Denise O'Brien: Amplifying Women’s Voices in Communities, on Farms, in Legislature
Hear what prompted farmer and activist Denise O'Brien to run for public office and her thoughts on women's decision-making power in farming.
On this episode…
Seasoned farmer, community volunteer, and founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Denise O’Brien, talks about how she and her husband have experienced positive and negative shifts around the idea of organic food—and agriculture in general—over the last forty years. She also talks about what led her to be among the many women running for public office in her home state of Iowa, and across the country, in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.
Tune in to hear about…
• How Denise and her husband have created a “bio-diverse oasis in a sea of industrial agribusiness”
• What prompted Denise to run for public office, and what the campaign trail has been like for her
• How thinks things might be different if women had more decision-making power over the land they farm (and what Denise is doing to make that happen)
• How Denise turned her own frustration and despair into action—and you can too!
Rootstock Radio Interview with Denise O’Brien
Air Date: October 29, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Denise O’Brien. Denise has many, many things that we can about her, but for first, she’s the founder of Women, Food and Ag Network. She has been quoted as saying, “My life has been devoted to raising women’s voices in agriculture,” and she definitely is doing that. Denise worked in agriculture long before she cofounded the Women, Food and Ag Network, which I think we all call WFAN, in 1997. And she’s farmed in southwest Iowa for 37 years with her husband, Larry Harris, who operate a CSA farm called Rolling Acres. Denise was born and raised and even went to college in Iowa and knows a heck of a lot about Iowa agriculture. So we’re very excited to talk with you today, Denise. Welcome.
DENISE O’BRIEN: Thank you, Theresa. I’m glad to be here.
TM: I am in such admiration of all the great work you’ve done, and a huge thank you for being such a devoted activist as well as truly a woman in farming. So, Denise, why don’t you just say a little bit about Iowa? You must know Iowa in and out, having been born, raised, went to college there—lived all your life there, haven’t you?
DOB: Yes. I left for a while—I left for a number of years and never actually thought I would come back. I left as a senior in high school and came back after college and traveling and that, and came back for a family event, went to a local bar, met my future husband, and came back here and met this guy in the bar that said, “I want to be an organic farmer.” And I thought, wow, that’s really political! And besides the fact that he was handsome and just had the best smile. And that was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, and that was 42 years ago.
TM: Wow, congratulations! That is just lovely to hear. I think that it would be super if you could give us some insights into what is agriculture like in Iowa.
DOB: Yeah, Iowa is an interesting place. We are in the Missouri River watershed, so we border with Nebraska, and Missouri on this side. And when I moved back, we had two progressive senators in the U.S. Congress, and now we’ve gone the direct opposite in a matter of 40 years. So being a farmer for 42 years has given me a good perspective.
Another issue is that when my husband, Larry, said he wanted to be an organic farmer, it was something we couldn’t say out loud very much, because people associated organic farming with weeds and unkempt and everything that…not progressive—that you were a modern farmer if you embraced all the technology and all the chemicals and everything. So that was that.
And then now, in this day and age, about ten miles from us we have a company, an organic food-sourcing company that is opening that bought out an Archer Daniels Midland elevator and is going to source organic products from a 200- to 300-mile radius, of corn and beans, basically, the commodity crops. So in a 40-year time span we can say “organic” out loud, we are respected for what our convictions were then, but we are still surrounded by a sea of GMO crops, intensive-chemical, industrial agribusiness is what I like to call it. And so we refer to our farm as, we have now 17 acres of the original family farm that Larry grew up on, and we refer to it as the biodiverse oasis in a sea of industrial agribusiness.
TM: So what you just said is some really good news and then some real, like, oh, we still have the status quo. And maybe our listeners don’t know, but you’re running for Iowa House District 21. Wow, Denise, what made you decide to do that?
DOB: Well, the major reason I decided to do this is because the man that is the incumbent, a white middle-aged male who I’ve been in contact with over the couple years he’s been in office, I haven’t been pleased with his representation in our House, for our district. And he was going to go unchallenged. So up until the very last minute that I could wait, people are trying to recruit people, and this is a very red region, so not many people want to step forward. And so I waited until the last minute; nobody stepped forward. My husband and I talked about it and said, “We’ve got to do this. He doesn’t deserve to go in there.” No one deserves to go in unchallenged and to represent a constituency. So I stepped forward.
I’m very glad I did. I feel good about it. I have no clue whether I’ll win or not, but people in Iowa are so great. I’ve gotten to meet and travel the countryside. Like this morning I’m going to drive an hour and a half from here so I can see the progress of harvest, I can see what the rain that we’ve had, so much rain, and how it’s affecting the crops, and what the countryside looks like. And I’m in a rolling-hills part of Iowa, so there’s a lot of pasture, and there are quite a few water and soil conservation measures that have been done. And I’m on the local Soil and Water Commission, and we disbursed the funds from the U.S. government to do projects on farms, so I can observe those as I’m driving down the road. I like that.
