Rural women innovators in Trøndelag contribute to EU-level research

For the duration of three years, eight rural women innovators in Trøndelag are part of the research project GRASS CEILING. The project is funded by Horizon, the world’s largest funding programme for research and innovation, and an EU resource to acquire new knowledge in Europe. 

Oi! Trøndersk Mat og Drikke and Ruralis are the two Norwegian project partners among the nine European Union countries that are participating in the project. Countries like Spain, Italy, Lithuania and Croatia all ask their rural women innovators the same questions: What is it like being an entrepreneur in agriculture and local food production in rural areas? Do women have the same access to resources as men do, and what are possible barriers for women starting their own businesses and upscaling their companies?

I’m very happy with the Living Lab and I think it’s working really well. We’re a good mix of great women, and I’m very pleased to be part of the project, says Torunn Bjerkem.

Bjerkem has been part of building the heirloom flour mill company Gullimunn, and is now in a substantial restructuring and innovation process with her farm Kulturgården Bjerkem, offering local food, accommodation and cultural events.

It’s great that someone like Mikael Forselius will be at the next Living Lab, talking to us about networking and his diverse experiences in the local food and hospitality industry, says Bjerkem.

Three Living Lab gatherings a year for three years

During the three annual Living Lab gatherings the project managers exchange knowledge and experiences from the rural women innovators, in a data collection process. This data is analysed as research that is delivered to the top level of the EU project. In this way the European Commission can make informed decisions about how they can support rural women innovators in the future.

So far, research has shown that rural women innovators contribute to more business in rural areas, they create sustainable innovations, and initiate and build healthy social communities.

“I really enjoy the social aspect when we meet for our Living Lab gatherings. We support each other, and give each other ideas and perspectives on each other’s businesses and products. It’s a good thing to be able to share the things that can feel heavy about owning a business”, says Kari Øye.

Øye has created the company Havfruene, producing Omega 3-rich cod liver oil made from locally sourced ingredients. They have a stand at the annual food festival in Trondheim: Trøndersk Matfestival, and Øye attended the Grass Ceiling-showcase in Brussels, where she presented her business to the rural women innovators and project partners of the other countries, and to representatives from the European Commission.

Workshops and ‘homework’

In the Living Labs the participants have organised workshops and lectures by various consulting and funding agencies, such as Innovation Norway, Fosenregionen, SISU Business and Proneo. “They gave us homework to ask our customers why they choose our product”, says Sissel Langørgen.

In the coming year and a half, two more women innovators from the project will travel to Vilnius and Brussels respectively, to present their businesses to the project. The participants are excited to learn about the final results of the GRASS CEILING project, which will be presented by the end of 2025.

Torunn Bjerkem
Kari Øye

A multitasking rural businesswoman turned Norwegian TV star

Marthe Kilen is a rural woman. She lives on the rural Fosen peninsula, and works in Rissa, a Norwegian town of just over 6000 inhabitants. She participates in the Living Lab of the GRASS CEILING project, as one of the innovative rural women in the agricultural sector and in food production.

As she defines herself, “I am a cook, baker and pastry chef by training, and I don’t know how to do anything else… but I do this very well”, although she is now also a pastry judge on a well-known Norwegian television program from the NRK Channel.

Last year she had to disappear, literally from her village, for six weeks to focus on filming the first season of a television program that has made her very well known in Norway. This spring, she will be filming season two of the baking show. But let’s not forget that she is a rural entrepreneur, owning and operating a small business, working with a small staff and living in a small town.

This time her going away for filming and appearing on TV will not come as much of a surprise. In fact, she is already training the workers of her business, Fru Nelik (Missis Nelik) to be able to operate the business during the two months that the new shooting will last.

It’s not easy for a rural entrepreneur to get ahead by managing a business, controlling purchases, maintaining equipment, designing new products, selling and distributing those products, and now… being a judge on a TV show. Teamwork is key for her, and she relies heavily on both her board of directors and the skills of her employees.

Each one of them is now receiving instructions to be able to undertake specific responsibilities, so that it will not be necessary that everything has to go through her.  Starting in April, she will be filming in the TV studio. The brand new ice cream she is launching for summer has to be tested and ready before she leaves, and the warehouse has to be stocked with products. Her small business produces for other suppliers who buy cakes and products from her and sell them in their stores. She also stocks a self-service Fru Nelik pastry store in downtown Rissa.

It is clear to Marthe that innovation is about exploring new opportunities and appreciating the effects that new challenges bring. That is why this year, she will continue to attend the biggest event for locally produced Norwegian food, the Trondelag Food Festival.She is committed to training and knowledge as a way, not only to learn, but also to obtain tools that will allow her to continue to open up avenues of expansion and growth that will benefit her business and, with it, her employees and her people.


