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Soil Sisters: Following switchbacks to climb mountains

What if, as a nation, our value of food changed focus? What if we decided to take a stand, make a change and support our local farmers whenever possible? When I attended my very first Soil Sisters event five years ago, I was blown away by the support, knowledge and willingness to help one another. Each Soil Sister brings a unique background and diverse life experiences to the (potluck) table. We all succeed when we help each other up.

Throughout the last several years we have made some significant changes to our farm, and so many have been because of the support, mentorship and Soil Sister love.


Monroe Times
By Heidi Hoff, Solbakken (Mt. Horeb)

I live on land my parents dubbed Solbakken, meaning “sunny hill” in Norwegian. The house is sited up a steep slope from the town road, so the driveway follows two long switchbacks. That’s fairly common for farm roads in the Driftless, where the hills and valleys, bluffs and ravines of our beautiful landscapes make building straight roads next to impossible. So it makes sense that I have gravitated back to this land after a life filled with switchbacks. I used to think of them as the zigs and zags of a zigzag life, but now I prefer to call them switchbacks. Switchbacks are how you climb mountains and bring others along with you.

My folks bought Solbakken when my dad retired from Purdue University, in the flat farmlands of Indiana. European immigrants, they felt welcomed here, where their accents were appreciated and their cultures celebrated. They loved the land, its woods and meadows that reminded them of the landscapes of Norway and Germany. In 2018, my sister Inger and her husband acquired the farm from my parents’ estate, though they live in Michigan. In 2019, after a difficult divorce, I came to live here as caretaker, to start out on another switchback.

My sister provided a soft landing, but I still had to figure out what to do on this new turn in the road. And that’s where the Soil Sisters entered my life through, naturally, a series of community connections. Our next door neighbor here was friends with a woman who sold pasture-raised beef and pork. Through her, my sister Inger had been buying some meat each year to stock my mom’s freezer. And through her, I was connected to Soil Sisters and other women farmers in the area.

While still living in rural eastern Quebec, where I had been for almost 20 years, I started following the conversations on the Soil Sister listserv, learning a bit about these Green County Women in Sustainable Agriculture and their activities, witnessing how they lifted each other up and worked together to make a difference. I soon realized that they were the tribe I had been searching for along all the switchbacks, all the turnings my path had taken. I was trained as a veterinarian, had worked in food microbiology, had done research in veterinary virology, and had started the community gardens and food forest in my village in Quebec while working as a translator. I cared deeply about how we raise the animals and plants that produce our food and how we care for the land. And so did these women: these were my people.

As soon as I moved to Solbakken, I began attending Soil Sisters potlucks. At the very first one, among many other women I have come to cherish in my life, I met April Prusia and Brandi Bonde, who were talking about their idea for starting a mobile slaughter unit. Drawn to their calm intensity, I intruded on their conversation, and there began a long collaboration around the issue of meat processing. Part of joining any community is contributing to it, and I had found a way to do my part. This is where my knowledge and experience could have an impact in building the strength and resilience of our rural communities.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with April toward improving access to humane on-farm harvest and nose-to-tail butchery in southern Wisconsin. Learning that the scarcity of skilled butchers was one of the main obstacles to expanding the capacity of small meat processors, I enrolled in the inaugural class of the Artisanal Modern Meat Butchery program at Madison College. This past spring, along with April, my butchery instructor Heather Oppor, my fellow student Alicia Kubly, and farmer and extension agent Jackie McCarville, we formed the Southern Wisconsin Meat Cooperative.

It turns out that starting a producer- and worker-owned co-op, a mobile slaughter unit and a meat processing facility during a pandemic and its aftermath is no easy task. While COVID-19 jeopardized the ability of the consolidated meat packing industry to operate, underlining the urgent need to diversify options for producers to reach consumers, it also affected our ability to quickly respond to that need. Crucially, it has affected the price and availability of real estate and access to start-up capital.

We’re working on those issues now, exploring new possibilities as we push forward. Because it’s a steep mountain we’re climbing, there are inevitable switchbacks. The Soil Sisters are vital to that climb, as future co-op members, project boosters, and brass-tacks collaborators. And every now and then, they provide the opportunity to pause and look up, to remind ourselves of the mountaintop, the sunny hill, the Solbakken we are heading towards.

— Heidi Hoff lives on 105 acres of woods and grasslands south of Mount Horeb, where she raises a few sheep, goats and chickens. She is a certified butcher and board secretary for the Southern Wisconsin Meat Cooperative. This Soil Sisters column originally ran in The Monroe Times on 7/23/21.


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