Rural women business owners lead the rural renaissance.
"Many rural women blend the best of homesteading traditions and homemaking with being innovative, creative business women," comments Jan Joannides, founder and executive director of Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based non-profit focusing on telling the positive story of rural revitalization. "But these women think beyond their own farmstead and are leading rural economic revitalization. They're ecopreneurs, entrepreneurs who think beyond profit and prioritize caring for the land, growing healthy food and leaving this world a safer place for future generations."
This rural renaissance of female-run farm businesses covers young farmers to seasoned homesteaders, yet they all share a common sisterhood of valuing sustainable agriculture, family and community, land stewardship, education and creativity. Let's meet some rural women who exemplify these values in their farm ventures:
Zoe Bradbury represents the vibrant spirit of a new generation of emerging young farmers. Twenty-eight-year-old Bradbury recently moved back to her family's Oregon farmstead after working several years in urban settings for non-profit agriculture advocacy organizations. "Even though I believed in the work I did when I was sitting in an office, my heart was always back home on the land, covered in mud," Bradbury explains with a smile. "Knowing that people in my community are eating fresh asparagus and raspberries that I grew at Groundswell Farm yields deeper rewards for me than a regular paycheck working for someone else."
Bradbury exemplifies this growing trend of women starting farms and practicing sustainable agriculture. While the number of American farms continues to decline, the number of farms purchased and run by women under 55 is on the upswing. "Women farmers today are reinventing the face of sustainable agriculture," comments Denise O'Brian, executive director of the Iowa-based Women in Food and Agriculture Network. "They're focused on raising healthy food for their community and often sell their products through farmers markets or community-supported agriculture initiatives."
Family and community
Connecting with others and nurturing relationships remains a core priority in how rural women create and run their business, often designing schedules and structures to spend time with and support family members. Marguerite Ramlow started homesteading on her central Wisconsin acreage in the early 1970s, running a variety of businesses with her husband that always prioritized her family's needs. Her children, Leif and Chamomile, helped tend the gardens when they were growing up and hung out at the local food cooperative which the Ramlows started.
Later, when her mother suffered from dementia and needed constant care, Ramlow could control her schedule to be at home to care for her mother, an important role she wanted to embrace. While on the farm caring for her mother, Ramlow took advantage of free time to study for her current venture: teaching yoga classes in a studio retrofitted from a converted barn outbuilding. "Every experience brings new opportunities," reflects Ramlow. "For eight years I was able to both spend time with my mom and plant seeds for our new venture today, Artha Sustainable Living Center, where in addition to the yoga we host various workshops on topics from renewable energy systems to herbal medicines and run a B&B."
Today, Ramlow's children, now young adults, have returned to help with the farm businesses. "I always let my children know this is their farm, their property too," explains Ramlow, now in her 50s. "In their early 20s they both lived off-farm and pursued their own interests, which I think is important. But it's wonderful now to have them return on their own accord and all work together."
Farm businesses can also create community beyond related family. For over 20 years, Mary Ann Ihm has run Wellspring Farm, a non-profit, educational farm, workshop venue, retreat center and B&B on 36 acres in eastern Wisconsin, attracting and hosting an enthusiastic group of interns. "It's such a joy to watch our interns, often young people wanting to go into sustainable agriculture, grow and evolve over the growing season," Ihm comments. "During the busy summer season, our garden interns rotate making lunch for the group every day. I draw such satisfaction in sitting around the kitchen table over a beautiful meal with the group that helped grow the ingredients."
Ihm also illustrates how rural women ecopreneurs prioritize caring for the land. Now turning 70, Ihm recalls her childhood when everyone farmed "organically" because it made sense, both from an economic and conservation perspective. "This way of farming always made sense to me, giving back more than you take and being thankful for what the land gifts us with," Ihm comments. "Even after having run Wellspring for decades, I still feel so lucky and blessed to be able to live on my little piece of paradise and be able to share it with so many people over time."
Ihm's land stewardship efforts go beyond just tending the soil as she sees the interconnectedness of all living systems. "Farming organically is important, but we also need to make such conscious, long-term decisions in other aspects of how we run Wellspring, such as efficient building design and using renewable energy," explains Ihm. From strawbale construction to geothermal heat, Ihm walks the talk of seeing the bigger, integrated picture.
Constantly learning and taking on new challenges proves to be a theme for women running farm businesses. Education ranks especially important to the large number of women who follow their dream of moving to a farm, having no experience or background in agriculture. When Sandy Dietz and her family launched their market garden business, Whitewater Gardens in northeastern Minnesota, she heartily admits they needed help. "A local couple experienced in growing for farmers markets took me under their wing and served as inspiring mentors," Dietz adds. Today, Whitewater Gardens blooms with five acres of produce which supports a 60 member CSA (community supported agriculture) and supplies the two farmers markets Dietz, now a vibrant grandmother in her 50s, attends weekly.
But these women see education as a two-way street: educating and supporting others in their farm-based dreams is important. Dietz always created opportunities for others to come to Whitewater Gardens and garner hands-on experience working the soil.
Sometimes ventures launched by rural women interpret farm life in new, creative ways. Artist Donna Neuwirth traded urban Chicago living for a central Wisconsin farmstead at first only looking for art studio space, but rapidly fell in love with the creative inspiration the landscape offered. "I was enchanted by this beautiful place and so inspired by the first garden's abundant offerings," explains Neuwirth. "I saw such potential in creating connections between art and farm life and putting the 'culture' back in agriculture."
In addition to starting a CSA, Donna launched the Wormfarm Institute, a non-profit organization aiming at creating connections between farming and the arts. "In order to appreciate and care for our landscape, we need to see the beauty in the everyday," Neuwirth adds. "The Wormfarm Institute creates opportunities for dialogue and connection, intersecting the arts, humanities and agriculture." Neuwirth's venture sponsors a number of arts-related programming in rural areas, such as an artist-in-residence program on her farm, community puppet festivals and a statewide discussion series on the topic "the re-enchantment of agriculture."
Across the country, the creative innovation and passionate drive of these rural women ecopreneurs is changing and improving life in the country. Seeking out and supporting such female ventures will help continue these efforts and help craft a vibrant countryside for future generations to enjoy.
What is an Ecopreneur?
* Small business, focused on human-scaled enterprises.
* Local focus, reducing dependency on transportation costs related to high energy prices.
* Purpose based, organizing an enterprise around the business owners' values.
* Sustainable, fills economic niches while helping nature.
Writing from her organic farm and B&B, Inn Serendipity, in southwestern Wisconsin, Lisa Kivirist is a W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and author of Rural Renaissance and ECOpreneuring.
BY LISA KIVIRIST
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|Publication:||Countryside & Small Stock Journal|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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