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Women learn from one another at In Her Boots workshop

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 08/30/2013 12:53 PM

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KENYON, Minn. — Women who farm and women who want to farm gathered in the shade of Mairi Doerr's deck and shared their dreams and challenges.

The 30 or so women were brought together at an "In Her Boots: Sustainable Farming for Women, By Women" workshop. The workshops are supported by the Rural Women's Project, a venture of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

The women, sitting in a circle, talked about what brought them to the workshop. One had just purchased a farm with animals. Another wants her farm to be a healing retreat. Some were looking for ideas of what to do on their property to produce income. Others wanted to find a way to incorporate art and agriculture. One simply came to connect with other women in agriculture.

"These In Her boots workshops are based on the idea that women learn best from each other in a format where we can ask questions and mentor and inspire one another," said Lisa Kivirist, director of the MOSES Rural Women's Project. She and her family run Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B outside Monroe, Wis.

"I'm delighted to have you all here," said Doerr, who moved to her Kenyon farm 28 years ago.

She got started with goats quite by accident. A pregnant doe showed up on her doorstep as a gift shortly after she bought the place. She soon purchased two more because goats are social animals.

A person who has goats has to learn to think goat to think ahead to the next naughty or mischievous thing they may do, Doerr said.

"Good fences make good goats," she said.

Doerr had positive memories of living in the country from visits to her uncle's farm. It was at age 30 when she was asked to farm sit her uncle's horse farm. She was a computer programmer at the time.

During her tenure at her uncle's farm she read "Journey of a Solitude" by May Sarton. The book changed her life.

She chose to farm.

She looked at 40 places. No. 40 was the right one.

The farmhouse dates to the mid-1850s and the house was added on to as the family grew. At one time, three generations lived in the house; the grandparents on one side and the young family on the other.

The fact that the house was a two-family dwelling was helpful when Doerr applied for a permit to open a farm stay.

The house was built for guests, Doerr said.

Aside from bringing people to the farm, her other intent was to grow organic vegetables. The first years were a mess as she and her partner didn't do succession planting. Everything ripened at once.

But, they learned along the way.

Tragedy struck in the form of a barn fire, which was started by a heat lamp. Four goats died. A neighbor saw the fire and opened the door for the animals to get out. Doerr hadn't seen the flames.

The insurance money allowed her to build the barn she needed for her goat dairy.

Doerr emphasized the importance of having a market for the product you intend to produce on your farm or being ready to create one.

Kathy Zeman, owner of Simple Harvest Farm of Nerstrand, agreed, saying it's critical to know where the market is.

Her farm is a 20 acre certified organic farm. Her brother, Nick, lives with her and is known for his Nick's Eggs. They also raise poultry, meat rabbits, milk goats, lamb and pork.

Zeman talked of building a network. She coordinates what she called the "annoying email list" in her neighborhood. If someone has something to get rid of, it goes on the list. Likewise, if someone is looking for something, it goes on the list.

She encouraged women to hit auctions for equipment they may need before they start farming 28 hours a day. Find out the cost of the item new before going, she cautioned.

Doerr counseled the beginning farmers not to expect a profit for three to five years after starting. You must be passionate about farming, if not, three years is a long time to wait, she said.

Don't be afraid of change, she said. Her own farm morphed several times through the years.

Start with business plan that details how much you need to make, Zeman said.

"Whatever you do, start small," Doerr added.

After a farm tour and lunch, each speaker gathered with a group for an in-depth discussion on one of four topics: Beginning a farm as a single woman, starting farming in mid-life, land access and financing and launching a farm bed and breakfast.