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Soil Sisters: Leaning in and lifting up
Roberta Barham
Roberta Barham

Normally, life can be hum drum or “normal.” COVID times have made it challenging. What makes it special?

Besides finding joy in your surroundings (we love the places in which we live), have you discovered a community that shares your values, loves your inspired work and lifts you up? This is what has happened to me when I (we, husband Kim and I) moved to Southwest Wisconsin from the big city (Madison, WI). Having spent 25 years there, I never really felt a sense of community. My interests didn’t involve garage sales or mall shopping. I liked to watch things grow!

Initially our move to the country (2002) involved enjoying the freedom of movement and clean air rural living offered. Sooner than expected, we became acquainted with our neighbors at the time through a Blanchardville startup, River Valley Trading Company. Little did we know these neighbors and others, eventually extending to the women of Soil Sisters, would become another sense of joy and belonging we were looking for.

While building a cordwood masonry house, I discovered an amazing native superfruit, Aronia (chokeberries) and became an enthusiast. We had also been growing commercial cut flowers and pre-Soil Sisters, Kriss Marion (one of those amazing neighbors), included some of our flowers in her CSA subscriptions. She eventually added Aronia along with informational materials and recipes for their use. This was pretty amazing as Aronia was essentially unknown! 

Another common trait of our Soil Sisters community is that they aren’t afraid to try new things and “lean in” to make it happen. Initial inspirations can and will face challenges, which without outside encouragement, could become discouraged or disillusioned. Together we learn, share, collaborate and lift each other’s spirits and persons to scale the hurdles presented by our new and challenging ventures. 

Whether in person or through social media, we are always eager to educate about Aronia; its health properties, sustainability, native status, etc. Aronia can be grown in your backyard, tolerate a variety of soil and lighting conditions, requires no tilling (permaculture), few fertilizers and is resistant to wildlife. Cuttings can be propagated from new growth, rooted in medium and planted in either spring or fall. Many nurseries carry the shrub. The best food varieties are Viking or Nero. Though Aronia is known for its astringency due to high tannin and fiber contents, there are a number of pleasing recipes available that can contribute to its use in a daily diet. We love to educate and encourage the incorporation of this fruit into backyards and/or natural habitat. 

Several Soil Sisters have become aware of the health and native aspects of this berry and have incorporated them in their commercial products.

We also work toward land conservation goals with a small team of goats helping control forest undergrowth and invasives. They can gently access difficult to reach areas and improve the overall health of property — a little at a time!

— Roberta Barham and her husband, Kim, began as cut flower growers, but transitioned to Certified Organic Aronia Berries on their driftless region Barham Gardens rural property. They are Aronia enthusiasts, ask if you have questions! Barham Gardens sells the berries fresh (often with an on-farm U-Pick — late August) at Farmers Markets and retail to Madison grocery stores in season (late August through early September). See their website: Their AirBnb location: 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.