EU CAP Network workshop ‘Women-led innovations in agriculture and rural areas’

The EU CAP Network workshop ‘Women-led innovations in agriculture and rural areas’ will take place in Krakow, Poland from Wednesday 17 April to Thursday 18 April 2024.

Women play a vital role in civil society and economic growth in rural areas. They are at the helm of viable farm businesses, and vibrant rural areas and communities. Women are key actors in the rural economy as farmers and other entrepreneurs engaged in off-farm work in multiple sectors. Additionally, women often assume responsibility for the care and welfare of their family members. Yet, despite their crucial contribution, many women suffer from a rather ‘invisible role’, facing numerous challenges such as discrimination and difficulties in accessing the labour market. This situation is exacerbated by the prevalence of rural women participating in informal and vulnerable employment. Often, such employment is inadequately compensated and lacks connections to social protection or pension schemes, which could potentially leave women vulnerable to increased levels of poverty (OECD, 2019).

Women make up 51% of the EU population and, in 2021, 67.3% of all working age women (20-64 years) were employed in rural areas, yet the gender pay gap still stands at 12.7% (Eurostat, 2022). What’s more, in almost all Member States, the gender gap in employment rates is higher in rural areas than urban ones.

In particular, farming is viewed as a male-dominated profession, with women making up 31.6% of EU farmers (Eurostat, 2022). Additionally, women in farming face issues around access to land, training and education, and equal treatment from financial and farming organisations. To counteract this, gender mainstreaming has become an important principle in the CAP. The CAP Strategic Plans (2023-2027) promote the increased participation of women in farming and require a gender equality approach in addition to the assessment of the position of women in agriculture, forestry and rural areas, and the challenges they face.

Various projects, supported by different EU programmes show how barriers to the empowerment of women in rural areas can be mitigated or overcome, with socio-economic benefits through social and other types of innovations. Moreover, women represent a significant driving force for prosperity and social inclusion in rural areas, notably through innovative actions and entrepreneurship. This has been recognised by the European Commission in A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, which is committed to empowering women by supporting gender equality and entrepreneurship in Europe, including rural areas.

Taking into account the above, the EU CAP Network support unit for Innovation and Knowledge exchange | EIP-AGRI is organising a workshop on women-led innovations to demonstrate that farming and rural areas can be attractive places for women, especially for developing their business ideas and applying their innovative approaches.


The overall aim of the workshop is to empower women in farming and rural areas by exchanging knowledge, identifying successful initiatives and projects led by female innovators, and networking.

Specific objectives:

  • Explore opportunities offered under different EU programmes to support women in agriculture and rural areas.
  • Showcase innovative initiatives, businesses and start-ups led by women entrepreneurs in rural areas with a particular focus on innovative farming practices and farm diversification strategies.
  • Identify the needs of and barriers to women entrepreneurs to develop their businesses in rural areas.
  • Promote women-friendly entrepreneurship ecosystems within local rural communities.
  • Activate networking among workshop participants in order to support women-driven innovation and entrepreneurship in rural areas.

The main target groups:

This workshop will focus on good practices of women-led initiatives from EU rural areas, at different stages of development. This includes, but is not limited to, farming, forestry, and environmental productions and services. Other participants that we are looking for include advisors, researchers, representatives from farmers associations, chambers of agriculture, industry, managing bodies, local authorities, press, etc. from across Europe.

Anita Galåen, member of the Norwegian Living Lab is at Grüne Woche Berlin

Anita Galåen, member of the Norwegian Living Lab in the GRASS CEILING project is at Grüne Woche in Berlin this week, representing her business and promoting local food production.

The International Green Week in Berlin is considered the world’s biggest consumer fair for the food, agricultural, and horticultural industries. It is one of the most traditional Berlin trade fairs and one of the best-known events in Germany.

Anita Galåen is the manager of a large family-run farm in the region of Røros in Trøndelag, Norway. They produce and sell eggs and desserts (like merengue, utilising the egg whites!), dairy products such as cheese, ready-made waffles and pancake batters, ice cream, mayonnaise, cakes and chocolate ice-cream cakes.

We are so proud and happy that we get to be part of the Norwegian delegation to the International Green Week here in Berlin, Anita Galåen

Wearing the traditional Røros-region costume Anita became very popular at the fair in Berlin with her farm’s ‘waffle on a stick’ and Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food Geir Pollestad joined in to have a bite of the fun.

The International Green Week in Berlin is held on Jan 19-28.

We have had a journalist from one of Berlin’s largest newspapers come and write about our waffles on a stick, and we have been featured in the paper back in Norway. We are building networks and making connections with people, which is so important for us to be able to produce locally made food in the future, Anita Galåen

Supporting rural communities by improving women’s access to financial services

  • The UN theme for this year’s International Day of Rural Women is “Financing for rural women’s empowerment”.
  • 15 October recognises the work of rural women in the food systems of the world, and claims rural areas with equal opportunities for all.

