BLANCHARDVILLE, Wis. — Kriss Marion has grown organic vegetables, founded a farmers market and at one time operated a community-supported agriculture business with 165 customers.
She’s raising Berkshire pigs that playfully sprint around their pen, unaware they’ll be butchered in November after they reach about 250 pounds. Marion has a herd of goats and a flock of sheep that are protected from coyotes by Willie and Waylon, two massive white Great Pyrenees. But the chickens have vanished. They were eaten in the spring by a hawk after Sunny, an alert Australian Shepherd-Blue Heeler mix, died after 15 good years.
That’s why Marion, 51, is raising about a dozen chicks in the lower level of a former dairy barn. She has Dolly, a rambunctious 8-week-old Blue Heeler puppy-in-training, to take Sunny’s place.
“She doesn’t know how busy she is going to be,” Marion said during a tour of her Circle M Market Farm B&B.
The farm is located just north of the Pecatonica River and just outside a Lafayette County village of about 825 people.
The critters, which include a Toulouse goose, are only part of the equation of the 135-year-old farmstead that Marion and her husband purchased in 2005 just prior to bolting Chicago.
The couple has transformed the property into a bed and breakfast. In addition to two rooms in the farmhouse it includes a trio of vintage restored camper trailers. Marion is active in local politics. She fought for Wisconsin lawmakers to change the law to allow home kitchens to be used for small-batch commercial baking. She is now focused on the water quality of private wells.
Marion is just one of the Soil Sisters, a group of about 225 women who farm, garden or just simply like good food. They are collectively trumpeting the alternatives of the rural economy.
“I got into local government because I was concerned about water and economic development,” Marion said. “Farms are going out of business, so how do you sustain the little towns? The big thing about Soil Sisters, in addition to just helping each other stay afloat, is that we have tried really hard to think how can we sustain our small towns and we think local food economies are the way to do it.”
That’s why some of the sisters will spend this weekend giving country and city folk alike an up-close view of their operations — production, community-supported-agriculture business and hobby farms, gardens, and rural bed and breakfast operations. It’s part of the eighth-annual Soil Sisters Weekend. The three-day event includes ticketed bus tours of 20 properties in and near the Wisconsin towns of Monroe, New Glarus, Blanchardville and Brodhead. There will be specials at local restaurants in addition to a farm-to-table dinner, fish fry and even a pizza-farm event that uses locally made cheese, beer and sausage.
Workshops will include one that looks at start-up strategies for would-be women farmers. It’s part of the “In Her Boots” project of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. Other classes include working with wool as well as making crackers, cheese and body-care products. There will be classes for starting a community-supported-agriculture business and how to start a food business from the home. There’s even a workshop on how to “gain a better understanding of firearms you already own and their utility around the farm.” It’s being taught by a pair of gunsmiths and their wives, who are both military veterans.
“Women make up one of the fastest-growing groups of new farmers across the country and here in Wisconsin,” said Lisa Kivirist, coordinator and one of the founding members of Soil Sisters. “We want to share their stories. We feel a strong commitment to building a strong community and local food. The more folks who know who their farmer is and where their food comes from, the stronger we all are.”
Kivirist and her husband, John Ivanko, quit their jobs at a Chicago advertising agency. In 1998 they opened Inn Serendipity just a few miles north of the Illinois border in southern Green County, Wisconsin. The couple’s farm with its bed and breakfast is powered by 100 percent renewable energy. It includes photovoltaic systems, a solar-heated straw-bale greenhouse and a Tesla charging station. The business has garnered national recognition and awards. It even has its own bakery that creates Latvian sourdough rye bread, farmstead butterhorn rolls and muffins. Kivirist was among those who successfully fought to change home-baking regulations in 2017.
More than 10 years ago Kivirist began connecting with other women farmers and business owners in Green County. That ultimately led to monthly pot-luck dinners where those in the room would exchange ideas, discuss problems and talk about ways to improve their operations. The gatherings led to the creation of the Soil Sisters program. Now the potlucks draw women from several counties, some more than two hours away.
“We need innovation in agriculture,” Kivirist said. “Agriculture is our state’s heartbeat and it’s what our rural heritage is built on. I find it really exciting and inspiring to see farmers, particularly the women in our Soil Sisters, doing things differently and trying things out and sharing that commitment to our heritage.”
Bethany Storm had been living in the Chicago suburb of Boling Brook where she had maxed out her quarter-acre lot with vegetable and flower beds as well as fruit-bearing trees. Her husband travels for work installing large commercial heating and air-conditioning systems. After Storm went on a Soil Sisters tour, the couple in 2013 purchased 5 acres and built a home in a rural subdivision along County Road H between Blanchardville and New Glarus.
The back deck offers panoramic southern views of rolling traditional farmland, while their Little Red Farmstead property is covered with perennial flowers, vegetables, berries, a pumpkin patch and fruit trees. She also has two resident sheep and six market lambs that will be butchered this fall. She has plans to add pigs next spring. There are 18 laying hens and a pair of ducks that supply eggs. For the past two years she’s been milking two goats that produce about 2 quarts of milk per day. The milk is used by her family to make cheese, fudge and soap. She relied on fellow Soil Sisters to help start milking the goats, something she had never done.
“I think I cried,” Storm recalled of her first attempt at milking a goat. “She didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know what to do. It was both ours first time, so there was a lot of juggling and kicking over the milk bucket and hopping around.”
Storm, 42, is a retired biologist who years ago spent time working on restoration projects in the Florida Everglades. She’s now spending some of her time as a volunteer monitoring phosphorous levels in Dougherty Creek, a highly regarded trout stream. Its headwaters, created by five springs, is just a few-hundred yards down the hill from her farmstead. It adds another dimension to Storm’s stewardship of the land and her role as a Soil Sister.
“I never thought I’d be a farmer,” said Storm, whose farmstead is part of the tour. “It’s possible at any scale. It doesn’t have to be huge. You can take the pressure off of the food system as it is today by just keeping it local and doing it yourself.”