Soil Sisters: Increasing women farmer-led education and opportunities through local network building and learning circles

Progress report for ONC20-072

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $39,976.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Renewing the Countryside
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Jan Joannides
Renewing the Countryside
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Project Information


In this project, Soil Sisters, a program of the Minnesota-based non-profit Renewing the Countryside (RTC), will launch eight new women-led local networks and learning circles in Minnesota and Wisconsin alongside creating a Toolkit for women farmers anywhere interested in establishing such a peer-based network. 

Soil Sisters originated in southern Wisconsin in 2012 thanks to an NCR-SARE Youth Educator Grant as a single tour day championing women farmers. It has grown to one of the largest and longest running sustainable agriculture women farmer networks nationally  with over 240 members and was awarded the 2019 Top Rural Development Initiative by Wisconsin Rural Partners. Renewing the Countryside is now the fiscal agent for Soil Sisters and that original tour day is a full annual weekend of on-farm events on women-owned farms.

Given Soil Sisters’ successful track record, this project will support the eight-member Farm Partner team to replicate this Wisconsin network concept in their local communities, collectively hosting 24 meetings involving 400+ women farmers.  This project will also create a Toolkit curating best practices to support additional network launches, stemming from the dozens of women farmers beyond our partner team wanting to start a Soil Sisters group and asking RTC for resources.

Progress Report Update (3/1/21)

The onset of COVID-19 right as this project was originally scheduled to caused us to regroup and reevaluate our strategies and timeline for fulfilling the goals and deliverables of this project. While the pandemic felt like a curve ball at the time (especially for a project originally rooted in face-to-face connections in person), the reality is today's situation adds up to what will be in the end an even stronger project in ways we couldn't have imagined originally. 

Two key updates to the project include:

•  An extension request through 8/31/22 (currently being processed), which will enable our team to fully achieve the intended outcomes and impact of this project both in the virtual COVID-19 space with increased opportunity to incorporate in the original in-person component as safety protocols allow into late 2021 and more realistically into 2022.

In April, 2020, we originally requested and received a six-month extension which would have had this original one-year grant wrapping up 10/31/21. Although we didn't realize it when we made the request in April, 2020 (as we like many thought this wouldn't last this long!) this original extension deadline would have caused us -- given the unknowns of gathering during summer, 2021 -- to reinvent the whole project in the virtual space.  This new and final extension gives us the needed time and space to both utilize virtual as we have been while moving toward returning (gratefully and enthusiastically!) to in-person components.

Additionally, this enables us to tie in this project to our larger, annual Soil Sisters August in-person event, now realistically scheduled for August 5-7, 2022.  The original 2021 event was canceled due to COVID-19 and we are currently researching possibilities for some form of broader virtual education/outreach for August, 2021, given the uncertainties of events and gatherings during vaccine distribution.

We very much appreciate NCR-SARE's understanding, support and ideas on how to best manage this project under these unprecedented times and look forward to the final result being an even strong product and outcomes.

•  Continuing to research, incorporate and test various networking components in the virtual space. As we navigate the pandemic-motivated virtual space, we have been employing a strategic lens on decisions and focus on creating tools and elements that will last beyond COVID-19.  Utilizing the virtual space can be a very successful element of on-going networking. In-person gatherings in the winter, for example, have historically been a challenge due to unpredictable weather and geographic distance to travel in rural areas.  By curating and learning about virtual spaces and how to create interactive, safe spaces via Zoom (versus just webinar/lecture formats) and incorporating this learning into the final Toolkit will create resources that last and grow long into the future.




Project Objectives:

• Establish 8 new women-farmer led networks (5 in Wisconsin; 3 in Minnesota).

• Facilitate 24 learning circle educational network meetings. Each of the eight women farmer partners will lead 3 sessions, providing feedback and input.

• Directly involve 400+ women farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This will be accomplished by each of the 8 new networks reaching 50 women farmers in their region, roughly an hour radius.

• Capture best practices and ideas from the Soil Sisters Wisconsin group and our Farm Partners team into a downloadable Toolkit that will compile curriculum/meeting topic, agendas, tour day ideas, outreach learnings.


Progress Report Update (3/1/21)

We will continue to work toward these original objectives and will readily meet the 400+ final deliverables, with this now hybrid of both in-person and virtual space.  While the original proposal focused specifically on outreach via the eight local networks, we now can embrace a wider educational platform that is still based on the women's learning circle, collaborative model.

A big component of this that we have focused on the past six months has been researching and learning about creating more intimate/safe space and "conversations" in the virtual space that enable peer-to-peer information exchange between women farmers. While a creative challenge to facilitate such spaces, as platforms like Zoom garner wider acceptance this is much more of a reality that, again, we see creating tools and resources that will be used long past the pandemic.

We will be piloting a series of "virtual potlucks" for the original Green County Area Wisconsin Soil Sisters group launching in March, 2021 and continuing through December with various women farmer hosts doing a skill-share and farm tour and utilizing Zoom's growing list of features such as break-out rooms for networking and connections. When safety protocols allow, hopefully at some point into later 2021, we will switch back to in-person formats. This process will be documented via surveys and informal farmer feedback on what is working (or not) and added into the Toolkit.  We have already surveyed the farmers on meeting preferences, finding Zoom the strongly preferred platform over ones like Google Meet.  There was no consistent answer on the best days/times of days to gather so we will let the farmers hosting each session decide what is best for them. An interesting challenge (with learnings documented in the Toolkit) is both the Green County group and other new start-ups will intentionally seek out and have a diverse group of women farmer participants, from younger/beginning farmers that are quite online savvy to older and more seasoned farmers in the field, but newer to the tech components.

