A self-titled “ecopreneur”, Lisa Kivirist founded and leads the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and is a Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. Her newest book, Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers, is a first solo literary venture joining four previous books co-authored with her husband, John Ivanko. Lisa, John, and their son, Liam, live in southern Wisconsin where they run Inn Serendipity Farm Bed & Breakfast, an award-wining farm operation powered entirely by the wind and sun.
Today on Rootstock Radio, Lisa explains that “ecoprenuer” is a combination of the words ‘ecology’ and ‘entrepreneur’ saying, “we need more people out there who blend their passion for leaving this world a better place and a greener planet, with their livelihood and their business.” From providing guests at Inn Serendipity with showers courtesy of the sun, to connecting, educating and empowering women in farming through the Rural Women’s Project, and much more, listen in as Lisa talks about living the ecopreneurial lifestyle.
Interview with Lisa Kivirist
June 27, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome back to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and what an honor today to be interviewing Lisa Kivirist, who is an author of multiple books; she directs the Rural Women’s Project for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service that we locally call MOSES; and she also operates a successful sustainable on-farm bed-and-breakfast. And in general she calls herself an ecopreneur. And I believe, Lisa, that you made up that word, didn’t you?
LISA KIVIRIST: We did indeed. Ecopreneur is a combination of the word ecology and entrepreneur, meaning that we need more people out there who blend their passion for leaving this world a better place and a greener planet with their livelihood and their business. And that’s what our Ecopreneuring book goes into, of how we can support folks in doing that and make a difference.
TM: And you do have a bed-and-breakfast that’s called Serendipity. Is that right?
LK: Yes, we are outside Monroe, and Serendipity is our farm as well as our bed-and-breakfast, all of which we run on renewable energy, powered by the wind and the sun. Our guests can have their showers compliments of sunshine.
TM: So Lisa, we were talking about ecopreneurs, and you were saying, wow, we need more of them. And blessed be, we certainly do. And also we need more women as ecopreneurs. And you’ve done a lot of work with women’s conferences, with women’s workshops for MOSES. Tell us a little bit about your work with women.
LK: Sure. The women farmer movement, and particularly our efforts with MOSES and our women farmer outreach, is really based on that natural collaboration model that we women share. There was actually a study coming out of the University of Wisconsin a couple years ago, but you and I could have saved them money because we knew what the conclusion was. They asked women farmers in Wisconsin—but the same data would be anywhere—on where we go to for information, and hands-down, number one, we went to each other, other farmers. And then a second one was grassroots nonprofits like MOSES, and further down on the list were more traditional sources of information, Extension or the USDA offices.
So with our work, we try to build it on both ends, so really celebrate that peer networking model that women always have something to share with each other. Even if you’re a beginning farmer, you have experiences that can help others. And to really cross-pollinate on those notes and provide environments in our sessions, in our workshops, that really celebrate that. But then also rebuild and, in many cases, connect new women farmers to the USDA and all those acronyms at the state and federal level, because those are our tax dollars at work, and we need to take advantage particularly of different programs that women farmers may qualify for, and tap into those resources as well.
TM: I want our listeners to know that there’s a lovely book by Lisa Kivirist out there called Soil Sisters. It’s her most current book. How many books have you written now, Lisa?
LK: That’s the fifth.
TM: That’s the fifth book? Oh gosh, that’s lovely.
LK: The others I co-wrote with my husband, John, so this is my first solo effort.
TM: Ah, well that’s wonderful. And it’s a very, very lovely book, with such, I don’t know, tenderness, you might say, towards the women farmers who you interview in there and whose stories that you tell. It’s quite beautiful. And I just am wondering, what do you say when people ask you, “Lisa, what is the special role that women farmers have in agriculture today?”
LK: Sure. Well, our special role is really to transform our food system. And that’s what gets me so personally jazzed about this women farmer movement, is the women you see going into, particularly, sustainable and organic agriculture are on a mission. It’s not just a job, and it’s definitely not just a paycheck. It’s a real passion for getting fresh, healthy food into our local communities. And so the women farmers are not just staff, employees, or generating paychecks. It’s a positive force in communities to change things for the good. So we want to celebrate what’s there and help support more.
