Women of Industry: Lisa Kivirist breaks through the glass barn

If Lisa Kivirist had a business card, her title would be farmer, author, and advocate. The driving force behind Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B in Browntown, just outside of Monroe, for the past 19 years, she’s now driving a movement of female farmers in sustainable and organic agriculture.

Thanks in part to Kivirist, a member of In Business magazine’s inaugural Women of Industry class, women are the fastest-growing group of new farmers. The Women of Industry award recognizes businesswomen who have had a significant impact in their respective industries, and Kivirist has been influential as both an inspiring voice and a networking spark for feminine farmers committed to stewarding the land and cultivating healthy communities.

“I’m thrilled to see women in the field of agriculture in Wisconsin be recognized from an industry perspective because it’s definitely a growing segment in both numbers and economic impact,” Kivirist says. “It’s exciting to see us on the front page of discussion.”

Sisters of the soil

Even though the number of women farmers has been increasing and it’s one of the fastest-growing groups of new farmers, women are still a relatively small piece of the national agricultural pie. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are 969,672 women farmers in the U.S., roughly 30% of all farmers; they control 7% of American farmland and account for 3% of sales. The numbers are proportional in Wisconsin, where 33,184 women farmers comprise 31% of the total; they farm roughly 5.6 million acres and contribute $325 million to the state’s economy.

While there are no statistics specific to sustainable farming, various media reports claim that women farmers are more likely to have smaller, more diverse operations and tend to follow sustainable farming practices, according to Audrey Alwell, communications director for the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service.

Kivirist’s energetic collaboration skills and networking prowess get some of the credit for this industry growth, especially in Wisconsin. Cara Carper, executive director for the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, has worked with Kivirist for eight years and calls her a business visionary. “When Lisa sits down at the kitchen table with a group of people, things get done,” Carper states. “I’ve spent many sunny mornings at her kitchen table savoring her world-famous pumpkin chocolate chip muffins and mugs of steaming coffee and scheming like we’re going to change the world, and she is.”

Carper recalls how Kivirist and her husband, John Ivanko, authors of Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life, moved to rural Green County from the Chicago area and immediately tried to make connections only to find that while women farmers abound in the area, they had no place to connect. That prompted Kivirist to establish the South Central Wisconsin Women in Sustainable Agriculture group, which started with a dozen women farmers and farm supporters getting together for women-in-agriculture potlucks and emailing one another about their farm issues.

Over the years, that emailing list has grown to more than 80 people, and the connections they’ve made have spawned new businesses such as the Landmark Creamery, an award-winning cheesemaking venture founded by Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates, who met at a potluck and eventually formed a strong business partnership.

“We’re both moms with kids in the same school district, but we never met until these women-in-agriculture potlucks,” Landmark notes. “Even if we had met in a school setting, I’m not sure we would have had the opportunity to connect in a way that we did over cheese and wine.”

Kivirist describes the women-in-agriculture potlucks as simple, classic get-togethers, and since they are attended by women rooted in agriculture and food, there are always great creations on the table. “When that happens in an informal, engaging, and welcoming environment, people come to the table and things happen, be it businesses that starts, or be it women digging deeper roots to our communities in Wisconsin. There is nothing we’re doing that nobody else can do by simply inviting people to their table.”

Kivirist didn’t stop at Green County’s boundaries because she also realized the need for women farmers to connect in other regions of the state, and do so both statewide and nationally. Her colleagues describe her as a great listener with the ability to troubleshoot business issues and bring people together to solve them. Her book titled Homemade for Sale: How to Set-up and Market a Food Business from Your Home Kitchen, also co-written with husband, is another example of her wider influence.

She’ll also roll up her sleeves in the legislature, too, as she did with her advocacy on the so-called “Cookie Bill.” Political roadblocks prevented the bill from getting on the state Assembly’s agenda for a vote in 2014, but renewed, targeted efforts will re-introduce the legislation as the “Food Entrepreneur Opportunity Act,” to further highlight the economic growth potential of home-based food businesses.

Kivirist’s commitment to collaboration has also helped build new events that have been recognized by the state. Kivirist initiated a public tour, titled “Soil Sisters: A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life,” which showcases area women farmers and their commitment to organic and sustainable agriculture. Launched in 2012 through a small USDA grant, Soil Sisters has grown into an annual regional tourism event involving more than 20 women-owned farms that give tours, hold workshops and culinary events, and boost the local economy by tens of thousands of dollars.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism recognized the innovation behind this event and provided a grant to support wider advertising and public relations outreach into the Chicago and regional market, resulting in more than 1,000 attendees.

Kivirist believes that one feature of the sustainable farming movement, and agriculture in general, is that farmers view themselves as collaborators rather than competitors. Technology, particularly social media, has enabled women farmers to increase the ability to connect and get quick answers without neglecting the need to see one another face-to-face and build relationships.

“Really, the core of the energy behind women increasingly going into sustainable and organic agriculture is that it’s a very collaborative movement,” Kivirist notes. “We women farmers learn best from each other. Whenever there are opportunities to connect, we exchange information, but more so we exchange the support that we’re not in this alone.”

Farming is different than other industries “because you can’t just walk down the hall and talk to somebody or necessarily just Google your problem,” Kivirist notes, so building personal relationships still goes a long way. “Our agricultural heritage here in Wisconsin is built on that collaborative theme of rural communities and farming families coming together in all contexts,” she states. “It’s particularly magnified and important within new farmer groups, particularly women because this growth of new women farmers in evidence here in Wisconsin is being driven by women often starting farms in mid-life, coming to a farm business without agricultural roots.

“It can be very isolating and very new, with all of the pressures of a new entrepreneurial startup.”

Thinking globally

Kivirist’s own farm produces a mix of diversified vegetables like garlic and a range of seasonal vegetables for her bed-and-breakfast, which as been designated as a “5 Green Stars” eco-hotel by Eco Hotels of the World and certified by Travel Green Wisconsin and Green Routes.

Even with all she’s accomplished, Kivirist would still like to plant the seeds for a stronger female voice in national and global agriculture. “We need to amplify our voice from a policy perspective,” she states. “We need to have better spending priorities within the farm bill, and better leadership representation on the local level on our city boards or county boards.

“The next evolution is really having more women farmers represented at the leadership table for agriculture, and then take our learning and message globally. Women in the United States are growing in terms of the number of farmers, but it’s a different thing globally, particularly in developing countries. We have a lot of work to do on that front, as well.”

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