TM: Well, it’s kind of exciting to see how many women are running for office across the United States.
DOB: I know in Iowa there are a large number of women, and that a lot of—I know a lot of the people. This is what’s so exciting. There’s a number of people that have belonged to organizations like Women, Food and Agriculture Network, like PFI, Practical Farmers of Iowa; the Iowa Citizens for Community Action [Improvement], that are activists and the people have stepped forward. I think one of the reasons that people have stepped forward from that rural farming background is that our legislature, in the last two years, cut funding for the Leopold Center, which all of us were just shocked about because it’s been the stalwart of our information source for cover crops and for organic farming, for horticulture things and that. And they just severed, the legislature just severed the funding to it and made it go someplace else.
So we have a governor, the Senate, and the House that is all one party, and I think it’s very unbalanced. And so I think a number of people, and women especially, are just angry about what has been going on in our country. And so in order… And I felt, in order to diffuse that anger, women have stepped forward. And I felt that same feeling. When I decided to do this, I sent my papers in, I felt this black cloud lift above me. You know, it just lifted—I could get out of this funk about “What can I do?” because I was stepping forward, doing something. And it really helped.
TM: You know, I bet you’ve lived your whole life, Denise, just with looking at black holes and saying, “I’m going to do something about this.” When I look, and you actually mentioned the Practical Farmers of Iowa—you actually got an award from them, didn’t you? And you’ve also worked representing the U.S. government in Afghanistan as well. So you, as a woman, have played unique roles. I know that the Women, Food and Ag Network is so excellent, so needed. I know that you see that women have a special role in food and ag, and I wondered if you’d say a little bit about that, and also a little bit about the women’s special role, maybe, in the political scene.
DOB: Yes. Well, WFAN has gone forward very well in the last 20 years, so I’m not so closely associated to it any longer. When I left WFAN, I took it to as far as I could go, as far as it could go, and was hoping that someone else would take it over. And they did, and they made it even bigger and better, and it’s been successful in that way. So I feel good about building the foundation, which seems like, in my lifetime, I’ve been on that end of starting things. And I’m really pleased with that, because somebody has to do it someplace. Like you say, there’s a black hole; it’s like I walk into it and say, “Okay, we’ve got to fix this thing.”
So the perspective of the women in agriculture, my training ground was the farm crisis of the 1980s, when there were a lot of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Vermont, all these farms, progressive farmer[s], mostly male, got together and formed coalitions in their states to work to combat what was going on politically. And as I worked with Prairie Fire Rural Action in Iowa, I noticed that there were a lot of women around that came to the meetings, that did things, that were the bookkeepers on the farm, that were raising the alarms about the farm crisis, but when I looked deeper into this they weren’t represented at the table of decision-making; they weren’t on the Ag Census; they aren’t in corporate headquarters and making decisions. So no, the women, who was a vital role, who is a vital role to the farm, had no recognition for that. And Carolyn Sacks, a rural sociologist at Penn State, captured that really well in the book called Invisible Farmer, and that was in the 1980s. I read that, and I read some things from Canada.
And I declared myself a farmer after I had learned farming from my husband and had an apprenticeship of a couple years. I learned to drive a tractor and plant crops and do all that. We had a dairy farm for 20 years. And when I identified myself as a farmer, women would come up to me and they’d say, “Oh, you’re a farmer. You identify as a farmer.” And I said, “Well, yes, you know, this is what I do. What do you do?” And they’d say, “Well, you know, this is what I do in a day.” And I’d say, “Boy, that sounds like a farmer to me.” And they’d say, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m a farmer’s wife.” But they were raising—like I said, they were raising the alarm about the farm crisis. And the men, my observation was, just thought if they could work harder and do more, that everything would go away. And then it was the women who left the farm to get jobs to put groceries on the table, to put food on the table, which was kind of ironic in food country.
TM: And have medical insurance.
DOB: Right! And they didn’t have that. And you’re absolutely right. So Women, Food and Agriculture was formed out of wanting to amplify women’s voices in this. And I think we’ve done that successfully over the years. And this week, a week from today, actually, is the conference in Des Moines, Iowa, with Women, Food and Agriculture, our annual conference. So we’ve gone from having maybe at an annual conference four or five, when it first started, to over 200 now, so it’s really grown as well.
TM: Woohoo! And mostly from Iowa?
DOB: Yes, yes.
