Organic Broadcaster

Potlucks help women network, grow organic movement locally

By Lisa Kivirist, MOSES Rural Women’s Project

Ask an organic farmer what was his or her best source of information on farming, and you probably won’t get a book or website recommendation. Undoubtedly, it will be another organic farmer. From the serendipitous conversation you have with the person you sit next to at lunch at the MOSES Conference to questions answered at a field day, the strength of this movement deepens and widens through our support of each other.

Take those connections a step further, and you can create a local farmer network right in your community. That’s exactly what seeded five years ago when a group of women committed to sustainable agriculture started meeting regularly for potlucks here in my south central area of Wisconsin, specifically Lafayette, Green and Iowa counties. This area sits in the heart of America’ conventional dairyland, where organic farmers are still the underdog minority. For that underlying reason, it quickly became apparent that our fledgling group shared a priority to connect regularly and support each other.

Flash forward to 2015 and our “South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture” group’s impact can be felt locally, both from an economic and educational perspective. Our flagship annual event, Soil Sisters, now lures both tourists and locals to over 12 women-owned farms to experience sustainable agriculture and rural living at its finest. Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farm and Rural Life, now a project of the Wisconsin Farmers Union along with MOSES, Renewing the Countryside and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, consists of a full weekend of engaging and interactive activities, July 31 through Aug. 2. From our MOSES In Her Boots workshop for aspiring women farmers to culinary events to a free tour day involving eight women-owned farms, our local farmer network’s impact now goes beyond dishes served around a potluck table: we’re positively impacting our community.

The Soil Sisters host their annual weekend of on-farm food and fun July 31-Aug. 2 in South Central Wisconsin. The “sisters” are: (back row from left to right) Lori Stern, Cow and Quince and Lucky Dog Farmstay; Jen Riemer, Riemer Family Farm; Katy Dickson, Christensen Farm; Dela Ends, Scotch Hill Farm; Lindsey Morris Carpenter, Grassroots Farm; and, Kriss Marion, Circle M Market Farm; (front row) Erica Roth, Windy Hill Farm; and, Lisa Kivirist, Inn Serendipity. Photo by John Ivanko

Soil Sisters and the South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture group took root on a November evening five years ago in Madison, when I taught an introductory beginning farming workshop for women through the MOSES Rural Women’s Project. About 30 women gathered that night, none of whom I knew. After a brief welcome, I kicked things off as I always start my workshops with everyone quickly introducing herself—name, where you’re from, and what farm dream brought you here tonight.

First, Lindsey Morris Carpenter stood up and introduced herself as from Monroe and running Grassroots Farm. Later, Lori Stern said she and her partner had just moved to the area with visions of launching a farm stay. The introductions wrapped up with Katie Lipes, a new chicken farmer in my area. I thought, “Who are these interesting women, located within 30 miles from me, and why haven’t I met them before?” That intrigue lingered as I drove the hour home, up and down the hilly rural roads. Somewhere in the middle of those cornfields, I decided to throw a potluck.

I emailed an invite for the first Sunday night in December and left it at that. And, come together we did. As homegrown dishes passed around, a welcoming warmth filled the room. Early into the evening, folks already started shouting out “When are we doing this again?”

Today, our South Central Wisconsin women’s group boasts over 50 active members who gather at six on-farm potlucks throughout the year. What continually amazes me is the long, growing list of tangible outcomes that come out of women informally but regularly gathering over supper.

A beginning farmer connected with a woman with extra land to lease, and a partnership formed. Some women started a chicken feed buying co-op to enhance buying power. Countless baby goats, heritage hogs, and local insurance agent recommendations are shared.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the support of other local women farmers,” shared Lori Stern, a local friend who moved to our area in 2010 with her wife, LeAnn Powers. Now successful local food entrepreneurs, Stern and Powers first launched Lucky Dog Farm Stay, which included converting their barn into a yoga studio where Stern teaches classes. The next entrepreneurial chapter involved starting Cow and Quince in her small rural town of New Glarus, creating the Community Supported Restaurant (CSR) and local food hub in our county.

“When I needed anything, from contacts for suppliers to advice on dealing with state inspectors, I knew who to talk to,” Stern said. “That kind of support and knowing someone is on your side is priceless, especially in our traditional rural community where male-run, conventional agriculture is still the norm.”

These outcomes go beyond the sharing economy, sparking new businesses and dollars flowing into to our community. For example, Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates met at a potluck and eventually formed a strong business partnership. Landmark was already on her way to earning her cheesemaking license to launch her own operation but needed a partner to help with the business and marketing side. Bates, a food writer savvy on the food scene, gladly filled that role. The duo launched Landmark Creamery, which is now an award-winning cheesemaking venture.

