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Soil Sisters: Making it happen in good times and in bad
Betty Anderson
Betty Anderson

On January 1st of my 50th year I married the love of my life, Dane. He was just wrapping up the estate of his late step-mom, Boots, and I found myself an instant farmer on a sweet little 40-acre homestead outside Brodhead. 

Not very long after, we attended the funeral of Dane’s cousin, Mike Reavis. I met Mike’s widow, Joylene, that day, raising emus just a few miles away from us. Joy was one of the ‘original’ Soil Sisters, a vibrant network of women passionate about local food, farms, land stewardship and collaborative support. Through Joy, I made connections with the cherished sisterhood of lovely lady farmers who have provided me with so many things I didn’t even know I needed. As a Navy veteran who’d lived all over the world I wasn’t really looking to connect with a bunch of women. My experience with most women’s groups left me cold. I found them catty and competitive. My time with the Soil Sisters has been nothing like that.

They are warm and welcoming; I’ve found in them a deep love for the land and the communities in which they live. Rather than competition, I found the attitude that when we all do better, we all do better; a spirit of cooperation. I found the courage to be the farmer I wanted to be and along with that a sense of legitimacy. 

Fast forward ten years to today, the most difficult day this year on our farm. Harvest day. It’s the day we say goodbye to all the lovely creatures we have named, cared for, nourished and yes… loved. It’s the day the circle closes and they begin to nourish us. We harvest on-farm. It’s a brutally honest way of eating meat, but the only way that makes sense for me now. For 50 years I went to the store to buy my meat like most folks, without giving it much thought.

When our Jersey cow, Lilly, gave us our first little bull-calf, we named him Burger, for perspective. We knew we would get to love him for a time but that then we would eat him. That slaughter day was one of the worst days of my life. That was the day I knew the true cost of the meat I was eating; it was enormous. I almost decided to give up eating meat entirely. When we picked up our ‘Burger’ from Mike’s Meats though, I had a bit of an epiphany. It was the best beef I had ever tasted in my life. I wanted to share that with others who didn’t have the ‘luxury’ of raising their own meat. I had no idea how many obstacles I would come up against. With the inception of bigger is better thinking, the days of the butcher and the veterinarian being the cornerstones of our rural towns has gone by the wayside.

In these COVID-19 days, a spotlight has been shown on the frailties of our food system. There’s more interest in knowing where our food comes from. There’s also renewed interest in more mobile slaughter units to start up, more local butcher shops to open which I’ve been passionately working on with some of my favorite Sisters for several years now. As I sit and contemplate this most difficult day, I realize it’s happening. I used a new mobile slaughterer who took my animals to a new processor. It’s still not easy coordinating butcher dates, there is still more demand than there is supply on our scale. But it is happening. My favorite pig farmer, April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range in Blanchardville, is writing Articles of Incorporation for a new Mobile Slaughter Company that will be cooperatively owned by farmers and butchers. It is happening!

Today was brutal, I said goodbye to my Three Little Pigs: Big-Little, Middle-Little and Little Little. They got a last snack of peanuts to coax them out of their house, and a few last chin scratches. Il Duce, the steer mostly raised by Dane’s Uncle Mark next door, had only been with us for a couple months so he should have been easier to say goodbye to. When the first bullet didn’t take him down cleanly, I couldn’t help but sob. It happens, not often, but it does happen. If I’m honest, even when all goes well, I still cry a bit every time. I am not ashamed. This is hard work. Yes, today was brutal, and I am sad. But I am also hopeful. As I sit here with my glass of wine, I reflect on the fact that I’m not alone in this hard work. I do it with a man who loves me, family nearby to share our burdens and joys and my Soil Sisters who are plugging away, making a difference all over South-Central Wisconsin

— Betty Anderson and her husband Dane are the current stewards at The Old Smith Place outside Brodhead. Betty is a Navy veteran and relatively new to farm life but has been gardening and putting up her produce since she was a kid alongside mom and dad. She also holds down an off farm job in the housing industry whose focus is providing education in financial literacy & promoting home-ownership as a vehicle to stabilizing some of Beloit’s tougher neighborhoods. 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.

The last Soil Sisters column on Dec. 23, 2020 contained the wrong headline in the print edition. LindaDee Derrickson’s headline for this piece is “Soil Sisters: Growing Safety Nets”