Harvest Season: a Q&A with CSA farmer and MEA staffer Lauren Rudersdorf
Nov 20, 2017
It’s November and the staff, board and supporters of Midwest Environmental Advocates are taking time to be with their families and enjoy the harvest season. But before the Thanksgiving holiday, we spoke with a staff member at MEA who knows a lot about what the season means to Wisconsin farmers.
While pursuing a degree in Rural Sociology from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lauren Rudersdorf volunteered for Midwest Environmental Advocates for three years. She joined the staff at MEA in 2014 where she works as our office manager.
She and her husband Kyle own and operate Raleigh's Hillside Farm, a certified-organic, Community Supported Agriculture farm south of Madison. She is enthusiastic about Wisconsin, our environment and growing our local food system. In her free time, she loves to hike, run, camp, cook and blog about food.
How did you get into farming?
I grew up on a small family farm in Southern Wisconsin and I loved every part of my rural childhood. I grew up playing in barns, holding baby pigs, riding horses, and exploring the creek and woods that run through 20 acres of stunning Conservation Reserve Program land my parents own down the road. It was a wild, creative, adventurous childhood and I grew into a wild, creative, adventurous woman.
But despite my love of the farm where I grew up, I could see from a young age that our food system in America was pretty broken. My parents were not first-generation farmers. They bought land at a reasonable price from family, attended the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences at UW-Madison to become skilled at their business, and had loads of family and friend support when they needed it.
But despite these advantages, they still weren’t making much money from their business. They worked off farm for the majority of their income, but got stressed and angry at market fluctuations. I saw them doing something they loved and taking immense pride in it, but feeling like little more than a cog in a system that didn’t serve them. It broke my heart and I knew there had to be better.
I realized two things after leaving home: that I wanted to improve the broken system my parents had to endure and that I needed to spend my life creating things.
I was lucky enough to find a man who balanced my creativity with his reliability, reason and pragmatism as well as sharing a passion for growing healthy food in healthy soil. My husband and I began an organic CSA vegetable farm in 2013 on a small piece of my parents’ land and it has been a beautiful adventure filled with no shortage of joy, heartache, love and hard work.
What brought you to work for Midwest Environmental Advocates?
I volunteered for MEA in college and supported their vision for a better Wisconsin. I became their office manager in December 2014 and I’ve found a place where all of my business skills can be put to work supporting a nonprofit that is making a meaningful difference in people’s lives. I get to work on big-picture change in the office while balancing our CSA’s hands-on, local work.
When my husband and I began our business, we consciously focused on a different kind of farming than my parents. We worked directly with consumers to avoid market fluctuations, built community through our CSA and focused on organic farming. I think I naively thought that with the right attitude and partnerships, I could single handedly change agriculture in Wisconsin. I realized pretty quickly that the issues within our food system were broad, far-reaching and complex. I loved farming, but it felt so small. I needed to work both on the ground as well as somewhere that offered solutions to big-picture problems. I get that at Midwest Environmental Advocates.
What is it like to balance a career in sustainable farming and supporting a nonprofit law center?
Honestly, it’s an honor. But it’s a balancing act to be sure.
It can be difficult to balance any career with owning and operating a quickly growing farm business, but I feel lucky to work where I do: to have coworkers and leadership who respect my life outside of MEA and who understand why I become a little harder to reach during the months of May through October.
And I feel immense gratitude that I get to live two very different kinds of lives. I have my farmer life where my clothes are always dirty and I get to do on-the ground work in my community. And I have my city job where I get to head into town to be a part of important conversations about what engaged citizens are doing in their local communities to protect the health of people and their environment. I get to be a part of Wisconsin’s growing sustainable agriculture movement as well as the administrative support leader of an organization working for statewide change. It’s an important balance for me.
Why does Midwest Environmental Advocates stand out as a unique environmental group?
Midwest Environmental Advocates works for environmental protection in Wisconsin from the ground up. My husband and I got into farming for a variety of reasons, but we both want to make our world a better place. I believe that change begins at the bottom. It begins with smart, innovative businesses and strong, capable citizen leaders standing up for what they believe in and offering up ideas that are good for their communities.
Midwest Environmental Advocates has always stood out to me because of not only the work we do, but the way we do it. Our work begins with the people: the good citizens and good businesses who call our law center because they are having a problem in their local communities. Those are the people who have the potential to make a difference in protecting our clean air, land, water and government. We help them understand their rights, provide them with resources and strategies, and stand with them as they navigate the complicated world of local, state and federal government.
When you put energy and support into building great leaders, as MEA does, it elevates us all.
Why is November a time to reflect on harvests, abundance, ups and downs of life?
I have always loved November and all it represents. The days get shorter. The breeze gets colder. You see frost on the ground and maybe even a flurry of snow here or there. We layer our clothes and build fires in the fireplace. Trees become bare. Everything outside signals a slowdown; telling us that the frenzy of summer is ending and we can all just relax. For me, this slowdown always brings deep thought and reflection.
We can reflect on the abundance of healthy food we’ve provided to our CSA members and how much we’ve accomplished this year. We can also get ready to spend the winter planning ahead for our goals in 2018 and how we can expand our farm, feed our neighbors and more deeply connect with our sustainable agriculture community.
November is a time to be grateful for all we have and have accomplished, but also to think about how to build up what we value.
What makes Wisconsin a special place for conservation and the sustainable farming movement?
Growing up in Wisconsin and being fortunate enough to travel extensively, I’ve realized how blessed I am to live in a place where wide open spaces are commonplace, the soils are rich and nourishing, and beautiful water resources are abundant. Wisconsin is a very special, beautiful and sacred place. It’s because of the work of generations of people who have used innovative science and old-fashioned cooperation that we can still enjoy the natural resources we share. That’s why we have both a rich conservation history and a rich agricultural history.
Farming in Wisconsin has taken an interesting turn over the past couple decades. Yes, we are seeing increasing numbers of large, industrialized farms, weakening farming rules and less environmental law enforcement. I honestly believe, however, that there are no bad farmers – just bad practices that impact our water.
But there are also increasing numbers of small farms like mine: farms that are small, sustainable and working to feed their neighbors.
I’ve met farmers who have started small family farms right out of college. I’ve met farmers who, tired of their jobs in the city, quit and moved to the country. These people have started some of the most innovative small businesses I’ve ever seen. Wisconsin continues to be among the top three states in organic acres. The Midwest Organic Sustainable and Education Service, founded and based in Wisconsin, hosts the largest organic farming conference in the country in La Crosse, Wisconsin every February and attendance gets bigger every year. These farmers are being the change in a broken food system and actively providing hope that growing food doesn’t mean polluting our water.
We live somewhere special: in a hopeful world that is filled with unsung heroes, tireless advocates, dynamic citizens, and fearless leaders. And I am grateful be a part of it.