International Women’s Month with Women’s Environmental Institute

Food, Farming and Justice: Women’s Environmental Institute

Written by guest writer: Stacy Carlson

The Amador Hill Farm & Orchard in North Branch is home to thirty acres of certified organic vegetable crops and an organic apple orchard. As a program of the Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI), a Chisago County charitable nonprofit, it also is much more than a farm!


“People know us for our farm programs, which deliver weekly produce boxes directly to local and city consumers and to health clinics across East-Central Minnesota,” says Jacquelyn Zita, a founder and WEI’s Director of Farming, Education and Operations.

“By supporting the farm they’re supporting our mission of environmental justice through agricultural, racial and gender justice strategies.”


In 2003, WEI was founded through the vision, drive and determination of a small multi-racial group of environmentalists who wanted to focus on environmental justice – meaning addressing the human health disparities caused by the disproportionate exposure of environmental toxins on low-income communities of color and Native Americans. They determined it meant organizing to ensure equitable access for all to a healthy, sustainable, and resilient environment in which to live, play, work, eat, learn, and grow.


The group decided to form a non-profit organization to advocate for meaningful solutions. At the time, Karen Clark, one founder and now WEI’s Activist Executive Director, was a public health nurse/nurse practitioner and member of the MN House of Representatives – serving several South Minneapolis neighborhoods and working steadfastly to address social and economic justice issues. Jacquelyn, also a founder, was a professor in the Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Minnesota whose creative and visionary teaching approach included community organizing. Both have family roots in farming.


This was the time of the early environmental justice movement in Minnesota. So when farmland with an apple orchard next to Jacquelyn and friend Hilary’s house in Chisago County came up for sale, Karen and Jacquelyn suggested that it could become the place to ground the group’s work – a place to practice environmental justice. “It had a decrepit orchard, with the weeds halfway up the trees,” says Karen. “But Jacque, in her usual visionary zeal said, ‘Look at that orchard! We could transform it into an organic apple orchard!” And that is the first farming WEI did.


In those early days, Karen and Jacquelyn had the strong encouragement of their neighbor, Bill Riley, who at the time was Amador Township’s Board Chair, and a supporter who credited “those girls” with bringing back the local Amador Hill Apple Orchard.


At WEI’s first Board of Directors retreat on Amador Hill, they determined their mission to be “a place for women and allies to renew, learn and organize for environmental justice.” It had a strong theme of bringing rural and urban communities together for that purpose and it still does.


That was the beginning…now fast-forward to 2023, when WEI celebrated its 20th anniversary on May 23, 2023, in a packed auditorium together with allied partners, members, volunteers and other supporters!


Key 2023 accomplishments include:


3,000+ boxes of organic produce delivered through WEI farm programs

7 free, public community farm events including summer pizza nights, volunteer work days, and seasonal celebrations

200+ still surviving and organically certified apple trees

200+ students attending WEI classes, farmer trainings and events

Dozens of partial and full scholarships for WEI’s educational programs

Successful organizing with an urban coalition to create an indoor urban farm in Minneapolis.


As you can tell from the list above, WEI’s work is organized around numerous main program areas:

Organic and Sustainable Farming

WEI operates the Amador Hill Farm and Orchard, a certified organic education and demonstration farm. Being certified organic means WEI crops are grown and processed according to federal organic agriculture guidelines which address, among many factors, enriching soil quality, non-toxic pest and weed control, and sustainable growing practices. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. WEI Farm programs include a three-season CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with weekly organic veggie boxes delivered directly to consumers; Veggie Rx – growing and delivery of organic produce to 5 local M Health Fairview Clinics in East-Central; managing the North Circle Online Farmers Market for organic and sustainable small-scale local farms; selling produce at the Mill City Farmers Market; plus farm Volunteer and Workshare programs. In 2024 it will also include “incubator farming” opportunities for new, emerging farmers.


WEI offers a variety of classes to our rural and urban communities focusing on hands-on organic farming, foraging and herbalism, nutrition, food preservation, aquaponics, bee-keeping, orchard tree pruning, goat husbandry, food as medicine, “women and chainsaws,” and other topics.

Environmental Justice Research/Advocacy

WEI’s current environmental justice initiatives include collaborating with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s fight to purchase the former Roof Depot site in Minneapolis for an indoor urban farm and community hub, the Southside Green Zone Council’s community organizing and Nawayee Center School’s on-site farm development. WEI also provides board representation on the Little Earth of United Tribes Housing; on Wicoie Nandagikendan Ojibwe and Dakota language preschool; on Healthy Legacy’s Steering Committee, and is a member of the Indigenous Food Network.


WEI’s members make up more than half of individual contributions to the organization. Members are a foundation of WEI’s environmental justice work, and contribute ideas and time to shaping WEI’s future. Members receive discounts on farm produce and classes, and opportunities for early registration and other benefits.

Eco-Retreat Center and FarmStay

WEI offers an Eco-Retreat Center at Amador Hill Farm as a community resource, and a FarmStay Program for people to stay overnight to explore the land and learn more about WEI’s mission and farming work. The Center also provides a venue for several annual events open to the public and free of charge.

WEI is now looking ahead with thoughtful ambition to its next 20 years of hard work – on the Amador Hill Farm and for environmental justice and community building in both rural and urban places. All of us at WEI hope to see you soon.


Ways to Get Involved with WEI:


Become a WEI Member – Member benefits include seasonal, members-only farm events, discounts on CSA veggie boxes, WEI classes, and more.


Join our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program – and receive up to 23 weeks of farm-fresh organic produce delivered to your neighborhood.


Take a class with us – Upcoming classes include Aquaponics, Fruit Tree Grafting, Keeping Backyard Chickens, Spring Herbalism & Foraging, and an Earth Day Celebration on the Farm.


Volunteer with us – Get your hands dirty on the farm, or join us on Saturdays at the Mill City Farmers Market.


Stay with us – WEI’s FarmStay program is a fun way to get to know the farm and organization. Have friends or family visiting from out of town? Our FarmStay may be the place for them.


Sign up for WEI’s Newsletter – For farm news, classannouncements, urban environmental justice updates and more.


Follow us on Instagram and Facebook