this farm home.
Although the world paused to curb the outbreak of COVID-19, the hard work of running a farm doesn’t stop. Farmers like Ends go on working long days with seed trials, harvesting crops and tending to animals. Luckily, Ends has the Soil Sisters as a network of support.
Soil Sisters is a group of female farmers assembled by Lisa Kivirist in the fall of 2008. After attending a women in farming workshop at the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Kivirist went home, dug out a map and drew an hour’s drive radius around her own farm. She identified all the women-owned farms in that area and invited the owners to a potluck dinner.
“So, we just started sharing thoughts and ideas — it was a safe place,” Ends says, remembering the first Soil Sisters gathering. “Food and wine is the foundation.” And as most of these women were growing their own food, the meal was top-notch.
Female farmers now make up 36% of farmers in the U.S., an almost 27% increase from 2012, according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census report. While running a female-owned farm in a male-dominated industry posed its own challenges to building community, Kivirist was excited and eager to meet a group of like-minded women.
“We had no agenda, no master plan. We just thought, ‘let’s gather,’ and not surprisingly, we wanted to gather again,” Kivirist says.
About a dozen women met for dinner on Kivirist’s farm that first night. Some were organic farmers, some were gardeners, some were homesteaders — but they all had a passion for sustainability.
While the group has its roots in a simple social gathering, the Soil Sisters are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Collectively, members of the group have successfully sued for the right to sell home-baked goods in Wisconsin, one has run for both the state Senate and Assembly, others have served as town clerk or treasurer, started over a dozen CSAs (community-supported agriculture farms) and other farm-related enterprises, and advocated fiercely for sustainability and independent farming.
While the pandemic hasn’t made things easier for the Soil Sisters, they are finding ways to pivot and adapt. April Prusia shifted her farmstay, Dorothy’s Range, to long-term rentals. Jen Riemer of Riemer Family Farm now offers curbside pickup and delivery of her selection of hormone-free meats.
“There’s a lot of creativity there — reinventing in different ways,” Kivirist says. “But I think there’s a lot of opportunity because, again, people are looking for the kind of things we’ve been doing, we’ve been growing, we’ve been promoting for years now.”
What people are looking for is food that is grown and sourced locally, with an emphasis on sustainability. Several of the Soil Sisters’ farms are engaged in community-supported agriculture (CSAs), a direct subscription-like partnership between consumers and farmers, which has seen an increase in subscriptions since March.
“Suddenly investing in a CSA seemed like it was another potential source of food security at a very basic level,” says Diane Mayerfeld, a senior outreach specialist for the UW–Madison Division of Extension Agriculture Institute.
Large industrial farms operate within a complex supply chain involving producers, consumers, processors, storage and transportation. When one of these points of contact is affected, as many are due to the coronavirus pandemic, the entire system risks collapse.
“The current pandemic has created even stronger connections between people wanting to know where their food comes from,” Kivirist says. “It’s shown us that the large industrial food system doesn’t work in times of crisis, and we need to get back to knowing our farmer.”
Jacob Grace, of UW–Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, agrees that the pandemic has created a number of short-term benefits for local farms. But in the big picture, Wisconsin’s agricultural industry is suffering.
In 2019, more than two dairy farms per day went out of business in Wisconsin, Grace says. Independently owned farms continue to lose out to major corporate farms, since larger farms can sell their products below the cost of production for longer periods of time.
“It would be easy for me to say, ‘Get to know your local farmer and try to get food as locally as you can,’ but I think it’s a little more complicated than that,” Grace says.
Grace works closely with farmers to implement sustainable grazing practices. However, down the line of consumption, he acknowledges that there is a certain economic privilege involved in buying locally sourced food.
Photo Gallery by Channing Smith
“I would say it’s definitely great to do what you can to buy your food locally, but I think also it’s important for us to think about the bigger systems that we’re operating in and how to turn those towards more of a local or regional food system,” he says.
According to Grace, while the pandemic has generated some interest in local food systems once again, these changes must be long-term to promote lasting change.
The perks of sustainable agriculture are plentiful. Not only are there human health and environmental benefits, such as reducing the amount of harmful pesticides and hormones in our food, but sustainable agriculture may be the key to reducing the gender pay gap in the farming industry.
A 2016 study from the American Economic Association tracked the correlation between a rise in sustainable agriculture and the simultaneous rise of women in farming. The study found that farms engaged in CSAs, a form of sustainable agriculture, reduce the gender gap by one-third as compared to conventional farming.
“The CSA movement fundamentally alters many aspects of traditional agriculture and the farm itself — such as shedding patriarchal norms — which can explain the reductions in the gender gap and the increased participation of women principal operators in CSA farming,” the study says.
Not only are there more women per capita in sustainable agriculture, there are also more opportunities for leadership.
“I would say overall, the more towards that sustainable end of the spectrum you get, the more you see close to equality,” Mayerfeld says.
While she does not work on a farm, Mayerfeld works with Division of Extension educators to promote sustainable practices to farmers. When she attends conventional farm events, they are male dominated. But at events such as the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service Organic Farming Conference, the ratio is more evenly distributed.
“I think there is very much a role for groups like the Soil Sisters because even within that sustainable world, there are things that are just more comfortable for women to talk about to each other,” Mayerfeld says. She uses the example of operating tractors and other heavy machinery, which traditionally fall under the responsibility of male farmers.
Kivirst echoes this statement. “[Differential treatment] still very much exists. When you go to the mechanic shop to repair your tractor, they’ll ask, ‘Where’s your husband?’” she says.
The Soil Sisters know that advocating for sustainable agriculture means taking steps to preserve our environment, while also reshaping the culture of farming. And according to Ends, when the Soil Sisters put their minds to something, opposition should beware: “You get a bunch of women together, fighting for a cause, you’ve gone into the lion’s den.”