On a recent March morning following a rainstorm, Wisconsin farmers woke up to find their farms covered in sheets of ice. Cattle rancher Sylvia Burgos Toftness was soon out in the thick of it, tending fences; the grass-fed, certified organic cows on her 72-acre ranch, Bull Brook Keep, weren’t going to wait for the sun to melt the ice.
When you’re a woman committed to managed grazing—which involves rotating cattle around to a different paddock or section of pasture every day or two—getting up in the morning to move fences and cattle is part of the job. But for Toftness, a Baby Boomer who bought her ranch in 2009, learning how to do that job may have been impossible without the help, support, and education of other farmers—especially other women farmers.
A broadcast journalist formerly from New York, Toftness says she and her husband “entered farming when most people are retiring.” But she also joined the ranks of women farmers amid a relative boom: between 1997 and 2017, the number of women serving as the principal producers on U.S. farms grew from 209,700 to 766,500, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2017 Census of Agriculture.
This last year saw a huge—at least on paper—23 percent leap in the count. Though the USDA has just begun allowing farms to list more than one operator, which means that a great deal of women who may have been involved in their family’s operations all along are just now being counted.
Lucky for Toftness, what also began to emerge in Wisconsin around 2009 was a fledgling movement of women supporting other women in learning the nuts and bolts of sustainable farming. As Toftness and her husband were getting the ranch up and running, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) was developing what has become the successful In Her Boots program, coordinated by Lisa Kivirist.
Kivirist—who runs a solar-powered bed and breakfast, bakery, and organic garden in southern Wisconsin—first started networking with other women by throwing a simple potluck. She invited all the women farmers within an hour’s drive for dinner and conversation. From the first 12-person potluck, the In Her Boots network has grown to include more than 20 Wisconsin counties, and Kivirist is available to help start additional groups on demand.
Kivirist’s own potluck klatch is now 200 members strong and includes a listserv for exchanging know-how and providing assistance, whether it’s delivering a lamb at 2 a.m. or sharing farming tips, such as farm tools by women, for women, designed to fit women’s frames.
Because Toftness began sustainable farming as a second career, she often found herself networking through MOSES. This soon led her to the In Her Boots network. So far, it has proved valuable for making connections with other women farmers,” she says. She has found that other women are more likely to understand the challenges she faces, and the group creates a “safe space” away from the unspoken pressure to farm like a man.
She has also found it helpful to hear others speak frankly about “how they adjust their farming practices to accommodate smaller body frames, aging bodies, and the perceptions of suppliers and customers.”
Now, as her ranch celebrates its tenth year, Toftness serves on the MOSES board, and she is in good company among women farmers. As of 2017, there are roughly 121,000 women who have been principal operators on their farms for five years or fewer, and another 110,000 who’ve been farming for six to 10 years.
The Midwest Landscape for Women Sustainable farmers
Midwest women in sustainable farming face all the same issues as their male counterparts—lack of markets and infrastructure, the challenges of building and maintaining soil health, pesticide drift from industrial farms, and the pressure to earn a livable income while growing nutrient-rich food. But women also face challenges unique to their gender as a result of a legacy farming system built on the primacy of men.
Women farm owners still report difficulties getting loans. Most of the equipment and tools are made for men. And yet, as the networking movement expands, all these things are beginning to change. A number of women-focused farm networks have arisen amidst the closing of the gender gap in farming; some of them are aimed at conventional and organic farmers alike—such as the University of Wisconsin’s Heart of the Farm network for women in the struggling dairy industry—while others are more focused on sustainable farms, such as American Farmland Trust’s Women for the Land program and the Women Food & Ag Network (WFAN) in Iowa.
Kivirist says that In Her Boots grew organically as her potluck idea took off, and members realized how much help they had to offer each other. In addition to answering farming questions and making themselves available for middle-of-the-night lamb birthing, the women of In Her Boots have helped each other with soil fertility and weed management, two persistent sustainability challenges where others’ experience is invaluable. They help each other apply for farm grants and achieve positions in the agricultural infrastructure, and they guide each other through working the system, to fight a land grab, or develop a new income stream.
For Toftness, Kivirist, and others, it helps that the network is composed of women farming in a sustainable way. Kivirist says that women farmers and sustainable practices go hand in glove.
“You definitely see a priority of land stewardship and conservation [among women],” says Kivirist. “[They are] stewarding a healthy landscape for future generations, a strong commitment to local community.”
However, data on women in sustainable farming is harder to come by. For one thing, the USDA doesn’t track “sustainable” farms—USDA certified organic is as close as it gets. But USDA statistics do indicate that women are more likely to use organic practices; they’re more likely to grow specialty crops, and they’re more likely to raise small animals such as chickens, goats, and pigs.
In order to rectify that data gap, Kivirist is working with the University of Wisconsin to measure the growth of women in sustainable farming, as well as the economic impact these women have in their economies. Kivirist has anecdotal evidence, collected from conversations at potlucks, that suggests that women are more likely to choose environmentally sound and humane practices, and now she wants to help collect some real data to find out if her hunch is right.
The latest figures from the ag census may also shed some new light on the issue: Between 2007 and 2017, the number of farms selling direct to consumers dropped significantly—climbing from 136,000 in 2007 to 144,000 in 2012, only to drop down to 130,000 in 2017—but farms are earning significantly more from those sales. Those farms in 2017 sold $2.8 billion in goods direct to customers, for an average of nearly $22,000 per farm that year, up from $8,800 in 2007.
While none of those figures directly reflect actual farming practice, they hint at the larger trends of people being willing to pay a premium to support local growers.
Rapid Growth of Women’s Farming Networks—and What’s Next
Kivirist notes that support for women in the rural Midwestern, especially entrepreneurial women such as those who attend her potlucks, was almost non-existent 20 years ago. Minnesota sustainable farmer Cindy Hale, who co-runs Clover Valley Farms in Duluth, Minnesota, agrees. “Ten to 15 years ago, when I went to the local FSA [Farm Service Agency] office to find out how we officially get registered as a farm,” Hale recalls, “they literally told me to come back with my husband—I was livid!”
Hale, who met Toftness and Kivirist through In Her Boots, notes that USDA offices used to be staffed entirely by men, and she contends that a recent increase in women on staff has helped shift the dynamic some.
Despite these obstacles, Kivirist says, the women farmers she talks to are taking the long view. “It’s not about just this year and a profit margin,” she says.
That long-term perspective is also helping Kivirist to look to some of the bigger changes needed in the food and farming policy realm. As the heartbeat of In Her Boots, Kivirist is a networking catalyst and educational pollinator all in one. In addition to running her B&B and hosting podcasts, Kivirist is also the author of Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers, and the driving force behind behind Wisconsin’s “Cookie Bill.”
As she worked to make her inn and farm profitable, Kivirist wanted to add a small home bakery, but ran afoul of the state’s cottage food laws. When her state legislature wouldn’t push the bill forward, Kivirist and two friends from the network took the state to court and won the right to sell home-made baked goods.
This policy work also fits in with Kivirist’s support of the WFAN’s Plate to Politics program as it works to bring more women into politics—and to put women farmers’ policy needs center stage. She cites as an example of the ongoing need to support women farmers’ rights and work an ongoing (and long-running) class action anti-discrimination lawsuit designed to make it easier for women to apply for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans.
“[Women] only received land tenure rights and economic rights in the 70s,” Kivirist says, “so we have come a long way very fast.”
Top photo: Lisa Kivirist (left) at one of her In Her Boots networking potlucks. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Kivirist)