“We’re both moms with kids in the same school district, but we never met until these women-in-agriculture potlucks,” Landmark reminisced. “Even if we had met in a school setting, I’m not sure we would have had the opportunity to connect in a way that we did over cheese and wine. The potluck provides a welcoming, supportive setting through which women like myself and Anna feel comfortable sharing our big picture visions and dreams.”

“Twenty years ago, I felt pretty much like the Lone Ranger when we started,” shared Dela Ends, who runs Scotch Hill Farm with her husband, Tony, a certified organic CSA in Brodhead. “It is so wonderful to see the growing number of sustainable and women farmers in our area thanks to this network and the connections made. My youngest son and daughter-in-law are planning on supplying goat milk to Landmark Creamery. We supply organic produce, meat and milk soap to Cow and Quince. We have purchased two Oberhasli Bucks we share with Lucky Dog Farm. Our South Central Wisconsin Farmers Union Chapter was born out of this group of amazing people, too.”

A local network can provide the support you need when you perhaps can’t find it elsewhere. “It really helps me to receive back-up verbal support from other women farmers because I don’t always get that from some members of my family or community,” said Katy Dickson of Christensen Farm in Browntown. Dickson will be hosting the In Her Boots workshop on her farm to kick off the Soil Sisters weekend July 31, sharing her experiences over the past eight years running a CSA in a rural area.

Such networks also create an easy and accessible means for new farmers to immediately feel connected. Such was the case for Erica Roth and her family, who moved to the Albany area from Kentucky a year ago and started Windy Acres Farm.

“I immediately felt completely empowered and welcomed when I first moved to our property and attended my first potluck hosted by MaryAnn Bellazzini of Campo Di Bella Farm,” Roth said. “The lack of intimidation of this group immediately struck me. No matter where you were on your farming journey, others supported you and connected resources to help you further. I’m looking forward to hopefully attending my first MOSES Conference next year, thanks to strong recommendations from all these local women farmers who attend.” Roth also jumped in to be part of the Soil Sisters tour this year, hosting a family-friendly workshop Aug. 1.

“The impact of these women farmers building local networks and resulting events like Soil Sisters bring strong economic ripple effects into our broader community,” shared Cara Carper, Executive Director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Soil Sisters lures tourists to the area who specifically seek out local and organic food options on the menu. This then prompts interest of other restaurants in the area to start incorporating locally-sourced produce and seasonal items on their menus, which in turn grows the successful businesses of our local farmers and restaurants, which brings more tourists.”

“Build it and they will come” may work for a baseball field of dreams in the middle of Iowa, but it also adds up to good advice when you harbor this need to connect with other local like-minded farmers. Start initiating, keep inviting and stay in it for the long term, and you will amaze yourself with the women who show up around the table, thanks to your leadership.

4 Tips to Start Potluck Network
1. Commit to lead one year.
Make organizing a local network your personal project for at least one year. While these networks do not need to be formal organizations with elected officers, bank accounts, and high commitments, they still need consistent leadership to get successfully off the ground. Be that person to recruit other potluck hosts, set a schedule, send out reminders, and answer questions.

2. Set calendar yearly.
Given the demands of the growing season, it helps to set potluck dates for the whole year in January. This way, it’s much easier for hosts to commit before their schedules fill up.

Our gatherings are usually a Sunday supper but sometimes brunch or lunch. Our format is typically the same. We start with a farm tour followed by an activity, and then we do introductions and eat. The activity could be anything from Anna Landmark giving a mozzarella-making demo to Lori Stern teaching a yoga class. At one potluck we did a “fermentation show and tell” because our group had both seasoned fermenters and beginners wanting to learn. The experts brought jars of their latest ferments and shared how they did it; questions and sampling continued until we all had our fill.

We always have one co-ed summer gathering where women bring their spouses, partners, and kids. The annual event balances the women-only aspect of our other gatherings as it gives everyone a chance to meet the partners and kids in our lives.

3. Create communication channels.
Create an easy way for folks to keep in touch, based on the media preferences of your group. Some like a Facebook page, but for us, a simple free email forum works well and serves as a means to find a home for extra piglets or to share information on a community event.

4. Keep it local.
While we have a Yahoo email forum, it isn’t open to the public. Requests come through me. Our goal is to develop a tight local network of women who know each other individually. Therefore, you need geographic ties and a kinship with shared values of sustainability and local food. Some women on the list may be looking to move to the area, hoping to make connections and find local resources before they buy a farm.

soil sisters logoCome visit during this year’s Soil Sisters weekend and meet our network firsthand, and hopefully you’ll head home with inspiration to launch your own area gatherings, changing communities one potluck at a time.

Lisa Kivirist coordinates the MOSES Rural Women’s Project. She and her husband, John Ivanko, run Inn Serendipity Farm B&B near Browntown, Wis.

From the July | August 2015 Issue

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