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New Shoots
More women are taking the lead in farming. Will one of the world’s most traditional professions accept them?

Photo courtesy of Farm to Table Wisconsin

Petite in stature, Kelly Kiefer, 28, is often mistaken at the Wauwatosa Farmers Market for the Three Sisters Community Farm’s hired hand – not one of its owners. “People seem confused [and] are really surprised,” she says, especially when Jeff Schreiber, her business and romantic partner, isn’t there. “People make comments like, ‘Oh, do you work here?’” A few of the vendors at the market employ young women to hand out fruits and vegetables and make change, but not all are part owners of the farm they work for.

Kiefer found her way to Three Sisters after an Americorps job at Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee, and environmental education positions at an urban orchard in Boston and a biodynamic farm in New York. Later, she went to work at a Newburg, Wis., farm and met Schreiber, and the two went into business for themselves. They just finished a third season at their Campbellsport farm, growing fruits and vegetables for about 80 households, under a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

Increasingly, Wisconsin’s farms are being run by women. According to the federal Census of Agriculture, between 1997 and 2007, the number of female-owned farms in the state more than doubled to 9,176 – almost twice the national uptick of 30 percent during the same period. And although more women are leading farms, many still complain that they’re not taken seriously or remain marginalized in the industry. “I sometimes feel like when we’re networking with other male farmers that my voice is not as valued,” Kiefer says. Primarily, she says, “the communication happens through Jeff.”

Most of the small-scale farms run by women produce specialty foods, such as herbs or cheese. Some use organic methods, and many maintain a strong connection to the public, either through a CSA or some other system. “There’s that tendency to nurture things and work with your hands,” Kiefer says, and those hands have learned to support each other over time, forming a network of female farmers that Kiefer has come to think of as a lifeline.

“We women go to other women,” says Lisa Kivirist, who left a career in advertising to open a bed-and-breakfast in Green County. In 2012, she organized Soil Sisters, a group that hosts an annual tour of seven female-owned farms in south-central Wisconsin.

Another of these is the LOTFOTL (Living Off the Fat of the Land) Community Farm in Elkhorn that is co-managed by April Yuds, 37, a relative newcomer to farming.

“There is a lot of opportunity for women in this field,” Yuds says, and yet, “we’ve been told that there’s not. Part of that is your mindset.”

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