The International Day of Rural Women is an opportunity to celebrate women and girls who play a key role in rural areas, developing innovations in response to socio-ecological challenges and strengthening the resilience of rural areas.

According to the Committee on World Food Security (CFS, 2023), the lack of financial capital and financial inclusion are significant constraints to women’s entrepreneurial activities and engagement all along the food system and value chains, from investment in land to agrifood businesses. Structural constraints to women’s access to financial services such as credit and insurance are often based on restricted access to assets, including land and property, that could be used as collateral for loans; family indebtedness; limited knowledge and training of financial services; restricted availability of appropriate loan products for women led micro, small, medium businesses and smallholders; statutory and customary laws that are discriminatory and/or do not respond adequately to women’s needs and priorities; and negative social norms that prevent women from developing and growing their enterprises and productivity. At the same time, fair and equitable access to financial services is a prerequisite for overall societal economic security and prosperity.

While women often lead on socio-ecological transitions and progressive farming methods, they often face significant discrimination when it comes to land ownership, equal pay, participation in decision-making entities, and access to resources, credit and markets. GRASS CEILING is working with women socio-ecological innovators across nine European countries and facilitating interactions with bank managers, agricultural advisers and entrepreneurial experts, and on the occasion of this International Day the project would like to showcase the women in the Living Labs who are breaking new ground, developing innovations and co-learning through mutual support. They are sowing the seeds for future generations of women to lead rural development and agriculture innovations by sharing their stories on how they have overcome challenges accessing financial services:

Birgit Boljun, owner of Val Madorso olive farm in Istria (Croatia) decided to continue the family tradition of olive oil production and was faced with several challenges when trying to raise the necessary funds. Since the bank could not support her, and she did not have sufficient resources for investment, Birgit looked for other funding opportunities and finally decided to apply for an EU project. Based on her experience, she recommends setting multi-year goals, planning well in advance, making adjustments to be eligible to obtain EU funding, as it usually takes a long time to fulfil the tender conditions, reviewing past year’s tenders to see what is generally needed, continuing the basic work to avoid being left without income until the obstacles are overcome, and not being disappointed when things take longer and don’t go according to plan. According to Birgit, it is important to have a vision and be realistic about physical and financial possibilities and set a series of smaller attainable goals.

Letizia Cuonzo took over the family business Azienda Agricola Cuonzo in Puglia (Italy) and used subsidised finance and bank credit tools to expand and transform the company. The major challenges she faced were related to the lengthy bureaucratic procedures, but she was lucky to count on the support of the bank; in her experience, many institutional entities, even at the regional level, now support women’s entrepreneurship and startups, but nonetheless she recommends trying to secure funds by networking with other businesses and building synergies with competent people and entities who can guide entrepreneurs towards the best solutions. The success criteria for addressing and overcoming the main barriers in accessing financial instruments are, in her opinion: developing financial skills and literacy and being able to engage competent people who can provide advice in fields where their specific skills are needed.

Annalisa Pellegrini decided in 2020 to recover an unused family plot and grow lavender to produce essential oils. Her company, Lavanda Ruvo di Puglia, is also based in Puglia (Italy) and focuses on environmental sustainability and circular economy. In her experience, having had access to technical information on production earlier and more easily would have helped her to optimise the timing of the project. As she didn’t meet the age requirements, Annalisa was not able to use most public funds, and thus suggests exploring these options, especially if own initial capital is not available. For her, having a good business plan helps, as well as support from professionals, who know how to navigate public funding programmes. In her opinion, the fundamental criterion for securing economic resources should be the ethicality of the project, its commitment to the environment, respect for biodiversity, and reliability.

Daiva Šinkevičienė has been running the organic blueberry farm Karališka uoga in Lithuania for the past 10 years. She cultivates 14 varieties of royal berries on a four-hectare plot. Over this time span, Daiva has received 15,000 euro support under a single measure of the CAP. Access to the support is still complicated as the farm is small and it is hard to meet the eligibility criteria for the support measures. The major source of the investments and, hence farm growth, is her own investment. Each year, Daiva allocates 40 % of her income for investments. She considers financial planning, budgeting, and saving as the core elements in achieving the goals of the activities. She provides an example of preventing birds from picking at the harvest, where acquiring a drone appeared to be a viable solution.

