Organic Broadcaster

Women find support, ideas through Rural Women’s Project

By Lisa Kivirist, MOSES Rural Women’s Project

Look around any MOSES Conference or field day and undoubtedly you will see women farmers well-represented in numbers. Not surprising, as women make up one of the fastest growing groups of new farmers overall, particularly launching smaller-scale and diversified operations championing sustainable and organic agriculture.

MOSES takes this commitment to female farmers a big step further through our Rural Women’s Project, a specific year-round venture now heading into its ninth year providing training, resources and networking specifically for women.

As one of the few, if not the only, grassroots organic agriculture nonprofits with a dedicated program for female farmers, MOSES holds a deep-rooted understanding of the importance of valuing and prioritizing women farmers in growing the number of farms and the movement overall. The Rural Women’s Project (RWP) bases itself on the networking model, the idea that tremendous opportunity unfolds when women are able to connect with and share with each other.

I’ve had the personal honor of developing and facilitating the Rural Women’s Project since its birth in 2009 and seeing it blossom into the award-winning, unique initiative it is today. As we plan for our ninth year, it’s a good opportunity to recap and reflect on the impact of the RWP.

Lisa Kivirist talks about resources available to women farmers at the recent “In Her Boots” workshop at Kathy Zeman’s farm in southeast Minnesota. Photo by Carly Stephenson

Lisa Kivirist talks about resources available to women farmers at the recent “In Her Boots” workshop at Kathy Zeman’s farm in southeast Minnesota.
Photo by Carly Stephenson

History

The core elements of this project focus on four key areas:

1) In Her Boots: Sustainable Agriculture for Women by Women
Our flagship summer workshop series consists of day-long sessions on women-owned farms around the Midwest. From detailed farm tours to up-close and personal Q&A sessions with the farm owners, In Her Boots provides a welcoming setting for women in all stages of farming to gather and share their experiences.

Each Boots workshop is unique with different farm hosts and operations, so women often attend more than one. In 2016, our five Boots workshops ranged from a diversified grazing operation at Dorothy’s Grange in Blanchardville, Wis., run by April Prusia, to the intensive “Lean Farm” vegetable operation with farmer Rachel Hershberger in Goshen, Ind.

2) Women Caring for the Land, Soil Sisters, other collaborations
As exemplified in all MOSES programming, the RWP thrives through cooperatively working with other organizations that share our sustainability values. We facilitate “Women Caring for the Land” workshops with the Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN), sharing conservation ideas and resources with female landowners.

The annual Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life is now a full August weekend of farm tours, workshops and culinary events hosted by women farmers in the Green County, Wisconsin area. The MOSES RWP and Renewing the Countryside work in partnership with the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which officially houses this venture, expanding the outreach and impact of this event now heading into its sixth year.

3) Conference programming
From workshop sessions to networking sessions to “ask an expert” sessions on everything from integrating kids to ergonomics and body care, the RWP offers various opportunities during the conference for women to connect and learn.

4) Local networks, media outreach and on-going resources
From supporting local women farmer networks to answering individual women farmer questions, the RWP works to support female farmers year-round. Additionally, as the program’s reputation and impact have grown, the RWP receives inquiries from reporters looking to connect with women farmers, a role we can readily play with the extensive network of female farmers now connected through the MOSES RWP.

Since the program’s launch, all these programs and outreach add up to over 5,000 women who have attended and harvested resources and inspiration through the RWP.

“As a beginning farmer transitioning from a different career, the Rural Women’s Project has been a bridge of support, and the farm tours and workshops have given me behind-the-scenes access to the concerns of farm management in uniquely interactive ways,” shared Amy Fenn from Madison, Wis. “The relationships and connections I’ve made have been invaluable lifelines and inspirations. The diverse groups are always welcoming with a shared sense that we’re collaborating on something meaningful and fun, both as individual women and as stewards of the land and food.”