TM: And isn’t it true that there’s actually more women farmers, or women picking up farming as a career, than men today?
LK: You bet! Women make up one of the fastest-growing groups of new farmers, which is interesting to even say, because it’s not like women have just discovered raising food. You know, we’ve been growing food since the dawn of agriculture. But what’s really happened in recent decades is women are being recognized for their work, both economically and politically. And some of these are logistics things. The USDA, the Ag Census started counting women, really, only in the 1970s. Up until then, there was one place, one slot on the Ag Census, so just basically, every five years, a counting of all the farmers and what we produce across the country. So there’s one spot for ownership, and that typically went to the male head of household. And I credit the USDA because they’re really trying to embrace the fact that farms are more diverse, period. And the new census coming out next year, I think, has up to like eight places for ownership, to reflect that diversity. It could be siblings, it could be partners, it could be spousals, whatever it may be. So that’s changed in recent years.
And then also, too, in the 1970s was when women started truly receiving economic and political rights for land access. Up until then, it still happened that when a woman was widowed or divorced, her farm property would go to the next male kin, be it her husband’s brother or cousin or something like that. So it often shocks young women in their twenties when I tell them these things, because it just seems like it’s always been this way. But we need to understand our roots so we can really impact our future.
TM: You know, that is such a good point; that tells us things are changing. And you know, I love the idea of women farmers, because women are nurturers, and what better way to be a nurturer than to grow food and really rejoice in that?
LK: Oh, you nailed it. That’s exactly what we do best. We nurture, and that’s a natural connection with the natural world.
TM: And you know, I love also these women ecopreneurs too, because I think many of them are finding their bliss in some of the things they’re doing. But I’ve been really concerned about the fact that a lot of women who actually start their or express their ecopreneur selves by sometimes canning and selling their small product that they put together, but isn’t there a Wisconsin law right now that’s stopping women from making products in their kitchen and selling them?
LK: Indeed. What you’re talking about is nationally known as “cottage food law.” And these are actually great things. These are state-specific laws that allow people to produce specific non-hazardous foods in home kitchens for specific public sale. So basically, you can get your food business started tonight, and you don’t necessarily need to rent a commercial kitchen or invest a lot before you get started. And in 2010, Wisconsin passed what we affectionately call our pickle bill, which basically authorizes high-acid foods made in home kitchens to be sold at farmer’s markets or other public venues. So those are the safe canned foods like jams, jellies, salsas, sauerkraut, that sort of thing.
And when I heard that this happened, my initial reaction was “Great, but what about baked goods?” Because (A), I have this bed-and-breakfast, I can legally serve you muffins made in my home kitchen, as B-and-B owners can across the state, but what do you mean I can’t sell them to you? And secondly, literally, just about every other state in the nation that has cottage food law includes baked goods. Wisconsin is the most restrictive law in the country. So that got me on a quick mission to get things changed here in Wisconsin, working in partnership with the Wisconsin Farmers Union, and in learning about what we can do throughout the country. And truly, the majority of people I talk to about cottage food law say, “Really? You can do that? That’s legal?” And I’m like, yeah. That prompted the Homemade for Sale book, which came out last year, that my husband John and I wrote as sort of a guide, really, the first authoritative guide to get cottage food businesses started up.
But back to Wisconsin: We’ve been working on getting the cookie bill passed, which has now passed the senate unanimously two times, for two years, and has still to get on the House for a vote on the agenda. So it’s getting worked in politics once again here in the dear state of Wisconsin.
So actually we are taking things to the next level. There’s myself and two fellow female farmer friends here in Green County are currently involved in a lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin on behalf of food entrepreneurs throughout our state, that it’s my constitutional right to earn an honest living and the state does not have a right to impose arbitrary restrictions on us as entrepreneurs. And that’s exactly what’s happening with this cookie ban. So stay tuned, but we’re hoping that with some legal precedent within the court systems that will both allow our cottage food legislation to expand but also help other food entrepreneurs in the future that hit way unnecessary regulatory barriers.
TM: Go Lisa! And I love the name, the cookie bill.
LK: We want a cookie law, though, so we’re working at it!