Sonja van Uden is the founder of the Landdrift Foundation in the Netherlands and has used her experience as an entrepreneur and manager in various industries and countries to develop a concept for multifunctional land use that promotes biodiversity. In her opinion, it is challenging to access any form of financial services when the innovation does not fit the standard model of economic value creation, which is the case for the multifunctional land use concept of Landdrift. She talks of the difficulty in obtaining funds and raising interest among potential investors in Landdrift, especially when it involves explaining that there is no economic return on investment within the Landdrift concept. She shows inspiring examples of combined land use in other parts of the world and how these projects have created much value for the natural environment and the people in these areas. Sonja suggests refraining from allowing dreams or visions for a better future to be diluted by the difficulties faced regarding access to financial services, and keep searching for the needles in the haystack! When encountering a challenge, she always tries to think out of the box to find a solution and adapt to the situation. A success criterion for Sonja is to stay flexible and open throughout the entrepreneurship journey.

Torunn Hernes Bjerkem owns Bjerkem Farm, an organic farm in Norway growing ancient heirloom grains, making healthy food, healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy environments. The biggest challenge is that the farm is organised as a sole proprietorship. Because of the old Norwegian property law, where the oldest child in the family inherits the farm (called ‘odel’), any investment in a big project is dependent on the individual; the sole proprietor. For that reason she doesn’t have access to the big funds in agriculture and farming. According to the sole proprietorship system, people wishing to expand their business have to put their farm on the line for bigger loans and investments, which makes them very vulnerable, so Torunn opted for organising the farm into a Limited Liability Company. She considers that people who create jobs in rural areas shouldn’t have to take the risk all by themselves: They ought to be supported by a network where they can find solutions together. This is the case of Øyna Kulturlandskapshotell, a sustainable hotel wedged into nature overlooking the ocean, serving local food and beverages, a project in which owners have partnered with other collaborators so that they can take care of the natural resources, create jobs and livelihoods, and build a dream together.

Marta Llorente manages a family-owned intensive pig farm located in Zazuar (Burgos, Spain), in an integrated system with over 60 hectares of crop land and 20 hectares of vineyards. One of the issues she considers most relevant when embarking upon innovative projects within the livestock sector are the high costs that must be assumed. In her case, she did not have problems obtaining a loan from the bank, but points out the need for a prior analysis of profitability. There are public financial tools, such as subsidised interest loans, but on many occasions these require complying with numerous conditions and bureaucratic procedures, making it challenging to benefit from them. Her recommendation to women looking to make an investment to improve their farm is to conduct an analysis of the expenses and income that the improvement will entail in advance, to assess its profitability. Detailed administrative and financial management of the agricultural enterprise, as with any other business, is essential. The advice of consultants in this field is crucial to assist in making economic and financial decisions.

Further reading

CFS (2023). Voluntary Guidelines on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment in the Context of Food Security and Nutrition, agreed by the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Gender Equality and Women’s and Girls’ Empowerment.

FAO (2019). Women’s access to rural finance: challenges and opportunities. Rome. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

Rural women innovators hold their first Living Lab meeting in Trondheim

On June 13 the Norwegian partner in the GRASS CEILING project held their first Living Lab with rural women innovators. It was organized by Ruralis, a research organization and academic community focusing on interdisciplinary rural studies – and Oi! Trøndersk Mat og Drikke, a non-profit organization advocating for local food production and sustainability, and among many other events, organizing Norway’s biggest local food festival.

Seven of eight rural women innovators were able to participate in the Living Lab, which was held in the offices of Ruralis in Trondheim. The theme for the Trøndelag Living Lab is rural women innovators in local food production. The women have a variety of backgrounds and produce foods such as potatoes, dairy, eggs, meat, sweets and pastries, fish products, craft beer, and heirloom flour varieties. Many of the participants have aspirations for new and bigger projects. and the women are all active innovators and business owners, ranging from 36 to 79 years of age.

Many topics were discussed, such as really owning the label of innovator and the fact that they are contributing to local livelihoods and developments. Discussing the women’s many roles in their daily lives was also an exercise that brought a lot of awareness to how much they are doing and being in their communities. The topic of rural life and expectations vs urban life was discussed, and how rural life and expectations can yield opportunities but also has limitations, especially in social structures. The women talked about their motivations, and how these are often personal and for the betterment of their lives, their families and their communities, as well as for the local food industry. The importance of sustainability in food production was also discussed, as well as the potential of mutual collaboration regarding residual waste in their food production chain.

They also expressed interest in women’s communities and networks, and places where they can talk, exchange experiences, collaborate and learn from each other.

Towards the end of the day the Living Lab was visited by a stakeholder from Innovation Norway, a government-funded organization that helps innovators and companies by providing access to resources, capital and networks. The stakeholder presented their experiences working with rural women innovators in the food business. They also talked about how men and women behave differently when starting and growing businesses, and how men and women have different ways of seeking finance when they want to raise capital for their ventures.

The women said that they had enjoyed meeting each other and found it both interesting and inspiring to get to know other rural women innovators in their region.

The second Living Lab is set to take place on September 21, again in Ruralis’ offices in Trondheim.