Meet three Wisconsin women changing the face of agriculture, combating gender stereotypes and creating lasting bonds with one another.
Picture a farmer. What do you see?
A young man with dirt on his hands and a cowboy hat. An older man wearing overalls sitting in a rocking chair. Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
But just when you think you know a farmer, she comes along.
She’s not the farmer’s wife. She is the farmer.
She’s creating intricate fences for her cattle. She’s unearthing her beets in the rain. She’s carrying 50 pounds of seeds across 40 acres. She’s doing the work typically associated with men.
According to Lisa Kivirist, director of the the Rural Women’s Project, a venture of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), while farmers in Wisconsin are decreasing overall, women are the only group of farmers growing in number.
“Women are this small but vibrant pocket, starting farms in record number, but not only that,” Kivirist says. “Women are prioritizing starting small, locally focused, sustainably focused operations.”
According to Lynn Heuss, program coordinator of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, despite this growth, women are still not recognized by the industry in their numbers.
“Women’s talk is often not appreciated or listened to. They’ve learned that in the agricultural setting, [their] talk doesn’t matter. It’s not as important as what the men say,” Heuss says. “We’re not about male-bashing, but this is just the culture of agriculture.”
However, to Heuss, women are innovators despite this history of discrimination. They create networks and learn from each other. They find their personal values, whether it’s farming sustainably or raising a family in a safe place, and apply them to their agricultural practice.
“They can make the decisions that subvert and sustain their land and the way they pass it on,” Heuss says. “Women are being empowered to make better decisions for themselves and for their land.”
Meet three of these women changing the face of agriculture. Maybe you’ll picture them the next time you think of a farmer.
Sylvia Burgos Toftness: The Farmer
Sylvia Burgos Toftness is as much a storyteller as she is a farmer.
Raised in the Bronx in the 1950s, Burgos Toftness developed a passion for nature by visiting her grandmother’s bungalow in a Hispanic collective in Staten Island, a slice of rural life in the middle of the country’s biggest city. It had no running water or television.
“That’s really where I felt I could breathe,” she says. “My grandmother had a huge garden there. That’s where I felt at ease. There was always an attraction to rural things even growing up in New York City.”
After she finished school, she moved to the Midwest to work at a CBS Radio affiliate. Over the next 40 years, she worked in journalism and public relations. Working for sustainable agriculture clients at a public relations firm sparked her interest in farming.
After taking a few beginning farming classes, she opened Bull Brook Keep, a cattle farm in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, with her husband.
To Burgos Toftness, her farm is not only a working farm; it’s a place to share her story with her customers.
“[Farming] doesn’t hinge completely on what it is that you raise, but rather how it is that you want your life to be led,” she says. “We determined we wanted a place that would be a refuge for some very basic values … where we could practice real stewardship. Help to restore the soils, protect groundwater and raise beef that would be of high value.”
To raise her high-value beef, she farms in accordance with the seasons and her land. She raises her cattle only on grass and has calves born in the spring, the natural bearing time.
“It’s what their systems are designed for,” she says. “Cows remain calm and healthier because they are together in sunshine, fresh air and open pastures year round.”
To Burgos Toftness, this only makes her product better for her customers. She says research indicates beef raised on a 100 percent grass diet is higher in healthy omega-3 acids. Her customers say grass-fed makes for a delicious meal.
She encourages customers to come to her farm and pick up their beef, but she makes it more than a pickup; she offers them tea and coffee. They can walk her fields and witness the entire process of the beef making.
“Sustainable farming is transparent farming. [We] encourage visitors to walk our fields and talk about the challenges and rewards,” she says. “Being able to take a breath, walk on the land and get close to the animals just helps their stories emerge, and they love sharing them.”
Burgos Toftness even uses social media to bring people to her farm. She sends Facebook invitations to her customers, posts photos and writes blog posts nearly every day. For her, this differentiates her farm from others and allows her to connect to her customers.
“People are looking for short stories that continually tell a story. Our story is about having a good life,” she says.
Like many farmers in Wisconsin, her story about a good life has a chapter about a thriving local economy. Burgos Toftness calls farming in Wisconsin “a blessing.”
“We are among many small-scale farmers in this state, and I think Wisconsin is stronger as a state economically because of this,” she says.
For Burgos Toftness, this means her beef isn’t the only thing reaching a wider audience. Her story is, too. She wants people to know that even if her farming seems unfamiliar, it’s open to everyone. And she wants you to come experience it.
“One of the things I do tend to bring up frequently is the fact that I’m from the city,” she says. “If you’re from the city, you know what? I’m like you. Come on out, and don’t be afraid. I’ve got as many questions as you do.”
Shelly Strom: The Cultivator
Gardening is more than a practice to Shelly Strom. It’s art.
“Being outside is incredibly nurturing, so I have the luxury of helping design spaces that allow for that to happen,” she says.
