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Soil Sisters: Using farm generosity to build our rural communities

Generosity is a superpower that can grow businesses AND communities. It’s a superpower that creates a cycle of prosperity. As communities support farmers’ ag-tourism enterprises, and those enterprises in turn support their neighbors’ start-up businesses, those businesses all bring customers and revenue to small town Main Streets. In many cases, farm-based ag-tourism businesses also attract a demographic that is interested in moving to rural places and being a part of the next generation of small businesses that power our small towns. It’s a win-win-win-win.



03/17/22

Monroe Times
By Kriss Marion, Circle M Farm (Blanchardville, WI)

Eight years ago, I attended a Renewing the Countryside workshop to learn how to start an ag-tourism bed and breakfast on my organic vegetable farm. I had zero knowledge about the regulations, the work involved, or the process of getting inspected. But the woman running the workshop, Lisa Kivirist of Inn Serendipity BnB in Browntown, generously opened her business plan and her heart to me. Since then, my farmstay business at Circle M Market Farm in tiny little Blanchardville has been featured in seven national magazines and several books. I’ve been an Airbnb Superhost every year since I opened and this December I won First Place Hipcamp of the Year for Wisconsin.


I’m fairly good at what I do, and the farm is quaint and sweet with bleating lambs and roaming chickens. But the most important part of my business isn’t me, my scones, or even the charming landscape. The key to my success is generosity: the generosity of Soil Sisters in sharing knowledge, the generosity of my neighbors in supporting my business, and the generosity of our community in welcoming my guests. When my guests arrive — from Chicago, from Minneapolis, from Madison and all over the world — they are greeted by prairie birdsong and snuggly farm cats, yes, but they are also welcomed by a deep network of Soil Sisters farm entrepreneurs and local Main Street business owners. They are welcomed by the Pecatonica Valley ATVers if they have engine trouble on the Cheese Country Trail. They are welcomed at the Blanchardville Public Library when they have little ones who need a few hours to play in air conditioning. They are welcomed by Pec Time Tubing when they want to enjoy the Pecatonica River without hauling kayaks of their own. That generous welcome keeps them coming back year after year — and some of those guests end up moving here.


When I started my farmstay business at Circle M, I didn’t imagine I’d one day bring over 700 visitors a year into my village of 825. I just wanted to make a little more money. When I took that BnB class, I actually stayed the night at Lisa’s place and got a tour of her property and guest rooms. She talked balance sheets while she fed me a mimosa and breakfast. We did a practice certification inspection. She shared her “secrets” of success EVEN THOUGH MY BUSINESS WOULD OPEN JUST A HALF HOUR FROM HERS.


That’s the Soil Sisters’ awesome sauce — a generosity ethic that believes that we’ll all do better when we all do better. Small towns are already terrific at this, but there is an intentionality of practice that can turn the ethic into a cross-promotion powerhouse for rural communities. When a Soil Sister starts a business, we all promote it and do our best to get it off the ground. (In the past year, Soil Sisters launched Driftless Traditional Tannery and the Community Kitchen Co-Op.) When a customer comes to us, we go out of our way to direct them to other local businesses. When someone wants to learn what we do, we offer a class to teach them.


Though we skipped two years during COVID, the Soil Sisters Tour is back on this August 5-7. For a decade this event has offered farm classes in the greater Green County region on everything from growing veggies and pasturing livestock to making soap and starting a BnB. Now I’m the BnB teacher and I’d be happy to share my secrets with you the way Lisa did so generously with me. My top tip is always this: build supportive relationships with your neighbors and other local business owners. But communities also have an essential role in extending generosity by allowing for zoning updates and conditional use permits to welcome non-traditional ag-tourism businesses. Earlier this month, the Green County board of supervisors did just that by passing it’s new Green County Agricultural Tourism Zoning policy that could serve as a model to the rest of the state.


Generosity is a superpower that can grow businesses AND communities. It’s a superpower that creates a cycle of prosperity. As communities support farmers’ ag-tourism enterprises, and those enterprises in turn support their neighbors’ start-up businesses, those businesses all bring customers and revenue to small town Main Streets. In many cases, farm-based ag-tourism businesses also attract a demographic that is interested in moving to rural places and being a part of the next generation of small businesses that power our small towns. It’s a win-win-win-win.


— Kriss Marion welcomes guests from across the globe to her small sheep farm outside of Blanchardville, Circle M Market Farm. A former newspaper journalist, Marion serves as a Lafayette County supervisor and works part-time off the farm as a communications specialist. Kriss believes that creating a culture of welcome is the key to small town prosperity, and that ag-tourism is a cutting-edge tool for rural economic development. She belongs to Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association because these groups advocate for expanding family farm opportunities. This Soil Sisters column originally ran in The Monroe Times on 3/17/22.



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