After these eight years of RWP programming, four key insights about the women farmers involved emerge:

• Diversity in backgrounds
In Her Boots attendee ages range from the 18 to 25 sector to over 65, adding a lively exchange of ideas and perspectives. While the majority of these women are at the beginning stages of their farm—either in the research phase or under five years in operation—experienced female growers who have been farming for decades also attend, exemplifying the fact that there’s always something to learn from each other, no matter what our backgrounds are.

RWP attendees also reach beyond the farmer crowd to educators, organizers and activists. Alejandra Arce Indacochea, a doctoral student in agroecology, came to the In Her Boots workshop at Clay Bottom Farm in Goshen, Ind.

“I found it very encouraging to find that, not only are small-scale farmers present in the Midwest, but also many of them are women who are making a dignified livelihood out of organic agriculture,” she said. “While I won’t be actively farming in my next life chapter, I want to support small organic farmers and food systems and be creative about how to do that beyond academics, either through grant-writing, putting together a project, or contributing to one already in place. This Boots workshop gave me lots of ideas and inspiration, and I felt part of a larger community of women committed to organics.”

• Mid-Life farm start-ups
A sizeable segment of attendees represents “encore” farmers, women who are looking to launch farms mid-life, often coming into agriculture from entirely different careers. At the recent In Her Boots workshop at Kathy Zeman’s Simple Harvest Farm Organics in Nerstrand, Minn., Paula Foreman led a lunchtime discussion on starting to farm in your 50s and beyond. She speaks from experience, having herself launched Encore Farm in the Twin Cities on her 50th birthday.

“I wish I had something like these Boots workshops when I got started because I wouldn’t have felt so isolated,” Foreman said. “I love having the opportunity to share my experiences in such an open setting to help other women along their own farming journeys.”

• Diversity in business plans
A common theme among women farmers: diversity. Women farmers share a strong collective interest in a variety of farm ventures, from CSA to diversified livestock to value-added products to agritourism businesses like B&Bs and on-farm food service. RWP sessions feature successful women farmers with such diversified operations, showing how focusing on more than one thing strengthens their overall business plan and profitability.

• Collaboration commitment
The core inspiration behind the RWP programming stems from the women farmers who generously host these events, usually held smack dab in the middle of their busy growing season. The motivation to host often comes from the reality of needing to actively support a new generation of farmers.

“I confess my big reason to host a Boots workshop is I know I can’t run this farm forever,” revealed Kathy Zeman of Simple Harvest Farm Organics. Her August In Her Boots session focused on organic diversified livestock. “We need more farmers raising livestock who are committed to organics. By connecting women to this place and what I do, they hopefully will keep their own farm vision and this movement moving forward.”

Lisa Kivirist (left) records a podcast with Rachel Hershberger, host of the “Lean Farm” In Her Boots workshop in Indiana. Liam Ivanko Kivirist runs technical support. Rural Women’s Project podcasts will be available on the MOSES website later this fall. Photo by John Ivanko

Lisa Kivirist (left) records a podcast with Rachel Hershberger, host of the “Lean Farm” In Her Boots workshop in Indiana. Liam Ivanko Kivirist runs technical support. Rural Women’s Project podcasts will be available on the MOSES website later this fall.
Photo by John Ivanko

Focus on Future

What’s next for the MOSES Rural Women’s Project? Further strengthening the organic movement by encouraging more women farmers to take on leadership positions on various levels to amplify the organic voice at the decision-making table. That’s exactly what farmer Christine Welcher is doing by running for Wisconsin State

Assembly in the 32nd District this November, while also managing the farm at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis.

“I’ve attended several In Her Boots workshops and always come away with both practical knowledge and also the realization that we women farmers need to step up and have our voices heard when it comes to our government’s priorities, which motivated me to run for Assembly,” Christine reflected. “The support of other female farmers serves as a huge source of inspiration and motivation for me. We all have each other’s back and support whatever seeds we may plant, from greens in the field to running for office.”

For more information about the Rural Women’s Project and upcoming events, check out: mosesorganic.org/rural-womens-project.

Lisa Kivirist coordinates the MOSES Rural Women’s Project. She is the author of several books, including the newest Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers, available in the MOSES bookstore.

 

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