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Soil Sisters: Action beyond envisioning
FL Morris

I call myself a first generation farmer, but by looking a few generations back you will find my ancestors raised hogs, cattle, crops and maintained commercial greenhouses in Southern Missouri. Like many of us, growing plants and tending livestock is in our blood. However, those in my family who farmed before me were too far back in my lineage to pass down knowledge or skills, land or infrastructure, tools, equipment or customers.  

Building and acquiring all of this from scratch here in Green County has been an incredible journey. Now seventeen years into my profession as a small scale organic farmer, I can state with confidence there is nothing else I would rather do than to grow delicious food for people who live a couple dozen miles away or less. We established Grassroots Farm in 2007. It sits just eight miles north of Monroe, Wisconsin on land that falls within the traditional territory of the Ho-Chunk People. 

How is success defined as an organic CBD hemp, vegetable and pastured livestock producer? Usually by net income, of course. The pressure to make ends meet goes beyond personal and business expenses, it also has to cover absolutely everything else. As a self employed small business owner, there are no established benefits like health care or paid time off, 401K or other employer provided perks, or a guaranteed salary or hourly rate of pay. Many of us depend on Badgercare, the Marketplace, or our partners’ off-farm jobs for healthcare coverage and often do without time off all together. As a retirement plan, some of us simply expect to work until we are dead.  

The implications of climate change, now also layered with COVID-19, seem to be playing a role in how the collective “we” think about and support farmers and farms in our community. Last year and into this season as well, I’ve heard countless reports from area food producers that the pandemic brought as much income direct-from-consumers as it did uncertainty. 

What do local vegetable, fruit and livestock farmers do in addition to supply fresh food in exchange for dollars? We offer a tool in the toolbox of community and environmental health. A piece of land supporting interaction with pollinators and providing habitat for wild animals. For many, a mental health oasis and fodder for the movement towards better physical health. A work ethic training site for youth, a getaway from towns and cities. A piece of earth where water and soil are seen as allies and respected as co-workers, even though it comes with a sacrifice of earnings for the farmer. Most simply, our work spreads the satisfaction of countless really, really good meals. 

I believe policy and government programs play a role in solving our issues as farmers, food system workers and eaters. If the pandemic has made anything crystal clear, we cannot wait for an increase in this type of support to step up to keep local farmers growing food and greatly improving eaters’ access to it. A shared conclusion is that we need to work together to build a customized, alternative, resilient, independent, inclusive and fair local food system.

On March 11, 2021, a team of kitchen professionals and farmers including myself and three Soil Sisters who share that vision founded the Community Kitchen Co-op. The Co-op provides quality, nutritious and accessible meals created through the transparent co-ownership efforts of local farmers and workers.

Community Kitchen Co-op is a CSA-style, fully prepared meal share service, including fresh bakery and local foods grocery items with gluten-free options available. It is in no way a restaurant model, although we look forward to offering grab-and-go packaged meals to passersby. The Co-op sources 90% of ingredients within a 150-mile radius of our downtown Main St. Monticello, Wisconsin kitchen. We value communication within the local food supply chain and collaboration between farmers. We value the time and dedication of our skilled workers. Our incredibly important community of eaters (that’s you!) is our inspiration and our motivation. 

A functional, fair and accessible local food system positively impacts our livelihood, mental and physical health, our rural economy, and our shared environment. I would argue it’s hard to deny that a shift in where and how we grow food and who gets to eat it is becoming an issue of survival and evolution, rather than a niche and a luxury. For this cooperative mission in this community, the low hanging fruit of change is at the hyper-local level. And one thing we farmers are good at, it’s being prepared for the harvest. 

— FL Morris runs Grassroots Farm outside Monroe and is a founding member of the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative and the new Community Kitchen Co-op in Monticello. For more on the Kitchen, see: Soil Sisters, a program of Renewing the Countryside, connects and champions women in the Green County area committed to sustainable and organic agriculture, land stewardship, local food, family farms and healthy and economically vibrant rural communities.