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Photo by Brooke Bechen  

Reedy raises Bluefaced Leicester, English Leicester and Merino sheep, many of which recently lambed. Her flock currently consists of about 40 ewes and 70 lambs.

Fostering connections
Learning circle builds camaraderie among women landowners

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 or contact Kivirist at

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

Photo by Heidi Clausen  

A beef calf observed a stranger while out on a greening pasture late last month near Stone Lake in Washburn County.

Successful small towns focus on backing entrepreneurs, engaging youth

RICE LAKE — Can small towns be cool?

Yes, absolutely, keynote speaker David Ivan of Michigan State University told those attending the Wisconsin Rural Summit held April 24-25 in Rice Lake. “Can Small Towns Be Cool?” was the theme of this year’s conference, which drew dozens of community leaders from across the state.

Despite aging populations and economic decline, many small, rural towns nationwide — from the tiny ranching town of Ord, Neb., to Sparta, N.C., which has developed a successful workforce education effort leading to new jobs and 12 percent productivity growth — have reinvigorated themselves in recent years, according to Ivan, who has a Ph.D. in community sustainability and vitality.

One common thread among thriving small towns is the engagement of young people in designing their hometowns and a focus on strong social capital, with networks that link and bond community members. Young professionals clubs are crucial, no matter the size of the community, according to Ivan.

“Provide opportunities for (young people) to offer their voice in community decision-making. Leadership in rural places often is the same that’s been in place for 15 to 20 years. People sometimes feel that there’s not a pathway for them to contribute to what’s happening in the community,” he said.

Typically, people won’t work for goals they don’t “own,” Ivan said, but small towns often just expect people to “wash their rental cars,” so to speak; they must feel like they’re part of the community and will benefit from its success.

Reach out to youth

Reviving a small town begins with creating hope and marrying that hope with a vision for the future, Ivan said. Sometimes, the culture in rural towns if one of jealousy and being judgmental of another person’s success, he said. However, successful entrepreneurial communities have just the opposite attitude, propelling people higher in a meaningful, purposeful way through a range of business support tools, networking, options for accessing capital and youth engagement.

“They drill down to the youth,” Ivan said. “They recognize that they have to plant seeds with the next generation of entrepreneurs in their communities. ... Reach out to young adults. Get them to believe in their community.”

Fairfield, Iowa, is the “poster child” of community-based entrepreneurship, he said. The weekly newspaper features entrepreneurs in a weekly column, and the local high school has an entrepreneur hall of fame, as well as an extensive mentoring program. A local “angel” offers venture funds to complement traditional resources.

As a result of these efforts, Fairfield has gained 3,000 new jobs in recent years and tripled average personal income, Ivan said, and the community has repositioned itself from a regional perspective.

Columbus, Ind., also has created an “ecosystem” in which entrepreneurs who want to connect with others like them can thrive, with new networks, mentoring and online business resources accessible any time of the day. Most people starting a business get their information between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Ivan said. They like to “fly under the radar” to avoid having others ask them what they’re up to. Columbus also has a high school business planning competition focused on viability and innovation.

Wisconsin’s Juneau County, a very rural area with a population of about 25,000, has launched a countywide club for entrepreneurship and innovation, using a “big-city approach” to connect people and promote synergy, Ivan said. Viroqua has done a holiday pop-up shop and “54665” podcast about small businesses.

“It’s a tremendous tool in terms of pushing any button we can push to help emerging entrepreneurs get started,” Ivan said.

Janesville has hosted a “Shark Tank” style competition with 40 contestants. The winner received free rent for a year, and all participants received follow-up assistance. Dave Armstrong, executive director of the Barron County Economic Development Corp., said many entrepreneurs build their companies to the level of their expertise and education, then get “stuck,” so ongoing training is key.

Often, a downtown is the face of the community: “People will judge the vitality of a community based on the health of that downtown,” Ivan said.

As a way to boost its struggling downtown, Marion, Va., population 8,500, started a small business boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs. A $5,000 grant is offered to new businesses in targeted sectors. Jonesville, Mich., assists businesses with market data research and negotiation of lease arrangements.

As a way to help fund community economic development initiatives, Ord, Neb., population 1,200, tapped into some of the money that changes hands when farms pass from one generation to the next. Many times, that money is lost to the community forever, so Ord developed a wealth transfer plan so families can commit a certain percentage, such as 5 percent, to the town.

As a result of this effort, Ord has built a “war chest” of $10 million, Ivan said. Much of the endowment has been funneled into a youth entrepreneurship program. Often in small towns, graduates get the message that they have to leave after high school; communities must work to encourage them to “boomerang back.”

“It’s all about enhancing long-term vitality,” he said.

A sense of place

The next generation is the first to identify more strongly with “quality of place” and place attachment than with their employers, Ivan said. A recent Michigan State survey of 40,000 graduates over 4½ years revealed that 35 percent, while they expected to launch their careers in a large city, could see themselves returning to smaller towns.

Westphalia, Mich., in the heart of an agricultural area and a “one-church town” with 500 residents, engaged the faith community and local youth groups to build a student-run business in an empty storefront downtown. The sandwich and ice cream shop, in business for eight years, has become a gathering place for local young people, with a line out the door most weekdays after 3 p.m., Ivan said.

“It sends a great message to the youth,” he said.

Dubuque, Iowa, has completely changed its trajectory after the struggles of the 1980s, according to Ivan. The community is engaging area talent from universities and colleges and better connecting with the region at large. Dubuque has established a young professionals college chapter to connect with the chamber of commerce and developed an internship academy and loan forgiveness program.