TM: Yeah, I am now remembering that… I have two children, grown adults now, and I remember I used to send cookies to school, and then all of a sudden, when my second one was somewhere around middle school or maybe even younger, it was banned. No, if you wanted to bring cookies to school, that you have to buy them in packages that haven’t been opened. Good grief! I mean, here homemade, mom’s cookies, and you’re going to compare them to Oreos? I mean, really, I don’t think so!
LK: Oh, but that’s so indicative of our society, unfortunately. And that’s, with cottage food law, when you hear the arguments against it, it’s sort of, “Well, how can you trust things made in home kitchens?” I reply, how can you not? Our home kitchens are the safest places. It’s where we feed our family and our friends. And we need to return to that hearth, literally, and be selling things neighbor to neighbor, and most definitely be sharing each other’s cookies, and rebuild that trust.
TM: Yeah, and you know, we’ve been going to potlucks and eating these cookies and sending them to schools for a hundred years or more, and somehow we managed to survive through it all.
You mentioned your bed-and-breakfast. What fun, that you get to bake and make jam and so on. And certainly I’m assuming that’s part of your ecopreneurial spirit, is among the other things, all the things that you do with education, with MOSES, with the Rural Women’s Project, and so on. How about the Inn Serendipity bed-and-breakfast that you run? Tell us a little about that. Does that take up a lot of your time?
LK: Sure! Well, it’s the heart of what I do. But we are now heading into, hard to believe, our twentieth year. We, John and I, moved up here from Chicago as urban transplants before this whole big beginning farming movement was going. You know, we just knew early on that that corporate cubicle lifestyle and that urban scene wasn’t for us. And when we crossed the border into Wisconsin and things greened up here in Green County, we felt at home for the first time. So that’s what started our adventure. And we started the B-and-B side right away because we needed to get some of that income going while we learned the farming side more.
And we really love it. It’s a great way to basically bring people into our home, literally around the kitchen table, and share what we’re doing here, and take them on tours of the garden, and show them our wind turbine and our solar. We run the farm on renewable energy. And strangers leave as kindred spirits. So we love that scene and love feeding people.
And it’s part of our business strategy in that we’re all about diversification. Really, modeling Mother Nature—she doesn’t just plant one seed or drop one acorn, right? It’s a lot of different things going on. And that vibrancy is really something that farms can celebrate as well. So that prompts us to do a lot of different things. Last year we calculated we had over a thousand paychecks. Now, most of them were very small—somebody bought something at market or bought one of our books, or stayed at the B-and-B. But when you add that up, it’s the real strength in diversity, and as something goes down, something else can go up—again, just as in ecological systems. And it makes sense for the bottom-line bottom line. And the creativity. I just like having a lot of things going on and living seasonally and bouncing those ideas around between people—women.
TM: For our listeners who are just tuning in, we are speaking with Lisa Kivirist, an ecopreneur who is also an author, a farmer, a food-and-farm activist. So, you know, I know that you also do another, larger women’s conference, don’t you? Or are involved in another, larger women’s conference with maybe Denise O’Brien and—
LK: Oh, sure, the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, which is based in Iowa, but it’s a national network for women in sustainable agriculture. [It] hosts both an annual conference and then we partner together with other women farmer organizations around the country and do the National Women in Sustainable Ag conference, which is going to be in Portland this December. So that’s fairly new. There’s been, I believe, three or four of those.
But that’s a great opportunity to learn what women are doing across the country. And even though the growing climate may be different, a lot of the issues women are challenged with are very much the same—anything from ergonomics, in that basically tools out there, anything from a shovel to a tractor, are not designed for a woman’s body, they are designed for a male body, and how can we change that? How can we take care of our bodies while farming so that we can farm longer and be healthy about that? To issues like with family and integrating kids, and how do you make that work? How do you do that? So a lot of good information is exchanged at those types of gatherings.
TM: That’s pretty wonderful. And what about that particular conference, the one that’s going to be in Portland, and also some of the other ones, what’s a good website for people to find more information about that?
LK: The National Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference is WISA 2016, 2016WISA.org, but you can find that online too. Yeah, there’ll be a great representation of people from across the country. And on a more local front, with our MOSES Rural Women’s Project, we have a series of workshops every summer called “In Her Boots: Sustainable Agriculture for Women, by Women.” And there will be five of them in the Midwest in different states. We have two in Wisconsin that are daylong sessions on women-owned farms, where we gather a group of women, ask questions, go on a farm tour, share resources. Again, very much based on that peer networking collaborative model.
