Women Caring for the Land

Wisconsin Farmers Union and Pheasants Forever of Wisconsin are gearing up for another round of Women Caring for the Land events this summer. These events, originally developed by the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, connect women farmers and landowners with conservation resource professionals and the knowledge to help them make ecologically responsible decisions on their land.

MADISON — Women who attended a recent conservation learning circle geared toward female landowners didn’t listen to a lecture or even view a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, they connected with other women landowners, creating a space to share ideas and resources to help one another.

“This event is uniquely for women landowners,” said Lisa Kivirist, In Her Boots coordinator with Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. “We love to learn from each other and support each other, and we all have such interesting and compelling stories to share.”

Kivirist, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, owns 5 acres outside of Monroe where she runs Inn Serendipity, a bed and breakfast. There, she grows food for guests and local restaurants, while also advocating for the land through Soil Sisters, a women-led organization with upcoming events in August.

“It was meeting other people that really sparked me,” she said.

One by one, each woman in attendance explained their landowner experiences and how they are connected to the land.

Karen Goebel, a Madison woman and former UW-Extension employee, explained how she owns land in Indiana, a farm that has been in her family for 100 years. However, because she resides in Wisconsin, there is little she can do as her neighbors establish a concentrated animal feeding operation for hogs, creeping up on her property from many sides.

She came to the learning circle because she’s interested in the Conservation Reserve Program for the land, with a desire to keep it out of animal production.

Susan Skebel shared that she and her siblings just inherited their family’s farm in Kewaunee County.

“With the way agriculture is changing, I want to do my part,” Skebel said.

Margaret Madden owns land in Illinois that used to be her grandparents’ farm, kept in soybeans, corn and wheat, with about 60 acres of timber.

Just that past weekend, seven people had approached her wondering if she was interested in selling the property or selling hunting rights to the property.

“It’s nice that people are interested, but I worry what they’ll do with the land,” she said.

A former environmentalist for the State of Illinois, Madden said it’s hard to find the resources she’s looking for as farmers and others try to make moves onto her land. She attended the learning circle to find resources about transitioning land to organic as an effort to preserve the land.

“I’m also an artist, but my purpose is in the land,” she added. “You get it in your blood and you want to make sure it doesn’t disappear.”

After working in Madison for years, Julie Case and her family were ready to move to the country. They looked and looked for land but found properties located just outside of Madison were unaffordable. Fortunately, they were able to find a spot outside of Dodgeville with a lower price; unfortunately, it’s now an hour and 20 minutes to get to Madison from their property.

“I’m surrounded by absentee landowners on three sides,” she said.

Most of the neighboring land is leased for hunting rights, with landowners planting alfalfa and corn to attract deer. This is of concern to the Cases as they raise 125 grass-fed sheep, but other concerns have also arisen, especially in the absence of a landowner checking on the properties next to theirs.

Deb Tomish married a horticulture instructor and together, they were looking for land near Madison. Much like Case, the land was expensive and hard to afford, but Tomish was also finding there were land-use restrictions in Dane County that also made finding the right property difficult. Eventually, they found a property, but after her husband died six years ago, Tomish has been exploring options to keep the land in agriculture.

“I have someone farming the land now,” she said. “But there is noticeable erosion and lots of burdock that I don’t want to spray for. And a developer across the road wants to put 20 houses up.”

“I don’t want to see this land go to ticky-tacky,” another woman commented. “A lot of us are like-minded in that we’re all conservationists at heart.”

While these women may not have had resources available to them before they arrived, they left with three women contacts in organizations that are sure to have the resources they need. Lexie Meyer, acting county executive director for USDA Marquette County Farm Service Agency; Twyla Kite, district conservationist of the Portage USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; and Tally Hamilton, a farm bill biologist in southeast Wisconsin for Pheasants Forever, were all on hand to discuss what resources are available from their organizations.

Meyer explained how the FSA and NRCS work together and are often co-located, with FSA serving as the record-keeping side for the NRCS. She recommended women landowners get signed up for monthly email updates from their local FSA office and if interested, sign up for the state office’s newsletter.

Kite explained how NRCS is a “technical agency” that also assists with financial help through a variety of programs offered. The main one she thought women landowners would be interested in is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program; applications are accepted all year and are typically funded if the project ranks high and has a plan ready to implement once funds are received.

Women landowners may also be interested in the NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program, she said.

Kivirist added that the key first step is to meet local representatives in both the FSA and NRCS offices as they can visit the land and get a feel for the owner’s goals. Kite agreed in that for either organization, it boils down to what the goals of the landowners are in order to match them with the right program.

“We’ll help walk you through the process to decide what programs would work best,” Kite said.

Because Pheasants Forever is a nationwide organization, Hamilton can assist in connecting landowners to federal, state and local programs that may be available.

“We’re a good starting point,” she said. “We can help you understand your goals and how to go about achieving them.”

The learning circle concluded with a tabletop soil health demonstration led by Meyer, Kite and Hamilton, with discussion continuing among the women even after the event had officially ended.

This event was one of four Kivirist organized in April and May, inviting women landowners to learn from each other and connect with local resources. The circles were made possible through MOSES; Women, Food and Agriculture Network; and the NRCS.

“Every time we do this, we do different things as different women attend and different ideas are shared,” Kivirist said.

For more information about upcoming In Her Boots events, visit https://mosesorganic.org/in-her-boots or contact Kivirist at Lisa@mosesorganic.org.

In addition, Pheasants Forever and Wisconsin Farmers Union will be holding several Women Caring for the Land events this summer. These events, originally developed by Women, Food and Agriculture Network, mirror ideas shared at recent women conservation learning circles, aiming to connect women farmers with conservation resource professionals and the knowledge to make informed decisions on their land.

More information on these upcoming Women Caring for the Land events can be found at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/events.