TM: Oh, that is so exciting! I remember one time listening to—I was in a group of farmers and someone said to a woman, “Are you a farmer?” And it did occur to her that she had never stood up and said, “Yes, I’m a farmer.” And she looked up and she said, “You’re darn tootin’!”
DOB: (Laughing) Yes, yes!
TM: But you could see it was the first time she ever thought of herself like that.
DOB: As a farmer, yes.
TM: And so, so appropriate. Boy, all the women that I know who are the wives of farmers are just as hardworking and they just have a huge role. And their husbands acknowledge them as well. And you’re seeing a lot of that from the farmer, the men farmers now acknowledging, “Yeah, I don’t know how I’d do this without my wife.” You know, you then look at our current situation in Iowa. What role do you think that women could bring to the politics there? Do women have a special voice in politics?
DOB: Right. One thing that I observed a number of years ago—and WFAN has moved forward with this—is that women own around 50 percent of the land, of the rentable farmland, in Iowa but in many other states. We own that land because our husbands die younger than we do, or we live longer than they do, and we inherit land in our families. And so WFAN started a program in the late ’90s called Women Caring for the Land, and it was bringing women together and talking about their dreams about their land.
And when we first started doing this, women would go, “Well, no one ever asked me what my dreams were.” And we’d have people draw pictures, and we’d have these learning circles. And we continue with that now, nationwide—and I say “we” because I still feel like this ownership to it. But the staff does these programs around the country, teaching women about natural resource and conservation. And it’s mostly women’s dreams to have natural resource and conservation measures on their farm and to have families on the farm. And it’s the exact opposite of what’s happening.
So I used to drive down the road and think, wow, if women had decision-making power about their land, this landscape would look different. And it’s happening slowly but surely. But as women become empowered and say… Women used to think that “Oh my gosh, if I, in my lease, if I told someone I wanted a buffer strip or a waterway, they wouldn’t rent from me,” not understanding that land was so precious that they had the power to put those in their lease, and that if a tenant didn’t want to do that, she could go to the waiting list. Women just didn’t realize that land was so precious in order to farm, as people got bigger and bigger, as farms got bigger and bigger. So women are learning that potential and empowering themselves in these learning circles that they can have that power to determine what their land looks like.
And I think one of the things we always used to talk about—and it still exists today—is that men can go to the elevator, they can go to the café, they could go to the bar and talk about farming. And women don’t have those options. Women, when they show up at church meetings or school meetings and that, it’s always about others than themselves. And so there’s no place for them to go to say, “Well, what do you charge for rent on your acre,” or “What did you do with this intense rain? What are you thinking about doing conservation-wise” and that. So this, Women Caring for the Land, has enabled women to come together to talk about those things, and then to demand the changes on their land. It’s happening slowly, slowly, but it’s happening.
And then Women, Food and Agriculture actually also has—talk about political, where you first asked me—a program called Plate to Politics. And Ash Bruxvoort, who is the current staff person, is just returning from Michigan doing a Plate to Politics, like a precursor to really getting into getting trained to run for political office. And women are showing up to these because they’re very interested. It’s so skewed to one gender at this point in time. We need to have more balance.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m so delighted to be talking with Denise O’Brien today, from Iowa, and founder of Women, Food and Ag Network. And she’s talking about some of the programs and also about what it’s like to be a woman in agriculture as well as potentially in politics, as Denise is running for the Iowa House District 21.
Denise, so interesting to think about, can women be more bold in saying what they want. Someone told me one time that if you thought it was hard to be a teenager, be a farmer in Iowa and think differently than your neighbor.
DOB: (Laughing) Yes, it’s so true. And that’s what I’ve really admired about my husband. And as we’ve grown older, it’s like wow, he really did take a different path, and it was really brave of him and courageous to do that—and for his parents to support him, to support us to do that—because the guys that live in the neighborhood, several of them rode the school bus with Larry, and he determined to go a different path. And so peer pressure didn’t push him into the path of agribusiness. And that took a lot of guts to do that, because I think guys, it’s about peer pressure, I think.
And women—yeah, women have a different aspect of looking at the land, and we have maybe a deeper sense of the whole. In order to get along and to move forward, we need to work together and we need to find balance. And I find that women are that way, and that women, because we’ve been invisible, I think, sometimes can step forward and do things in increments, and not so showy, and get things done on an incremental basis rather than an outright splash to have this all done. Does that make sense?
TM: It sure does. But I’m just kind of laughing to myself because how you started that out, “because we’re invisible…” And I think for the first time, maybe, and especially thinking about #MeToo, that because we’re invisible, maybe that’s an advantage. So I like the way you just turned that. That’s pretty good. How can our listeners learn more about the Women, Food and Ag Network? What is your website?
