Meet Wisconsin's Soil Sisters | Midwest Living

Meet Wisconsin's Soil Sisters

Once a year, women farmers in south-central Wisconsin throw a party to celebrate their work on the land—and everyone’s invited.

A blue-bowl sky spills clouds over the Wisconsin countryside, sending shadows rolling over Lisa Kivirist’s rows of leeks and onions near Browntown. Nearby, 50 women seated in lawn chairs and at picnic tables outside Lisa’s farmhouse scribble notes as she speaks. 

Some students are small-towners with big gardens and dreams of selling homemade pickles and preserves at outdoor markets. Others are rural neighbors seeking organic certification or looking to learn the business of farm stays—one of the ways Lisa and her husband, John Ivanko, make their living here at Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast. Still others have made the drive from Milwaukee or Chicago, each about two hours east, with a question that they might not even ask out loud yet: Could they leave their day jobs behind and make a living in the country?

If anyone knows the answer, it’s the Soil Sisters—more than 150 women who raise livestock and crops in the rich, hilly land of south-central Wisconsin. And this workshop, aptly titled In Her Boots, opens an annual three-day showcase of what they do best.

Wisconsin soil sisters

Learn from the first ladies of Wisconsin at the Soil Sisters weekend hosted by farmers like Jen Riemer, Lisa Kivirist, Cara Carper, Peg Shaeffer and Kriss Marion.

For most of the 1,000 visitors to Soil Sisters weekend (August 4–6, 2017), the event is a hands-on extravaganza. Think of it as a multisite open house with your pick of ways to try out farm life. You can collect eggs with a family that raises free-range chickens in Browntown or pull into the drive just after the goats have been fed at Scotch Hill Farm over in Brodhead, where you’ll bake up savory biscuits using organic flours and Wisconsin cheese. Three towns over, in Blanchardville, you can create a crunchy, living mix of fermented veggies and meet the docile heritage pigs that Soil Sister April Prusia raises old-style, on a pastured prairie.

The New Farmers

On Soil Sisters weekend, women farmers of south-central Wisconsin (like Lauren Rudersdorf,  above, with her husband, Kyle), open their doors, fields and even tables to visitors. Snap a food photo, stir up a pesto, tour a farm-based bed-and breakfast, and sample locally grown goods served fresh, baked, broiled, pickled and even fermented.

In all, Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life offers 17 workshops, including one in a vintage Airstream trailer known as the Barmadillo, where you can mix local herbs and vegetables with spirits from Wisconsin distilleries. Along the way, you can also purchase farm-stand flowers, eggs, organic tomatoes and greens, grass-fed meats, and artisan cheeses to take home.

Lisa found herself in a unique place in agricultural history when she and John gave up advertising careers in Chicago to move here in 1997. As Lisa outlines in her book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers (New Society Publishers, $24.95), farms across the country were consolidating then. But a separate movement was growing in which women—who historically had been prevented by law from securing bank loans, owning land or even retaining the rights to farm products they produced—were taking up farming in record numbers, empowered by rights earned in the ’60s and ’70s.

At the same time, consumers were learning to appreciate organic foods and CSAs, or community-supported agriculture. The rolling terrain of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area—unsuitable for large-scale agriculture—had kept it an enclave of small farms. It was a perfect fit for women getting a toehold in farming. “Women starting new farms today are particularly smaller-scale endeavors,” Lisa says. “They’re very community-focused.”

Out of all that came the Soil Sisters, which Lisa launched in 2010 when she drew a circle around her farm on a map, designating an hour’s drive in any direction, and invited every woman she knew in that circle to a potluck. “They were farmers, gardeners, food enthusiasts, chefs—all women I would like to linger over a bottle of wine with,” she recalls. “There was no master plan. It was just, ‘Let’s start something.’ ” 

Soil Sisters weekend launched two years later, in 2012, and expanded two years after that to include workshops and classes. Since then, it has grown to include meals. Cow and Quince restaurant in New Glarus hosts a Taste of Place kickoff dinner. Dorothy’s Range in Blanchardville offers a more formal, plated farm-to-table feast. Families with kids opt for a picnic featuring wood-fired pizzas at Inn Serendipity. 

Despite all the soil this group has turned, literally and metaphorically, Lisa still describes it as loosely organized. “We don’t have offices or a bank account or anything like that. There was no master plan,” she says. “But as you know, women get things done over good food and wine” (

Dine in or stretch out: When dinnertime rolls around, you can kick back for wood-fired pizzas at a family-style picnic or enjoy pasture-raised pork served in a restored barn.

Drift off in the driftless

Reservations fill up quickly for theSoil Sisters weekend, but you can stay overnight at these spots year-round.

1. Circle M Market Farm, Blanchardville
If you’re awake at sunrise, you might see Kriss Marion tromping through the Swiss chard, harvesting produce to pair with bartered local cheese and bread for your breakfast. Brave the outdoor shower (indoor facilities also available), explore the glamper and then spend the day in a hammock.
2. Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast, Browntown
Unwind in the farmhouse library or try life-size outdoor chess. You can also learn about the wind and sun energies that power this 5-acre organic farm.
3. Lucky Dog Farm Stay, New Glarus
Get to know the goats, chickens and pigs when you’re not enjoying a massage session. The renovated 1865 stone farmhouse has three guest rooms. Visit its farm-to-table restaurant, Cow and Quince, in town.
4. Dorothy’s Range, Blanchardville Stay in a private section of the main house, a cottage or a comfortably converted outbuilding nestled in a peaceful valley.

Kriss Marion and sidekick Sunny welcome guests to Circle M Market Farm with fresh fare—in this case, heirloom tomatoes and stove-top espresso made with locally roasted beans. At right, this 1968 Holiday Trav’ler, its road-trip days over, makes a cozy-cool B&B at the farm.  

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