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Soil Sisters hopes to develop women conservation leaders

Soil Sisters hopes to develop women conservation leaders
Group began meeting in February; another group may form this fall.

Renewing the Countryside has brought together 10 women leaders in a new leadership cohort group, Soil Sisters: Cultivating Women Leaders.

The goal is to connect women farmers and landowners who share a commitment to conservation and sustainability, said Lisa Kivirist, senior fellow, endowed chair in agricultural systems, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. After the women are connected, Renewing the Countryside hopes to facilitate an environment where the women exchange ideas and resources and eventually, encourage them to pursue leadership positions in conservation.

Ten women leaders from across southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin gathered for the first time in February. They are the initial class of Soil Sisters: Cultivating Women Leaders. Renewing the Countryside hopes the women learn from one another and presenters and go on to hold leadership positions in conservation at the local and state level.

For about eight years, Kivirist has worked with a group of women in south central Wisconsin who meet locally and she has advised Kallestad on the Soil Sisters pilot program in Minnesota.

The initial group of Soil Sisters includes women ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s with a variety of experiences. Some in the group derive the majority of their income from agriculture; others do not. The group includes market gardeners and women who raise sheep, goats and pasture pork. Another woman manages her parents’ farmland. The women live in southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin.

“Our hope is that if this experiment works and we’re able to continue doing these kinds of groups, we get more of a mix of backgrounds,” said Beth Kallestad, coordinator of Soil Sisters: Cultivating Women Leaders.

The idea for Soil Sisters sprouted from Women, Land and Legacy workshops Renewing the Countryside held for women in Minnesota, Kallestad said. Coordinators saw a need for women to develop leadership roles in conservation and sustainable agriculture. They discussed how to grow women leaders and Soil Sisters was born. They hope by bringing a diverse group of women together, they learn from one another and they also learn from speakers who present at their meetings.

Kallestad said they are experimenting with different ways to gather.

They first met in February for an overnight retreat. They’ve held half-day meetings and virtual web-based meetings. The session ends in the fall.

Kallestad said the goal is to create a template Renewing the Countryside, a non-profit that in part works to connect people focused on sustainable rural development, can replicate in other areas. They want to learn how to facilitate, sustain and grow networks of women in agriculture.

The leadership program is funded by the McKnight Foundation

A second group may form late this year. If interested in learning more, sign up for the Women in Ag newsletter on the Renewing the Countryside website.

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