DOB: It’s WFAN.org.
TM: And some of the programs that you talked about, just so interesting, and I’m assuming they’re…like Women Caring for the Land, and so on, would be on that website.
DOB: Yes, that and the Plate to Politics.
TM: And the Plate to Politics. So great to have that resource. Thank you. As we talk about women’s role, I’m just curious, there’s a couple of things that you always hear about Iowa, and I know some of it’s truly true. And that is that there’s a lot of water pollution, there’s a lot of environmental problems there because of so many of the confinement and feedlot operations that we heard about from John Ikerd; that the superweeds are getting out of control; they’re now going to increase pesticides by almost 200 percent. And we are absolutely confident that that’s causing reproduction problems, cancer, and even epigenetic, the new word. And I’m just wondering, I know that there are people in Iowa who really don’t believe that. How are politics and water coming together in Iowa?
DOB: Well, you hit on a real hot spot for things. And that’s another reason I’m running for the House of Representatives in Iowa, is that we have an insurance company here in Iowa called the Farm Bureau, and they own the legislature. And so I would really like to work to break the talons of the Farm Bureau on our legislature, because they determine the way that Iowa is going. And so that was what helped get rid of the funding for the Leopold Center. They were very instrumental in that, and that we don’t have a mandatory program for water pollution—we have a voluntary program that isn’t working. And so we have all of these issues.
You mentioned that about chemicals. Just a couple days ago came out this big study that all organophosphates that we’ve been using—“we,” agribusiness has been using in the countryside—have caused all these problems that we’re experiencing: the cancers, the Parkinson’s, the ADHD, the autism, and that. They all have a role in that. And by being used the way they are, in this intensely—yes, you mentioned 99 percent of the state is cultivated, and it is. It’s just crazy that we cherish these little acreages that have some biodiversity to them because we are so vastly not diverse. And we have been made the sacrifice area for growing the agribusiness commodities to dump on other nations.
I mean, this is a very complex thing, Theresa, as far as when we look at Iowa’s role, corporations’ roles, Farm Bureau’s roles, in that it’s always about growing the most. So they want to be number one in hogs, number one in corn, number one in soybeans and that. There’s a cost to that, and people don’t understand the cost, what it’s made us. And it’s polluted our waters, it’s contaminated our air, and we have lifeless soil. The soil is not healthy; it doesn’t have any living beings in that soil because of all the chemicals that are used. So it’s a very complex issue, but it’s also one that can be broken apart in pieces and worked on. And I’m hoping that our legislature can become more balanced in order to rectify, mitigate some of those changes that have taken place over the last years.
TM: Well, I know that you have a very tight schedule today and you have to go off onto the campaign trail. And certainly, I think what our discussion about water and the natural resources, and I have actually heard before, Iowa being called the Sacrifice State. But you’re actually looking to seek a place where you’re going to be working with people who don’t have your opinion, who don’t want to give up control. How do you try to talk to people who don’t agree with you? I want you to give me some lessons.
DOB: Yeah, you know, it’s difficult, it’s really... I was having a discussion with someone the other day and they said, “Vote red!” And I said, “I’m sad to hear that, because we need to vote for people who are qualified to do the job.” And that’s where I go back to, is like the individual qualifications. We’ve gotten so polarized in our country, and it’s either this or that. And so I only imagine those discussions in my mind, because a lot of people, we’re “Iowa-nice” so they won’t confront me about that directly. So you have to draw it out. The one has to be able to listen and to ask the right questions.
And I think I’m at a time in my life that I can do that. There was a time in my life that I carry with me, that people think I still am that way—you know, confrontative and rebellious and those sort of things—but understanding over my lifetime that some of those tactics don’t work and we have to change. And I’m in a situation now where I’m an elder, I have wisdom, I have to respect myself and have that dignity. It’s taken a long time to get there, but that what I have to say is of value and that there’s petty things that go on that I don’t even need to deal with. That there are ways to…there’s language, both physical language, body language, and verbal, that I think can make people more comfortable and willing to work towards compromises. That we have to get together—we have to respect each other and our own opinions, but then work to what will work for everybody, not just so one-sided as it seems to be today.
TM: Very well said, Denise. Thank you so much. And you know, this idea I have read recently, when we all agree and we’re Iowa-nice, we don’t get anywhere; and that when we don’t agree and we can have a respectful conversation about it is when change can happen. So I want to thank you for representing that point of view, for having the courage to run for office for Iowa House District 21, and for all the work that you’ve been doing for women in agriculture. Thank you so much for all you’re doing.
DOB: Okay, Theresa. Well, you’re welcome, and thank you.
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