by MARY JANE BUTTERS
Lisa had me with the first word of this book’s title, Soil. But she really had me with the second word, Sisters. For thousands of female farmers, soil is our life’s passion. It’s what gets us up and into our Carhartts every morning. But to do so in collaboration with like-minded women is the ultimate in harvests.
Soil represents more than just a spot to sow a seed or something you shake off your boots at the end of the day. We think of it as rich, dark, nutrient-dense organic matter that we nurture through compost and care. Cultivated with pride, the ground beneath our feet gives us the opportunity to bring spinach to life in the early spring. That same patch of ground eventually becomes a pumpkin patch in the fall, through which kids run and squeal in delight. Cows moo, gifting us milk and manure and our free-range chickens give us eggs as they poop their way to improving the health of our soil. It’s all connected.
Another word tattooed on my heart is Sisters. It’s the key ingredient that has kept my farm running for 30 years, first raising organic vegetables for our local farmers’ market, then diversifying into my MaryJanesFarm magazine, books, farm school, farmstay bed and breakfast, and more. My name may be the one on my agricultural operation, but I’m the first to say nothing here would be what it is today without the inspiring support of kindred spirits committed to collaboration.
Our Farmgirl Sisterhood program epitomizes exactly that support system, with close to 7,000 dues-paying members (Lisa is Sister #5) who gather both online and in person to share knowledge and learn together—everything from gardening to going green. A grown-up girl’s 4-H, we embrace four different concepts that start with H: home, hearth, handiwork, and hogs (or cow or chickens or any of the other cute critters that free-range our fields). From Boise to Boston, from small towns to urban centers, women come together to connect with and celebrate “the farmgirl in all of us.”
It’s this collaborative strength, this sisterhood bond that fuels the fact that women are one of the fastest growing groups of people buying and operating small farms. While the number of American farms continues to decline, the number of farms run by women has doubled, adding up to about 30 percent of farms in the U.S. Female farmers launching agricultural start-ups favor smaller, more diverse operations with an unparalleled tendency toward sustainable farming practices.
That sharing spirit, rooted in friendship, comes across in every page of this book as Lisa delivers stories, advice, and inspiration from over a hundred women seasoned in various aspects of sustainable agriculture. This isn’t some highbrow, academic gathering of specialists. These women are Lisa’s own “sisters,” her personal farming family who generously and authentically share what’s growing on their side of the pasture fence. Reading these pages feels more like sitting across from Lisa and friends at a kitchen table, where you quickly come to realize that every female farmer was once an apprehensive beginner and that you’re not alone—you are among sisters.
More than just a place of business, our farms provide us with an open canvas on which to express ourselves. Here’s a fun female farmer fact you won’t find in an agricultural census: We love what we do and have fun doing it. Playful and innovative, we use our farmsteads as a way to share what makes our hearts sing. You’ll meet Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms in Florida, who paints her outbuilding doors pink and wears a skirt when working in the field simply because she can. Wallpaper the inside of your chicken coop? Been there, done that.
With incredible ingenuity, we’re feeding our creative urges through our farms. When we raise lambs for sale, we give lessons on spinning and knitting. When we grow the ingredients for salsa, we hold Latin dance clinics. When we promote the sale of our crops as ingredients perfect for pizza, we plant our vegetables in wedges that form a grand circle when seen from afar. When we grow 60 different sunflowers, we take photos for a line of sunny greeting cards. When we decide to convert land into native prairie again, we turn it into a business that sells and promotes endangered native plants. When we open up our hearts, we open up our homes and turn them into bed-and-breakfast sanctuaries where our guests are fed the best food on Earth. The message: Be yourself and bring your quirky, creative moxie to everything you do.
Just like Mother Nature, women growers build farms and livelihoods rooted in diversity. We don’t plant just one type of tomato; our fields erupt in an array of colors and flavors, from Green Zebra to the yellow Lemon Drop. Likewise, we ourselves come from a diversity of backgrounds, communities, and cultures. We believe food can build bridges and heal. Dropping off your fresh zucchini muffins transforms that crabby curmudgeon bachelor farmer next door into an ally (warning: this might take multiple deliveries!); and sharing our abundance with sisters in need by offering reduced pricing on our CSA vegetable boxes helps them feed their families healthy food.
We’ve come a long way as female farmers, especially in the last couple of decades. When I applied for status as Idaho’s first organic food manufacturer in the early 1990s, I was turned down. “We don’t want you putting the word ‘organic’ on your food,” said a politician with strong ties to big business. “When you use the word ‘organic’, you charge more for it, making it seem like your food is better than ours.” Years ago, a banker asked me if there were any men in my life who would be willing to co-sign the agricultural operating loan I had applied for. Women were both rare and not respected back when I started farming in 1986. While things are indeed different today, we need to understand our roots and histories in order to better take on the future. Soil Sisters provides the road map for just that.
We still have a long way to go. Women add up to a relatively small piece of the national agricultural pie. Even though we account for roughly 30 percent of all farmers, we control only 7 percent of American farmland that accounts for 3 percent of agricultural sales. There isn’t a Farm Bill program that specifically addresses the needs and opportunities of female farmers.
I may be writing this from my farmstead in the outback of Idaho, looking out upon acres of emptiness without a person in sight, yet I never feel alone. I know my Soil Sisters are with me from the moment my rooster crows until I step back outside one last time to check on my Jersey cows under a starry night sky. Remember, you have me, Lisa, the over 100 women in this book, and the thousands of women throughout the country who not only understand, but embrace your tractor fantasies. We’re more than farmers, we’re family.
MaryJane Butters is an Idaho organic farmer, book author, and the editor of MaryJanesFarm, a magazine with 150,000 subscribers. She also operates a small dairy, sells 60 different prepared foods packaged at her farm, and owns a historic flour mill … an all around entre-manure!