Author: Luann Pouliquen • Date: November 8, 2016 • Appears in:
12 Questions With Lisa Kivirist, Farmer, Founder Of Soil Sisters and Women's Rights Advocate.
In August, we were telling you about a great annual event organized by Soil Sisters. This 3-day culinary event involves numerous women-owned farms and celebrates Wisconsin’s family farms and rural life in and around the farming communities. From farming to farm made culinary experience, this event offers activities including Dinner on the Farm, plentiful on-farm “Green Acres” workshops, a Taste of Place culinary event, plus area restaurants featuring "locavore" specials throughout the weekend.
We had the chance to meet Lisa Kivirist, a national advocate for women in sustainable agriculture. She founded and leads the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, an award- winning initiative championing female farmers and food-based entrepreneurs.
We share with you her experience in farming and vision of sustainability living.
How did you become a farmer?
I didn’t come into farming in the most expected way. I am not a country girl, I was raised in a pretty typical Chicago suburb, but I love food and the community that good food brings.
In a nutshell, after I graduated college I had what my mum still calls “a normal phase of my life” where I had a regular job in the city and where I met my husband John.
I quickly realize that it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be outside in a place where I could see stars, I wanted more independence and freedom in my schedule than what the corporate world allows. And more importantly I wanted to make a difference by doing something that I felt good about.
So at the time we were doing what many people do in Chicago: heading north for a typical camping – biking- hiking outdoor weekend. And that’s when I really fell in love with the rural area and everything about it. At the time you could buy a studio in Chicago for the same price as a big property in the countryside. That how our journey started 20 years ago… and it is still very much a journey of learning and experimenting.
What is your activity today?
My goal has always been a little different than other farmers. I try to generate my income on the farm but not exclusively just to farming. Diversity is key. We grow vegetables but we also run a small bed and breakfast, I organize workshops and work with nonprofit organization. I also wrote a book called Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers.
So how did Soil Sisters start?
When we started our activity 20 years ago, the Internet was just starting. We felt isolated and the community was not as strong as it is now but we quickly found good friends, particularly through the MOSES farmers.
Then, 8 years ago I decided to do an intro class on farming and 30 women showed up… I was like “who are all these girls??”. It made me realize the importance of building network; we needed a place and excuses to connect and share with each other. So, I came home and literally drew an hour radius around the map where our farm is and invited to a potluck any women I knew or heard about who would share the values of sustainability and local food: Gardener, chef, girls I ran into in the farmers’ market…
8 years later we are over 150 women and we get together regularly over good wine and good food. Lot of things grew from that: businesses, partnerships, nonprofit organizations but also precious friendships. It is also a great way to introduce women to the multitude of resources available for us.
The women in the movement are incredibly supportive, collaborative and helpful to each other. That was a key role in us staying here and motivated my wish to share stories of women farmers through my book.
Knowing the farmers around you, especially into the women farmer community is very empowering. So a world of advice out there: Take the initiative and just start inviting women over. It is amazing what happens when you get to know the farmers around you. It is very empowering, especially in the women farmer community.
How do you think sustainable farming has evolved in the last 10 years?
It is growing! I definitely see a change in the mentalities even though I wish it was faster. There are a lot of new people diving into small scale farming.
I found it very interesting to connect with seniors in the area because they have seen the changes from when they were growing up as kids in the 40s, to where we are now. And they can really realize the impact of industrial and chemical agriculture has had on the land and how things are different. They know.
How do you see farming evolving in the future?
Nothing is going to change until we change policies and funding. In the States we have this huge farm lobby that inherently support industrial farming in many ways. It is a real challenge because it significantly rules our food system and it is the reason why unhealthy food is cheap and healthy items are not affordable for many families. We have a long way to go but it is changing.
Organic market is growing at an average of 20%. The future of farming is going to be increasingly driven by consumers demand. We need to keep on connecting people with farmers like you guys do at Soil Mate and make the change from the bottom.
In your opinion what is the biggest everyday challenge of a small scale farm?
One of the big challenge is to find the right market.
The strategy that has worked for our business is to remain highly diversified in what we do and try to be as sustainable as possible on the farm. Producing our own energy, growing our vegetables… because the less income we need the more freedom we have and the more we can be independent.
There is strength in diversity and it helps overcome the traditional marketing challenges. if the cucumbers don’t do well we can figure out something else!
How did you learn about this? What is your background?
l worked for a few years in advertising in Chicago. I know how marketing works and how to use it. The concept of marketing is simple: convince people by communication and storytelling to buy stuff. It can make a real change in how we eat and what we buy.
The tool kit is the same from back in my “serious life” but the mission is different and has a much deeper sense to me. The sustainable community is also much more fun and much more passionate about what they do.
What are the unique challenges to you as a woman farmer?
Here again the numbers of women going into farming are growing! There is much bigger diversity in farming today.
Nevertheless, we are still operating in a very male dominated field.
One simple example: Tools and machineries are designed for men. It is not about being weaker, it is just that we are made differently. Women carry strength in the lower part of the body where men carry it in their upper half. We are also generally shorter than men. So the way tools are designed can bring issues, especially when operating heavy equipment.
What are you excited about in the future?
What gets me really excited is all the young women in their 20s coming out of school who are committed to careers in agriculture and sustainability. I am sure it is going to have a huge impact. Most of us, me included did a lot of detours before getting to where we are.
A word to anyone will to join the sustainable farming movement?
It is an exciting time! The time is right to jump into farming if it is on your dream list. There are so many resources available today from the nonprofit side and form the agency side.
There are also a lot of support out there so wherever you start you are not doing it alone. There is so much support, collaboration and cooperation within the sustainability community. For anything you want to learn, if you look around they would have somebody to help you, teach you and share their knowledge.
What would you be your advice for someone who wants to go into a more sustainable lifestyle?
Our 20- year journey in sustainability has transformed my life to something way more joyful, rewarding and fun. It is about being able to let go and being less tied to the things around you and the things that you own. It is about being able to know what’s important and not.
What makes you want to get up in the morning?
I’m one of those crazy early people! And that helps when running a B& B. I honestly get up because there is a lot to do! There is a lot of work to be done to change the world. That, more than anything keeps me going and keeps us thinking forward. No sleeping in!
This article interested you? Have a look at this one : How Women Can Save Us From the Looming Farming Apocalypse.