Progress report for ONC20-072
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 (3/1/22)
The unfortunate reality of COVID-19, particularly the Delta and Omicron waves, again delayed and detoured this project in ways not initially planned nor expected. We appreciate NC SARE's understanding in extending the timeline for this grant as now, heading into summer, 2022, we finally feel comfortable and safe with outdoor gatherings and can fully immerse in and wrap up this project, while creating tangible resources and tools that will live beyond this grant cycle.
We left the 3/1/21 updates in this report right now for a history and reference point for our team as to where things started and evolved due to the pandemic. In our final report once the summer activities take place, we will be able to better merge and collect these updates into a more cohesive, helpful final report. While we still will definitely meet our overall project deliverables and outreach goals, as we've all been experiencing during COVID-19, we're needing to pivot and embrace new tools beyond the original proposal, such as the virtual space which we didn't even refer to in the original proposal and have found a very helpful tool. Fortunately, building these resources off an existing vibrant founding Soil Sisters network in south central Wisconsin has enabled us to test various outreach and engagement strategies using Zoom and various partnerships.
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.
• 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 (3/1/22)
Key focus areas & updates (again, we will merge all of this in a more helpful/cohesive final report):
- We are currently editing the Network Toolkit content, including feedback and insight from the pilot networks as they launch in-person events this summer. The Toolkit will graphically model a past RTC project, Amplify Our Voices, that was a Toolkit for media awareness and engagement for organic women farmers. The different downloadable PDFs on network building topics (learning circle formats, communication strategies, start-up challenges/opportunities, longevity, community engagement, farm tours/ag education, etc) will enable us to readily edit and expand past this grant's life cycle. The Toolkit will also include case studies of the new networks including their insight and advice as well as input from peer-learning experts such as Jean Eells of E Resources, the leading researching nationally on learning circles.
- The eight new networks are being rebooted with a plan to host events this summer. Our original team member, Kathy Zeman of Simple Harvest Farm Organics (MN) has generously stepped down from the team in order to give a farmers newer to organizing and enthusiastic on bringing women farmer together in her region: Theresa Bentz of Get Bentz Farm. She has been a great addition to the team.
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.
- (Educator and Researcher)
Educational & Outreach Activities
Progress Report Update (3/1/22)
We continued embracing the virtual space to pilot different approaches/topics to garner learning for the Toolkit. Now, with the opportunity to finally safely gather (outdoors), our new networks will be launching their gatherings this spring/summer. These learnings from both the virtual and in-person space will be gathered in the Toolkit.
Other key educational outreach include:
- Presentation at Women, Food & Agriculture Network/WFAN Annual Conference (virtual; 90 minutes):
Soil Sisters: Cultivating Rural Resilience through Local Networks
Presenters: Kriss Marion, Circle M Farm; Dela Ends, Scotch Hill Farm; Lisa Kivirist, Inn Serendipity Farm & Renewing the Countryside
- We were able host three in-person potlucks in South Central Wisconsin during the summer of 2021; however, when the Delta variant hit we were back in the virtual space. We are very much looking forward to focus on in-person gatherings within the new networks with a focus on safer outdoor gatherings once the weather warms up May - August. In the meantime, we continue to embrace the virtual space and hosted several different styles of peer-based learning events including a "Lunch & Learn" series in the learning circle format on different topics including transplants and compost.
- Through a partnership with Farm Well WI, we had the opportunity within our south central network to pilot a mental health awareness program called The Water We Swim In, a four-part pilot series bringing together women farmers and other women in the local rural community for engagement and and using story-sharing as a portal for more engaged discussion around mental health issues. We had over 20 women engaged in this four-part series and received strong feedback on the need to support women in sustainable agriculture to connect and engage in the mental health support space and will be partnering with Farm Well WI and Wisconsin Extension on another new initiative, We COPE, for more tool building in this arena.
- We are excited to -- after a two year COVID-19 hiatus -- reboot our larger Soil Sisters weekend Aug. 5-7, 2022. This includes a larger women farmer day-long educational event on Friday, Aug. 5, hosted at Katy Dickson's Christensen Farm in Browntown, WI. This event will showcase the launch of this project's new Network Toolkit as well as bring together over 12 partner groups bringing different resources and perspectives with a focus on a beginning farmer audience, including NRCS, FSA, Artisan Grains Collaborative and more. The learnings from this collaborative larger women farmer educational event will be included as an element in the Toolkit.
