“It was important to me to connect with other women in agriculture.”

My parents met in Germany, in a displaced persons camp in the '50s. My mom is from Latvia, and my dad’s from Estonia—two of the Baltic states that were invaded by Russia during World War II. They moved to the United States together and had me, the only child, a first-generation daughter of immigrant refugees.

Photos by Megan Monday

Lisa Kivirist | Monroe, WI

“Latvia and Estonia are two different countries, with different languages, but culturally they were very similar. When immigrants move to a different country, they tend to find each other, so I grew up in a tight-knit ethnic community in the suburbs of Chicago.

I was very much raised in that American dream mentality, where you can get a fresh chance here. My parents also often perceived what was deemed progress in America as automatically ‘better,’ so we went from making our own bread in the homeland to buying it shrink-wrapped in the store.

That became a challenge for me as an adult: how do I honor the American dream perspective my parents raised me with but still get back to my true roots of being self-sufficient? When you look at my parents’ childhood, in the late ‘20s and ‘30s in the Baltics, it was about the most organic, crunchy, hippie lifestyle ever—except nobody called it that. But everybody grew wheat in their front lawn and had a pig in the backyard.

We didn’t have a big biological family, but everything was celebrated. I definitely grew up in a family centered around food bringing community together. I have many vivid memories of that basement in our flat when I was growing up, of people and good and music and laughter. I grew up with a real strong sense that that’s what it’s all about: bringing people together to celebrate and share food.”

Become part of the Love Wisconsin

“Growing up, my parents gave me the mindset that you got a job that paid the bills and was secure, and then you could dabble in the things you really loved over the weekend. 

My dad, for example, got a college degree when he came to the States and became an engineer and worked for the State of Illinois his whole life. It was a very secure job, but definitely not his passion or dream. My dad’s a very creative soul—a painter. But because my parents did pursue passions on the side—they showed me it could be done—I went through school and college, very much following in my parents’ mindset. 

When I graduated, I got a job at an advertising agency. On paper it was the dream job! I was very much on that standard success track of Job A leads to B, and I was working my way into the system.

In the break room at the agency one day, I saw a flyer for the Outing Club, which took weekend camping and hiking trips. I had never been camping in my life—my mother, bless her heart, was never an outdoorsy person—but I was new on this job and didn’t know a lot of people. I thought it would be a fun way to meet people. 

Those weekend camping trips are how I met John, now my husband. Out of college, he went straight into corporate work, just like me. The club united a group of young professionals who became my core group of friends who, each of us in our own way, just needed to escape out of the city come Friday afternoon. 

We did typical weekend stuff that Chicagoans come to Wisconsin for—hiked trails, biked trails, and hung out in small-town cafes and restaurants that very quickly, for the both of us, became much more appealing that going back to the cubicle on Monday. 

Once we crossed that border to Wisconsin and saw stars and cows and green, things clicked, and John and I felt at home in a way we never had or never did anywhere else. It was more than just a fun escape for 48 hours. We wanted to be here, and that’s what started shifting our transition.”

“I realized quickly that a lot of my job at the agency, logically, had to do with getting people to buy more stuff. Buy more cars, more beer, more cigarettes, whatever it might be. Over time I realized that just wasn’t in my value set, and there was increasingly little reward in that work for me. Honestly, that realization was kind of my ‘early-life crisis.’ I realized I needed to act on my desire to change my environment and construct a livelihood from my passions, instead.

John and I, meeting at the agency when we were both right out of school, just struck a chord with each other. We had the same angst in our current situation and the general attitude that we didn’t want to work for anybody else anymore. We had the same rough, fuzzy vision of sky and stars and a farm. We wanted to pull those pieces together and build a life, a marriage, a business, a family. 

It took us a few years to transition out of the corporate world, but that gave us time to save and look at dozens of properties in the Green County area. Then in ‘96 it all came together. We got married, John finished grad school, and we bought our farm in Monroe, Wisconsin. It was a trifecta of change.

So now we had this farm, but John and I had both been suburban kids. We didn’t have grandma’s farm to visit and learn from. When we started to do it for ourselves, we would literally take ‘Rodale’s Organic Gardening Guide’ into the field, open it up, and see what way to plant the potato. Everything was a learning experience. We started the B&B right away, too, because we wanted to do it and we needed an income source. Were we 100 percent ready? Was my muffin recipe perfect? No. But we had the palette to test and learn.”

“Decades later, I still get the question from my mom, ‘How can you make a living in the middle of nowhere?’ And I say, ‘Mom, the question is, how can we live on what we make?’

We’ve found a lot of strength in the diversity of our farm/B&B combo. Mother Nature doesn’t plant just one seed. When the economy changes and people aren’t traveling as much, we can pump up other areas if the B&B is down. And when our son Liam was born and we didn’t want to take guests immediately, that’s when we started another income stream. We both started writing. 

Most of our writing has been motivated by a strong need to share experiences. They’re the kind of stories that feel like, if we don’t write this, nobody will, and it needs to be done. The Soil Sisters book, for example, was written because there really weren’t any resources out there for women interested in starting sustainable farming and food businesses. I wanted to get women’s experiences documented so that it can be a practical resource, because for women who are just getting started in farming, it can feel very isolating. 

In fact, throughout my experience learning to farm, it was really important to me to connect with other women in agriculture. Women, of course, have been farming forever. However, it really has only been in fairly recent decades that women have been economically or politically recognized for that work, and at first I didn’t see a ton of women running farms. I felt we needed to get together and be visible and learn from each other. So over the course of my years here in Wisconsin, I’ve gotten involved with or started various ways to connect. Groups like MOSES, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, or our Green County Area Women and Sustainable Agriculture Group, or our newest group, Soil Sisters

There’s been a 20 percent increase in new women farmers in the last 20 years, which is amazing! But there’s still a lot of work to do, particularly in women’s leadership, be it in elected positions or on a board, or otherwise.

So here in Green County, we’ve banded together through the Green County Area Women in Sustainable Agriculture Group and helped about three women get elected to local county boards so far. Research shows that when women run, we win at the same rates as men. We just don’t run as often. So that’s been a real mission of mine, to get more women to lead. I will never let an opportunity slip by without at least approaching another woman about it. 

This lifestyle we’ve built affords us a lot of freedom to follow our passions. I have found that when you have a little space to be free, you can create, you can do, you can explore.”

-Lisa | Monroe, WI 

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