The learnings from these virtual gatherings will be in the Toolkit that the farmer team will use to launch the eight new networks into later 2021/2022, depending on COVID-19.

We have also done one-on-one interviews and communications with the project Farmer Team (the eight women farmers who will be launching local networks) to explore virtual alternatives and other communications options before we can return to in-person.  While our Farmer Team is deeply committed to network organizing and connecting local women farmers, doing so exclusively in the virtual space will be challenging, per farmer team input.  As we develop the Toolkit and move to returning to in-person gatherings, we are exploring other creative ways to tap into/collect and share the expertise of the our Farmer Team through interviews and case study story collection which can be used in various educational outreach and online.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • FL Morris (Educator)
  • Dela Ends (Educator)
  • Katy Dickson (Educator)
  • Bethany Storm (Educator)
  • April Prusia (Educator)
  • Victoria Solomon (Educator and Researcher)


Involves research:
Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
12 Published press articles, newsletters

Participation Summary:

12 Farmers
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Progress Report Update (3/1/21)

Our primary focus the last six months has been on the research and investigation phase of various aspects of understanding virtual best practices and how these can be applied in our upcoming test "virtual potluck" pilot.  Lead Lisa Kivirist has participated in various Zoom/virtual training, has interviewed professionals in this arena for input and has attended various virtual settings for ideas. 

With our underlying goal of creating women-farmer driven content that lasts past the pandemic, we facilitated a monthly women-farmer led column in our local newspaper, The Monroe Times.  This now collection of over twelve columns has been both well-received by our community and enables a direct channel to amplify local women farmer voices, leading to both awareness and increased marketing/economic vitality for their businesses. 

Additionally, we worked with female journalism students from the University of Wisconsin to do interviews with several women farmers resulting in an article in the 2020 issue of CURB:  Reduce, Reuse, Revolutionize:  Female Farmers cultivate sustainability and equality.

Soil Sisters was also cited as a leading example of rural, grassroots networking in the Rural Voices for Prosperity: A Report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity (pg. 60).  Lisa Kivirist is working with the commission on additional ways we can help connect our learnings and experience state-wide.

Lisa Kivirist is currently working on creating a new/updated web page under the main Renewing the Countryside page that better organizes our various existing women farmer resources more cohesively and user-friendly and create a portal for more timely/current updates like these types of columns. 


Soil Sisters:  Monroe Times Column Log


Monroe Times

Soil Sisters: Inspiration for Growth

By Erica Roth, Ewetopia Hil Farm (Albany, WI)



Monroe Times

Soil Sisters: Making it happen in good times and in bad

By Betty Anderson, The Old Smyth Place (Brodhead, WI)



Monroe Times

Soil Sisters: Growing safety nets with soil brothers and sisters

By LindaDee Derrickson, Bluffwood Landing Farm (Monticello, WI)




Monroe Times

Soil Sisters: Working together are two words with huge impact

By Marci Hess, Driftless Prairies (Blanchardville, WI)




Monroe Ties

Soil Sisters: Strong and secure in abundance and diversity

By Kriss Marion, Circle M Farm (Blanchardville, WI)




Monroe Times

Soil Sisters: Life is about food, family, faith and forest

by Anastasia Wolf-Flasch, Riemer Family Farm (Brodhead, WI)




Monroe Times

Soil Sisters:  A recipe for local resilience

By April Prusia, Dorothy’s Range (Blanchardville, WI)




Monroe Times

Soil Sisters: Finding importance in eating, cooking local

By Ashley Wegmueller, The Dairy” Farm Stay and Bo & Olly’s Produce (Monroe WI)




Monroe Times

Looking forward to seeds, local food, sisters

By Katy Dickson, Christensen Farm (Browntown, WI)



Monroe Times

By Lisa Kivirist, Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B (Browntown, WI)

Rhubarb and resilience - Women share inspiration







Learning Outcomes

12 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Progress Report Update (3/1/21)

The bulk of our project outcomes will be coming up within the next 18 months, as we take our research and learning from the past six months and put that into action (and new learning!).  Lisa Kivirist has been working on a draft of the Toolkit that will ultimately grow into the resource for the new networks to utilizing (and give feedback to) as the farmer partners on this project start to organize locally into late summer/early fall 2021.

The collaborative connections of this project enable us to continue to amplify outreach and outcomes of this project.  New women farmers joining the Green County list serve gain knowledge, new connections made for new grant applications applied for and received (including a recent SARE Farmer Rancher grant that has an expanded farmer team:  FNC21-1282/Resources & Recipes to Support Farmers to Diversify Income through Value-Added Bakery Product Sales."


Thank you to NCR-SARE for their understanding and full support of the need for creative reinvention under COVID-19 and, as in our case, the need for extensions and re-evaluations along the way.  This spirit of collaboration and partnership will make all the end results even stronger.  The Virtual Field Day Tips and Tricks resources were particularly helpful -- much appreciated!

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.