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Soil Sisters: Reflections on aging in a rural community
pat skogen
Pat Skogen

As autumn approached, my thoughts turned to the abundant harvest of our land: the results of the work of our hands, the time of planning then growing. For October, the beginning of the end of the farmer’s year. Marking a 68th birthday and Covid concerns about my own mortality made me think about my own life harvest as well.

I grew up east of Beloit, part of a tight knit farm family and community. We had draft ponies and horses, drove hitches in parades-including Cheese Days the year of the big storm, the pony pulling circuit every summer. My Schollmeyer relatives were either teachers or farmers, and I came every year to the Green County Fair to see my aunt’s school exhibit or Ladwig cousins show their cattle. My first love was a Morgan horse named Ace of Spades. We were active in 4-H; my mom was a UW Extension “Homemaker”. We belonged to the Grange and supported the NFO.

Fast forward through college followed by over twenty-five years of teaching, child rearing, rural recreation leadership, house rehabbing near Dodgeville through 2001. We started a 100 acre dairy farm in Sauk County, my husband’s dream long overdue called Reeson Family Farm. We started with five cows, twelve heifers, five steers, a borrowed “H” and a horse trailer. Our vision was “Sharing the Bounty of the Land with our Family, Friends and Community”. By 2003, my husband was able to farm fulltime instead of milking before and after a full day as a concrete finisher. He was hearing that research was advancing some new grazing and conservation practices that built on some of the old-time methods he’d learned from his dad.

By 2006, we were certified organic, selling grass-fed beef, eggs, chicken and pork at five Farmers Markets and our milk to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. I retired from teaching in 2007 and completed the Master Food Preserver training and attended Wisconsin Farmers Union leadership events, conferences on value-added, diversified and sustainable agriculture where I first met some of my future Soil Sisters.

We made it through the dairy crisis that lasted from 2008 through 2012, but over those years I got sad, mad and agitated enough in a “I’m not going to take it anymore!” kind of way. I joined the long history of farmers and workers pulling together in the 1910s, 1930s and 1980s-speaking out for parity, living wages, fair trade policy, cooperatives, less consolidation of agriculture and better lives for both rural and urban communities. I continued to speak out at hearings in Madison and lobby in Washington. I served as President of Sauk County Farmers Union and sent my kids to Kamp Kenwood in Chippewa Falls and Conservation Camp through County Conservation Services.  

After the kids graduated and moved on, we sold the farm in 2014 and amicably dissolved our marriage. It was time to move on, but not start over. After a lot of searching, I chose Monroe as my new home, to be near my family, for the proximity to my previous homes and friends and for the city of Monroe itself. 

I fell into this South Central Wisconsin Farmers Union family and landed in the arms of my Soil Sisters. I still rally for clean water and attend town and county board meetings on zoning and land issues. My retirement garden is many times smaller than my farming garden of six acres. I miss the fruit trees, grapes, great compost and dogs, cats, chicks and calves. I don’t miss shoveling the driveway for the morning milk truck or weeding in the sun when I don’t feel like it.  Lucky for me, my Soil Sisters provide me many opportunities for digging in dirt, petting animals or just standing on a hill feeling the wind in my face. I’m learning the backroads of my beloved Driftless.

Rural women have always sought ways to support their communities through faith, or organizations like the Farm Bureau or Farmers Union.  They’ve raised money with AgChest cream puffs, Cheesemaking Center grilled cheese and Green County Breakfast coffeecakes, like my Aunt Donna. But there have also been hard times; embarrassment when milk prices were low, loneliness watching a spouse lose hope, an ache when not being able to afford a prom dress or soccer shoes. Over the past ten years, Annie’s Project, Circle Communities, The DATCP Farm Center, the Angel Network and the Lafayette/Green County Crisis Line have provided vital support to rural women, families and communities.  

This harvest I ask you to join me in celebration of our rural communities, our traditions and connections. Let’s celebrate the passing seasons, give gratitude to the land and abundance of our family, home and food; offer grace and comfort to our friends and neighbors. This is the harvest of a life well grown.

— A long-time Wisconsin Farmers Union leader, educator and organic dairy farmer, Pat Skogen serves as “chief community networker and collaborator,” bringing people and ideas together. She is a fierce advocate for family farms and rural communities and works to organize against the growing number of CAFOs invading Wisconsin’s countryside. 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.