“If you have a positive internship experience, you’re more likely to pick that company and therefore, that community as a future place to work and live,” he said.

YouTube videos have worked to change the general perception of the community among young people, Ivan said, adding that the next five years may define the next 50 for this city of 60,000 people.

Ivan said it’s important for rural communities to build their local talent and workforce infrastructure; to that end, they must seek to enhance broadband connectivity, education systems, medical facilities, downtowns, access to affordable housing and childcare, and renewable-energy initiatives.

Pella, Iowa, perhaps best known as the home to Vermeer Manufacturing and Pella Windows, developed a 21st-century version of the “welcome wagon” in an effort to try to retain talented young professionals. Many workers stay a year and a half or less, but the “Positively Pella” campaign weaves young professionals into the fabric of the community and has led to a “marked” improvement in talent retention at both companies, Ivan said.

“As you look at your small towns, think about ‘What are we doing to welcome newcomers?’ “ he said. Key to young professional engagement is the “third place” factor, or a place to hang out outside of work and home.

Ivan said it’s important for community leaders to set the narrative in their communities, as people tend to move in the direction of their conversations. Part of this is creating positive memories for young people as they grow up. For example, Bothel, Wash., hangs banners celebrating youth. Jonesville, Mich., built a rock wall in response to the requests of children.

“We tend to discount the youth voice,” Ivan said. “Create economic and career choices that are appealing to youth to combat brain drain.”

He encourages small towns to build on their unique history, culture and assets to foster a sense of community pride and increase social interaction.

Finally, Ivan said, “successful towns have a conviction that they have to make things happen themselves” instead of waiting for outsiders to provide direction or funding.

Community members in Argonia, Kan., for example, built their own grocery store/convenience store after the local shop closed, and they’re pursuing a housing development through which they would offer homes at cost to new families; closing costs would be paid for families with children.

“They’re not waiting for things to happen to them,” Ivan said. “They’re being proactive.”

Photo by Jerry Davis  

Morels are sometimes found beside elm tree stumps.

Green New Deal discussion puts focus on ag

The agriculture, forestry and other land use sector of the economy accounts for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts released the framework of the Green New Deal earlier this year, farm groups met the release of the non-binding resolution that calls for a shift in energy production and public resources to carbon-neutralize the U.S. by 2030 with a chilly reception.

The National Farmers Union said the resolution is meant to kickstart broad discussions on how the U.S. will both mitigate and adapt to climate change, with NFU Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Communications Rob Larew saying in a news release, “Farmers Union members understand the need for action on climate change, and they will be active in ensuring farmers have the tools and incentives they need to both adapt to and help mitigate climate change.”

Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson was less diplomatic, calling the proposal “totally unrealistic.”

“It is clear its authors and supporters have spent no time in rural areas or even have a basic understanding of how food is produced,” Nelson said in a news release.

However, there is optimism from some parts of the agriculture industry that the Green New Deal could have a positive impact on farming.

Part of the Green New Deal calls for “a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food,” and for the government to work “collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the U.S. to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.”

One area where the agriculture industry could play a large role in meeting the goal of a carbon-neutral future is that where the sector contributes to 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This estimate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, does not include the CO2 that ecosystems remove from the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in biomass, dead organic matter and soils, which offset about 20 percent of emissions from the sector.

To try to get more of those in agriculture on board with the Green New Deal, the National Family Farm Coalition and the Pesticide Action Network hosted a “Farmers for a Green New Deal” online forum April 24.

“Farmers have fewer options today as profits are leaving farms and collecting in seed and chemical company corporate boardrooms instead of our communities,” said forum moderator Ahna Kruzic of the Pesticide Action Network. “Farm incomes are in free-fall, farms are getting ever larger, and just a few companies control the markets for grain, meat, seeds, inputs and many other products.

“Not only can we sequester carbon and mitigate the impacts of climate change through agriculture ... but a transition to these methods must revitalize our farms, our communities and our economies.”

Panelist Patti Naylor, an organic farmer in Iowa and board member of the Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders, said the Green New Deal discussion provides an opportunity for the agriculture industry to look in the mirror and see ways it can change.

Naylor said 30 percent of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, while between 2007 and 2012, more than 20 percent of Iowa’s pasture land was converted to crop land.

“From an Iowa perspective, I see industrial agriculture all around me,” Naylor said. “Industrial agriculture is very capital-intensive, with large machinery and a high reliance on technology.

“Here in Iowa, I see farmers stressed for financial reasons. It’s a real ongoing farm crisis.”

Naylor said that for agriculture to accomplish the goals set forth by the Green New Deal, greater diversity would be required in the types of farms, farmers and crops. She said a parity system that would pay a living wage would help accomplish that transition.

“A parity system would include fair prices, supply management and food reserves,” Naylor said. “These New Deal policies were put in place in the 1930s but then dismantled by bipartisan agreement and replaced by today’s free-market, supply-and-demand form of agriculture. That’s what’s put us in the jeopardy that we’re in now.

“By changing the economics of agriculture, farmers change how they use their land, we change how we grow our food, and it changes how we look at the world and the resources that the world provides.”

Jordan Treakle, policy director of National Family Farm Coalition, said that while the Green New Deal is unlikely to make any political headway this year, candidates in the 2020 presidential elections are likely to begin weighing in with their stance on the proposal soon.

“Making sure the government is receptive and listening to the needs of rural communities is critical,” Treakle said. “Legislatively, the Green New Deal is a vague, non-binding resolution with very little content on food and agriculture issues.

“The benefit of that is that it’s carved out this space to talk about these issues.”