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Cultivate Connections ~ Lessons from Women Farmers on Growing a Local Network

Jul 29, 2022 ● By Lisa Kivirist
Woman farmers laughing together in front of a barn.

Photo credit John D Ivanko Photography

Never underestimate what women coming together for a potluck can do. More than 15 years ago, a dozen women, organic farmers gathered with a simple goal of connecting with other women that shared their love for the land and having fingers in the soil to grow healthy, seasonal food. This network, now called Soil Sisters, has grown to more than 250 women in southern Wisconsin that over the years have discovered what works in empowering women through cultivating community, one shared casserole dish at a time.

Soil Sisters exemplifies how when women know each other personally and share stories over potlucks and meals together, we grow and feel personally supported to take important personal risks such as starting one’s own farm to running for county board,” shares Jan Joannides,
executive director of Renewing the Countryside, the nonprofit home for the Soil Sisters project that works to champion rural revitalization and stewarding the land. “Finding kindred spirits that share values of sustainability and local food is so empowering; even more so in our rural countryside where organic women farmers can often feel alone and isolated.” For those inspired to start organizing locally to find a tribe of allied sisters with hands in the soil, here are five starter tips from Soil Sisters on building a network:

Start Small: “When we first started, we simply focused on gathering through potlucks and getting to know each other,” explains Dela Ends, of Scotch Hill Farm and Innisfree Farmstay, in Brodhead, Wisconsin, who attended that first gathering. Things slowly and organically started to bloom, with now this group leading the annual, award-winning Soil Sisters weekend coming up August 5 through 7 with more than 25 on-farm workshops and events connecting folks with homesteading and farming skills, the largest women-farmer-led event of its kind in the country.

Share Food: “It’s all about the food,” laughs Kriss Marion, of Circle M Farm (, in Blanchardville, Wisconsin, who  has also been involved with Soil Sisters since that inaugural potluck. “But women bringing a dish to pass and sharing a meal is so much more than just eating. We naturally bond over every shared piece of pie and cup of coffee where we have the time and safe space to hear about and encourage each other’s hopes and dreams.”

Create Welcome: Crafting open and inclusive space for others to feel comfortable and explore goes a long way. “I attended the Soil Sisters weekend almost 10 years ago, and the welcome I received, along with the shared knowledge and support from the women I met, inspired my family to follow our rural dream and move from Bolingbrook, Illinois, to our own homestead here in Green County,” shares Bethany Storm, an avid conservationist who recently started a business, Driftless Tannery, with a fellow Soil Sisters member. “By being our authentic selves and sharing that with others, both our successes and failures, we as women grow stronger.”

Foster Diversity: Just like Mother Nature plants more than one seed, women that gather realize that collaboration grows stronger through diversity. By creating open and respectful spaces for all that are women-identifying and welcoming diversity to the community, women together can lead the change that will enable us to flourish stronger together.

Encourage Leadership: Supportive networks empower women to then take bigger risks, including running for office like Sue Nelson, who won a seat on her county board thanks to the encouragement of fellow Soil Sisters. “Running for office was something completely new to me and totally out of my box, but I knew I wasn’t doing it alone and other women were behind me, win or lose,” reflects Nelson.  She recently introduced a resolution to prioritize water quality in the community, amplifying the value of local conservation. “We women need to shake things up and can do it much more impactfully, and I’d argue a lot more fun, together.”

Lisa Kivirist is the author of Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers and co-authored Homemade for Sale, Farmstead Chef, Rural Renaissance and ECOpreneuring with her husband, John Ivanko. She is also a founding Soil Sister at that first potluck and runs Inn Serendipity Farm with her family in southern Wisconsin, completely powered by renewable energy.

Learn more about Soil Sisters at


Sue Nelson and her Special Chocolate Zucchini cake.

Soil Sisters Potluck Recipe 

Special Chocolate Zucchini Cake

Wisconsin-based Soil Sister Sue Nelson shares her favorite summer potluck
recipe using bountiful local zucchini, always a favorite!

Yield: 12-16 servings

½ cup butter

½ cup applesauce (or vegetable oil)

1 cup brown sugar

¾ cup white sugar

2 eggs

½ cup sour cream

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 cup unbleached flour

1 tsp baking soda

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp ground cloves

½ tsp salt

3 Tbsp cocoa

1 Tbsp espresso powder

2½ cup grated or shredded zucchini

½ cup chopped walnuts

1 cup dark cocoa pieces


Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Cream together butter, applesauce and sugars. Add eggs, sour cream and vanilla. Blend well.

In a separate bowl, sift the dry ingredients together.

Blend dry ingredients into the butter mixture.

Add walnuts and cocoa pieces. Fold in.

Add zucchini. Mix well.

Spoon into a greased and cocoa-dusted bundt pan.

Bake for 45 minutes. Let cool and serve.