TM: Beautiful! “In Her Boots”—what a great name. And this is done through the MOSES, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services?
TM: Excellent. Those of you who want to learn more about food and farm activists like Denise O’Brien and others, Soil Sisters is just a wonderful book and an inspiration to learn more about women who are rockin’ it.
LK: And Denise is a great example and is one of the stories profiled in the Soil Sisters book because she’s been an organic farmer in Iowa for over twenty-five years—you know, before things became a movement. And it was in the 1980s and during the farm crisis then when she was going to local meetings in her community, and she noticed that there was this gender divide. The men were on this side of the room and the women were on this side of the room, and there were different discussions happening amongst the women. And she noticed that a lot of the women saw this coming. You know, they kind of said, “Hey, maybe we should have diversified. Maybe we shouldn’t have put everything in one crop and the whole monoculture thing,” et cetera—go into debt, get bigger, right?
So it really inspired her to start the Women, Food and Ag Network to realize that women needed a voice at this discussion table and needed a voice nationally. And this was a farmer who had no nonprofit experience or organizing experience, but a real drive to see change. And I share Theresa’s story, and even the story of Organic Valley. And again, twenty-five-plus years ago, farmers realizing, what do we need to be viable, is what are the questions we women have to ask ourselves today so twenty-five years from now, on some radio show, they’re talking about, well, what were those things that were initiated, you know, that were crazy ideas at the time but really made a difference in our long-term food and farming health?
TM: You know, and I was just talking about women working together, activism, can-do kinds of energy that women have. I was in Argentina, and while I was there I read this rather horrific book but phenomenal book called Imagining Argentina, about what happened during the Dirty War there. And what was the most inspiring part of was a group called Las Madres, and they actually…no one wanted to stand up to the government, and the women came out and every day stood in front of what they call the Pink House, and they said, “Where are our children?” And I think that they became this very, very powerful force.
And I since then have wondered whether we should have an international Las Madres to stand up to the things that we know are not right and that aren’t good for our children. And so this was, the heart of their movement was “Where are our children? What have you done to them?” And I’m just wondering, what kind of examples are you seeing around the state where women have come together to stand up to something they think is not right?
LK: Sure. Well, here, locally, in my Green County neighborhood, we have been fighting CAFOs coming in, the confined animal feeding operations, the large-scale dairies that don’t do any good at all, much less really harm our land. And women have been organizing around that and quickly realizing that we don’t just need to organize—we need to lead, we need to be at that leadership table.
So I’m proud to say in my area here we now have three organic women on our county board who are bringing new perspectives, who really took on some challenges to run. Because again, it’s a lot of the same-old, same-old, it’s a lot of the same men who’ve been in these positions for years, and to stand up and take that on is a real challenge. And I am thrilled to see this, and to have that kind of fresh leadership is something we need, both throughout our state, throughout the country, and definitely throughout the globe as well.
And this is a role, too, I think, that American women farmers can really take hold of, is to help lead, net globally for women in agriculture. Because sure, we have our challenges here, and there’s a lot of work we need to have done, but when you start looking at things across the borders, in other countries, where women really do not have rights, be it economic or political or rights to land or owning what they do, or being supported, that there’s a lot more work to be done, and for us to really help serve as both role models and amplifying voices for women everywhere.
TM: So exciting to hear. I find that a lot of women don’t want to stand up or be assertive or take leadership roles. What do you think is the magic to trying to help women find their voice and say, “Yeah, it’s okay for me to take a leadership role”?
LK: It’s interesting, because the statistics have shown that women win at the same rate as men—we just don’t run as much. So hence that’s why you see the lower numbers of women represented, both in our state assemblies and senate to congress, is we’re just not running enough. But on the other side, it’s also been statistically proven that women need to be asked to run, whereas a guy might be more likely to just say, “Yeah, I’m gonna run for Congress.” A woman needs to be asked several times, and if she’s asked by her other female friends, so much the better.
