Organic Broadcaster

‘Soil Sisters’ harnesses wisdom of women seasoned in farming

By Anne Lupton

Soil Sisters By Lisa Kivirist
January 2016
New Society Publishers
225 pages
$24.95 list price

Tractor fantasies. Yep, I have ‘em. If you’re a woman and have them, too, you’re not alone. Women farmers have been on the rise in the U.S. for the past three decade, tripling from 1978 to 2007, according to the USDA.

Lisa Kivirist has come out with an outstanding book to help beginning as well as seasoned women farmers navigate the business and livelihood of farming. She brings in the voice and experience of over 50 female farmers throughout the book and their perspectives on farming from operations as diverse as vegetable market farms to value-added farm kitchens to farm stay B&Bs.

She starts off by saying hers is not a book on general advice for beginning farmers (regardless of gender), because in recent years there has been an ever-growing wealth of that information from many different sources, but a book specifically for and by women. This book addresses the business of farming, rural life, domesticity, and networking for a female audience.

Lisa starts off with a brief history of where U.S. agriculture and farm life have come since the turn of the last century, ending with a very recent shift to having more organizations created to help women in ag (like the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, or the MOSES Rural Women’s Project). Women tend toward the smaller, diversified farming operations, in contrast to gargantuan, mechanized, commodity production. “As a group, we champion land stewardship,” Lisa writes. “We refer to our land as a community resource rather than a commodity crop.” It reflects a changing perception in the larger population toward an interest in local, organic, and nutritious food, nurturing a sense of connection to the land through well-raised food.

From her experience, Lisa points out four general groups of female farmers, acknowledging the diverse background women come to farming from:

1) Encore farmers: After having gone through one or more careers in the mainstream you “bring seasoned life experience, no matter what the industry.” But, coming to the farming game later in life may bring a sense of urgency. You may have more financial resources at hand, but physical capabilities and time are no longer on your side.

2) Lone rangers: These women act as the primary farm operator whether entirely on her own (but maybe with occasional hired help), or with a partner that’s in a totally different career. With you as the queen bee, decisions can be handled quicker and more nimbly than having to consult a partner in a shared operation. The downside is more isolation and more energy needed to find and build your tribe or support network.

3) Fledglings: “Ahh, the joys of youth!” Lisa says. “You have it all: ambition, time, physical stamina, and the energy level of a puppy…. You’re not just looking to earn a paycheck or feed a few families; you want to transform our food system.” Time is on your side, and even if you can’t jump into your own operation right away you’re primed and ready to take a detour “when a favorable circumstance serendipitously comes up.” Not surprisingly student loans and a possible fledgling family make this stage the greatest challenge.

4) Family farm boomerangs: When you’ve grown up on a family farm, went off to school and career in the wider world, and years later decide to return to the place you started…you fall here. “You’re roots and ties run deep and strong.” Yet bringing back your own vision for the farm can be complicating, making shared decisions with other family members uncomfortable. Old versus new can raise tensions; separate enterprises on the same farm can be a compromise.

I like her breakdown and can definitely see myself in one of them: encore farmer, but with a bit of boomerang thrown in.

Getting into farming necessitates a constant need for learning, researching current and potential markets, and wrangling various financial resources. Lisa recommends conferences, webinars, books, and farm tours to keep your knowledge base fresh and up-to-date. She sees these venues of education as not only places of learning, but also as opportunities to socialize, network, and reinvigorate your farm visions.

In my experience, the annual MOSES Conference, the largest organic farming conference in the country, is beyond description and an invaluable event for any woman farmer, even if organic certification isn’t in your plans at this time. Meeting in the same space as like-minded people can bring an energy to your farm plans like nothing else. And, if you have the time, a summer internship or apprenticeship can offer a lengthy first-person experience where it counts most, adding to your confidence.

Lisa suggests keeping your ear to the ground about foodie trends can be a valuable avenue to market research (study the Good Food Awards). Start at the easy end by researching cottage food laws in your state to see what you can produce in your home kitchen. Thinking about adding an artisanal food item to your CSA share? Trial out the concept at your farmer’s market booth in small quantities first. Contemplating a line of home-crafted jams and jellies? Hire a graphic designer to test which label design sells the best. Hankering to start your own farm-stay B&B? Make it your summer’s goal to stay at as many established farm-based B&Bs as you can fit in your schedule. Doing market research in these ways can give you some valuable information before you make a large business investment.

A critical step, and probably the most important in a business venture, is educating yourself on financial resources from USDA programs to micro loans and crowdsource funding to traditional bank loans. Lisa lists several agencies where you can start researching grant and loan programs, from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Soil Sisters even delves into business structures and insurance coverage to help women make sound decisions. Lisa walks through the big picture of comparing business structures from Sole Proprietor to C and S Corporations, and recommends consulting with a tax professional—the last thing you want to do is get in trouble with the IRS!

In any highly stressful field, whether mental or physical, it is important to know when to step back and take care of yourself. This doesn’t come easy to many women, especially when small children are under our care. But, putting on your own oxygen mask first (as they say in the preflight safety demo) is important for your continued ability to care for others.

Lisa recommends taking time away from the farm for mental self care. She also offers ideas for protecting your physical assets—your strength, flexibility, and stamina. Using appropriately sized and ergonomically designed tools for a woman’s body can head off repetitive injuries. Learn to lift, shovel, and hoe with an ergonomic stance. Add yoga or basic stretching to keep tendons and ligaments limber and less likely to be injured. Pace yourself—these are the kinds of things Lisa and the interviewed farmers highlight as key to good self care.

One of the interviewees in the book, Katie College of Stoney Creek Valley Farm, Pa., uses the concept of a triangle to illustrate the relationship between Self, Partner, and Farm. She says you can work on your relationship between Self and Partner, but it’s empowering to realize you can’t control the relationship between your Partner and the Farm. “Keep in mind, your partner is not obligated to change to meet your expectations.”

Women are drawn to this new vibe of farming with some very nurturing and nourishing motives. But, at the end of the day, it’s important to care for ourselves on the journey, too. Call on your Soil Sisters for that mutual support we all need. Now go find your tribe!

Anne Lupton blogs at Blue-Egg-Farm.com.

From the May | June 2016 Issue

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