Strom is the director of community land and gardens for Community GroundWorks, a nonprofit focusing on agricultural outreach to underserved populations in Dane County. Strom’s job is to design community gardens, with a focus on Troy Community Gardens, a space a few miles from the Madison Capitol with more than 300 plots for anyone to garden.
Using her background in landscape architecture, she designs gardens for the people rather than for herself. Her inspiration for this community-focused design stems from a trip to Trinidad and Tobago when she was an undergraduate at UW-Madison.
One day, she visited a brand-new market. However, no one was actually there; they were all at another market in a different part of town. They ignored this beautiful space because the designers of the new market did not seek input from market goers and vendors for the design, Strom says.
“It was facing the wrong direction, so the solar axis was terrible. It was in blazing hot sun,” she says. “A space can be completely wonderful and beautiful and very design-y, but you have to invite people in. It could be very simple, but the people’s use is huge.”
When she designs gardens, she keeps the lesson of the Trinidadian market in her mind: never lose sight of the people using your space.
Once a space is designed, she works to get people involved. Her favorite part about community gardens is seeing how her spaces can connect diverse people.
“I think that whole idea of community with a capital ‘C’ in Community GroundWorks is that you can grow tomatoes or kale or whatever you like, but it’s the people piece that’s magic,” she says. “You get that group together, people who wouldn’t normally cross paths, and it’s amazing.”
She also finds that audiences in Dane County are receptive to her art because of a rich history of community gardening, an interest in garden-based education, a commitment to building stronger, more resilient neighborhoods and an effort to increase access to fresh, local food. Her biggest challenge is not finding gardeners, but finding parcels of land to turn into gardens, particularly in downtown Madison.
With this level of involvement in Dane County, she has time to focus on outreach by supporting neighborhoods, community centers, school green teams and community garden leaders. She manages educational gardens for anyone willing to learn and garden.
To Strom, gardening helps people cultivate their potential, both as individuals and a community. She points to an outdoor classroom and school garden she helped design at an elementary school in Waunakee, Wisconsin.
“They were at a standstill because they didn’t know how to translate [their] ideas into this piece of grass in front of their school,” she says. “So I came up with a plan for them, and that’s all they needed. It was a spark for them. They put in this garden in May, and it’s amazing. The space is just completely transformed.”
But, in the end, Strom’s mission is to acquaint people with her artistic muse: Wisconsin.
“It’s my plant palette. It’s the materials that things are made out of. The color of the sky,” she says. “The leaves in autumn. All of those things are, to me, Wisconsin.”
Lisa Kivirist: The Activist
When you speak to Lisa Kivirist, you speak to all women in Wisconsin agriculture.
“We as women farmers need to always be thinking beyond ourselves and out of the box to take on new challenges that will ultimately affect other women,” she says. “We need to continually do that.”
Kivirist, who also owns a bed and breakfast in southern Wisconsin, founded the Rural Women’s Project within the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service in 2009. Its mission is to provide women an alternative space to learn and practice agriculture by connecting with other female farmers to trade ideas and stories about education and food operations, she says.
Kivirist references a study conducted by UW-Extension saying the most useful resource for women farmers is talking to other women to learn about farming. Their second choice is grassroots programs like the Rural Women’s Project. Further down the line were traditional resources like trade publications, which Kivirist says is due to the industry’s history of discrimination and not recognizing women.
“There historically has been a lot of [discrimination], which is an interesting quandary when you think about it, because women throughout time have been growing food!” she says. “In reality, women haven’t been recognized for their accomplishments and contributions.”
Rural Women’s Project gives women the skills and recognition they haven’t received from the traditional industry. It offers a variety of programming accommodating different interests and experiences in agriculture; from a mentorship program for beginning farmers, to gardening workshops, to a program encouraging women farmers to become politically active.
Most importantly, Kivirist wants to create a welcoming environment for women.
“Groups get together regularly for potlucks and farm tours, which are very informal and social, but that’s where things get done. Women have met and started businesses together. Goats have been exchanged!” she says. “Importantly, there’s a strong support structure here to continue farming. It’s all about community.”
When it comes to the future of this community, Kivirist believes that while programs like Rural Women’s Project can empower women, what they really need to do is reach beyond the farm and into the Capitol.
“As the movement grows, we increasingly need to organize our voice, and we need more women in agriculture in leadership positions who are in these decision-making spots that can fundamentally change things,” she says. “It’s a long road still ahead, but the leadership component is key.”
Kivirist has faith in the women farmers of the future to do this, including those in her network. These women are more than students or business partners to her. They are her best friends.
“There hasn’t been a woman farmer in Wisconsin who has ever said no to anything I’ve asked. Be it advice. Be it time. Be it connection. Be it anything,” she says. “This is the most generous, giving and forward-thinking group of people that represents our state. It’s what keeps me going.”