So, given that fact, that’s what we need to do, is encourage each other to run. And if there’s somebody you know that would make a good candidate for county board—trust me, those three women who ran locally here were asked, were applauded, and were very much supported by their female tribe that had their back. And that’s very empowering. So both asking each other and encouraging women whenever an opportunity comes up.
One of the things I firstly do—and whenever I see anything coming through my email box, be it like, you know, an organization needs board members, or there’s some award, or they need reviewers for USDA grants—I will always send that to several women and just say, “Hey, you know, you should think about this; you’d be great at this, and we need you here.” And if we all keep doing that, the tide will start turning.
TM: Well, you certainly are an inspiration and a model for that, Lisa. I really like what you just said, that women need to be asked. And it’s interesting because I’ve been a woman in business for a long time, and a lot of times I’m the only woman at the table with mostly men. I don’t want to interrupt other people and just be too obnoxious, but I think that sometimes it’s very difficult to be assertive in that kind of situation. What’s working for you as far as encouraging women, giving advice to women who you feel like could be leaders but aren’t really making that leap and not finding their voice?
LK: It’s interesting, because part of it has to do with that confidence in knowing that you know your stuff. And sometimes that just has to do with good old research and study. The issue comes up sometimes when a woman farmer goes to the mechanic shop in town, do you know? And she can just tell from the minute she walks in there that the guy might not be taking her seriously, do you know? Or is she the wife of the farmer, or whatever—not taking her in the role that she is. But if a woman has studied the problem—and a lot of women will read that tractor manual and know it hands-down, so that they can be asking questions from a platform of intelligence and knowledge and really speak with authority. And that goes a long way in both earning the respect of the mechanic’s shop, and there’s lots of good stories on that, to earning the respect of the county board or our politicians or whoever you may be speaking to.
And on that elected official note, that’s a way for women, and really everybody but particularly women, to get involved, is to keep track of what policy, what bills are up for a vote, and make your votes heard with your elected constituents. I’m always amazed at really how few calls and emails can influence things. Do you know, we are not that activistic of a society, and it’s not like your senator in office needs thousands of calls to have impact. We’re talking, you know, a couple dozen will go a long way. So that’s another good way for women to get active on their own time. You know, you don’t necessarily have to be doing, especially if you’re out in the field during the day, you can send an email, you can call and leave a voice message in the middle of the night if you need to. But getting those voices out there goes a long, long way.
TM: I remember when I worked for a bunch of farmers, and have done it for a long time, there used to be, twenty or twenty-five years ago, you’d go around and everyone would introduce themselves, and the farmers would stand up and the farmer would say, you know, “I’m Joe Brown, and this is my wife.” And that doesn’t happen anymore. What do you think, Lisa, what is helping make this switch? You know, we see the farmer, and the farmer usually is a man—why do you think women are going into farming right now? Why is this happening, do you think?
LK: I think it’s two things. I think that going into it is, as we’ve been talking about, it really is in our nature to nurture—nurture the soil, nurture our communities with fresh, healthy food. It’s a very natural connection. And it just amazes me, at our MOSES “In Her Boots” workshops and all these venues, of how many women have just always had this dream since they were little. Even if they grew up in an urban/suburban area, “I just have this passion for growing things.” So that kind of gets the ball going.
But then what really continues the movement and provides the successful platform for women is that community of women. And it’s amazing to see here, locally in my own farmhood, and nationally as this movement grows, is that when you get women together, when you don’t feel isolated, particularly in our rural communities, and you know there’s a kindred spirit that you can ask questions to or that you can just vent at if you need to because the rabbits ate your cabbage down again, or whatever it may be, that’s great, powerful, and needs to be encouraged in many ways.
And that’s, again, part of our work with MOSES, is developing networks of women in areas. We try to get as local as we can. Ideally, we like to think of a network as women within an hour of each other, and that you are a community. You will physically see each other regularly. You can add in some online communication when you need to, but it’s those face-to-face potlucks, again, over that buffet of great food that really bring out people’s dreams and the resources that you need to get there.
TM: Lisa, I have so enjoyed talking with you, and you are an inspiration as well as a change agent. And so I want to just thank you for all the good work that you’re doing, for how your ecopreneurism is helping change food and help us all eat better.
LK: Thank you!
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