- Inga Witcher, one of our new network hosts and organic dairy farmer in Osseo is also host of the Wisconsin Public Television Show, Around the Farm Table. She and her crew filmed a show focused on Soil Sisters and the importance of women farmer networks over summer, 2021, that will premiere in late May or early June, 2022. We are planning a premiere community event around this show with lots of educational and media outreach opportunities to bring all these educational project pieces together.
- Continued Monroe Times column; see below for full list
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
By Betty Anderson, The Old Smith Place (Brodhead, WI)
Soil Sisters: Our mental health is worth fighting for
By Danielle Zimmerman
Soil Sisters: Enjoy Local Food In The Winter & Stay Alpaca Warm
By Penny Molina
Soil Sisters support economic development through agricultural tourism
By Danielle Matson
Soil Sisters: Building community resilience through connections
By Pat Skogen
Soil Sisters: Reflections on aging in a rural community
By Sarah Kyrie, Mushroom Holler (Argyle)
Soil Sisters: The Mycelium of Forest and Friends
By FL Morris, Grassroots Farm (Monroe)
Soil Sisters: Action beyond envisioning
By Heidi Hoff, Solbakken (Mt. Horeb)
Soil Sisters: Following switchbacks to climb mountains
By April Prusia, Dorothy's Range (Blanchardville)
Soil Sisters: Perennial partnerships build healthy local meat market
By Patty Grimmer (Wonkas Harvest, Hollandale)
Soil Sisters: The support network every new farmer needs
By Dela Ends, Scotch Hill Farm & Innisfree Farmstay
Soil Sisters nourishing spirit in the pandemic
By Roberta Barham, Barham Gardens (Blanchardville, WI)
Soil Sisters: Leaning in and Lifting Up
Soil Sisters: Inspiration for Growth
By Erica Roth, Ewetopia Hil Farm (Albany, WI)
Soil Sisters: Making it happen in good times and in bad
By Betty Anderson, The Old Smyth Place (Brodhead, WI)
Soil Sisters: Growing safety nets with soil brothers and sisters
By LindaDee Derrickson, Bluffwood Landing Farm (Monticello, WI)
Soil Sisters: Working together are two words with huge impact
By Marci Hess, Driftless Prairies (Blanchardville, WI)
Soil Sisters: Strong and secure in abundance and diversity
By Kriss Marion, Circle M Farm (Blanchardville, WI)
Soil Sisters: Life is about food, family, faith and forest
by Anastasia Wolf-Flasch, Riemer Family Farm (Brodhead, WI)
Soil Sisters: A recipe for local resilience
By April Prusia, Dorothy’s Range (Blanchardville, WI)
Soil Sisters: Finding importance in eating, cooking local
By Ashley Wegmueller, The Dairy” Farm Stay and Bo & Olly’s Produce (Monroe WI)
Looking forward to seeds, local food, sisters
By Katy Dickson, Christensen Farm (Browntown, WI)
By Lisa Kivirist, Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B (Browntown, WI)
Rhubarb and resilience - Women share inspiration
Project Report Update (3/1/22)
With our ability to return to outdoor, in-person events this summer, we are looking very forward to rebooting the potluck/learning circle core component of the next six months to full wrap up this project and meet our original goals. We appreciate NC SARE's flexibility and understanding in extending the deadline.
The extra time of this grant during COVID-19 enabled us to expand developing strong partnerships and collaborations. These continue to be a theme in this project, and we're documenting these networking and collaboration ideas for the Toolkit, including multiple ways to partner with other organizations and projects to strengthen their women farmer outreach, resulting in a true "win-win."
For example, the new NRCS-funded Wisconsin Women in Conservation initiative/WiWiC (a partnership between RTC, Wisconsin Farmers Union, MOSES and Michael Fields Agricultural Institute as the lead) needed to connect with women landowners to encourage them to write Land Conservation Plans with their county conservationist. Because our county conservationist was already a Soil Sisters network member and we had this existing network of connected women, 18 women are now working on their land conservation plans, to be completed by June, 2022. For most of these women, it is the first time they took such strategic conservation action on their land. The total Land Conservation Plan deliverable for the three-year WiWiC project is 40, so this is a significant contribution.
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."
Progress Report 3/1/22:
The content of this Toolkit we are working on could very readily evolve into an official SARE publication, if there is interest. It would be a strong companion and build on the recent Reaching Women in Agriculture: A Guide to Virtual Engagement.
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!