Wisconsin’s Soil Sisters Are Growing More Than Food

A network of women farmers is building community and fighting for local, sustainable food.

Sheila Julson February 16, 2023

As a woman working in sustainable agriculture, Lisa Kivirist was feeling lonely.

She had spent two years at a Chicago-based advertising firm, but tired of the corporate life and moved to Green County, Wis., with her husband in 1996. As the years went by, she found herself yearning to connect with other women farmers, and for a supportive farming community. So, in 2008, she decided to host a potluck.

Kivirist looked up women that lived within an hour’s drive of her Browntown, Wis., property and invited them over for food, drinks and conversation. Twelve women showed up to that first potluck, the genesis of what is now Soil Sisters Wisconsin, a collective of 250 women dedicated to environmental stewardship and growing local food networks.

Over the years, the Soil Sisters have inspired each other to run for local and state government offices, changed Wisconsin’s cottage food laws, lobbied for conservation and small family farms, and conducted water quality experiments. Some members have formed spinoff organizations committed to their specific concerns.

“Knowing that you have a community of women that value sustainability, conservation and local food enables people to stretch out and take risks on their own,” Kivirist says. “When somebody has identified a need or a barrier, they realize others are experiencing that, too. Rather than working around it or ignoring it, the power of women working together is that of taking action.”

Growing a community

Soil Sisters members range from twenty-somethings to seniors, and most own or co-own small-scale, organic and regenerative farms that produce food or fiber. Others make artisan foods or hobby garden.

Kivirist notes that the organization is growing, as new women and their families move to south central Wisconsin with new energy and ideas. “We’ve nurtured along this established community, so when new women move to area they can plug right in and come to a potluck.”

The Soil Sisters’ signature farm celebration, held one weekend each summer, invites visitors to members’ farms to experience rural life. Guests can partake in workshops and culinary events, which support local economies through agritourism. Kivirist hopes to grow and expand these opportunities beyond one weekend.

In 2019, Soil Sisters Wisconsin officially became a project of Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based 501(c)(3) that works on rural revitalization issues. The partnership allows them to try new pilot groups and expand their reach beyond the south central Wisconsin region.

Activist farmers

One major Soil Sisters victory came in 2017. Kivirist, along with fellow Soil Sisters Kriss Marion and Dela Ends, successfully sued the State of Wisconsin to lift a ban on the sale of home baked goods. This allowed people to use a home kitchen to produce what are known as “cottage foods”—non-potentially hazardous foods that don’t require refrigeration, such as pickles, jams, cookies and breads. Wisconsin had previously had a “pickle bill” allowing the sale of homemade high-acidic items, but nothing that permitted the sale of baked goods.

“It’s been great for hundreds of women, because over 90% of these cottage foods businesses are women-owned,” Kivirist says.

Ends, who run Scotch Hill Farm and Innisfree Farm Stay in Brodhead, Wis., has been a Soil Sister since the beginning. Ends grows produce and raises poultry, sheep and goats using practices aimed at improving soil health. “I’m different from what the other farmers around me are doing,” she says. “Most of them are growing corn and soybeans.” 

Ends co-formed a Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU) South Central Chapter. Previously, the closest WFU chapter was three counties away, near Racine. “The South Central chapter is now one of the largest WFU chapters in the state,” Ends says. “That was born from the Soil Sisters.” 

Ends and other Soil Sisters also rallied against the influx of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Wisconsin. A 2019, Wisconsin State Farmer article reported that Wisconsin was home to 304 CAFOs—more than doubled since 2005.

Ultimately, efforts to keep Larson Acres, a dairy CAFO, out of Ends’ area in Rock County were not successful; activists lost in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court the summer of 2012. “But it did help bond people on an issue of great significance: water quality,” Ends says.

Other Soil Sisters have also worked on water issues. Sue Nelson, who represents District 10 on the Green County Board of Supervisors, serves on the Ag & Extension and Land & Water Conservation committees. She was inspired to run for office after she met Soil Sister Marion at a county board meeting. Marion introduced Nelson to the Soil Sisters, and Nelson was encouraged by their enthusiasm for nature, environmental stewardship and small farm preservation.

“Being part of Soil Sisters has broadened my network of resources to be a better supervisor on committees that I serve,” says Nelson, who is now in her second term. She had a Clean Water Now advisory referendum proposing a right to clean water added to the Green County ballots in the fall 2022 elections. She’s worked with the MultiCultural Outreach Program to inform Spanish-speaking people in rural south central Wisconsin about land and water issues.

Among the animals

LindaDee Derrickson moved to her Green County farm in 2014 and got involved with the Soil Sisters soon after. The 75-year-old sheep farmer is a passionate advocate for locally raised and produced fiber products.

“Through the Soil Sisters, I saw the impact of networking in a local region, in a local way, and doing what you can to help one another,” Derrickson says. Her “Second Sundays,” a social networking event for fiber workers to knit and share skills, evolved into a nonprofit, Heartland Threads Fibershed. Through the organization, Derrickson trains speakers to give talks about the textile industry and the importance of supporting local weavers, knitters, felters and natural dyers.

April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range is another Soil Sister who works with livestock. As a heritage breed hog farmer, she saw a need for more butchers and processors that serve sustainable-minded family farmers. That led Prusia to form Meatsmith Co-op, a producer-and worker-owned meat processing cooperative.

The co-op’s producers and workers are involved in decision making and share a dedication to healthy workspaces, land and water stewardship, pure ingredients, and using no imported meat or meat products.

Prusia joined other farmers in Madison January 18 for WFU’s Farm & Rural Lobby Day. Many Soil Sisters are also part of Wisconsin Women in Conservation, an initiative that supports the growing demographic of Wisconsin women landowners.

Kivirist believes that women are in a good place to keep growing the organic agriculture movement to mitigate climate change and create healthier, local food choices. “Women with their hands in soil, raising food for their rural communities, has been going on for generations,” she says. “This isn’t new.

“But through modern communications and networking, and a shift toward more women leading businesses, women are definitely shaking up the food system.”

For more information, visit https://www.soilsistershub.org/.

Sheila Julson

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer covering food and beverage topics, rural and urban farms, green living and general interest features.

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