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Step Up to the Plate: Four steps for women to cook up a new food system

Denise O'BrienSomeone needs to review first grade math. Talk about an unequal equation: Women make eighty-five percent of household food purchase decisions and own fifty-percent of our nation’s farmland. Women, particularly those over 55, add up to the largest and fastest growing group buying new farms today. So why then have women, historically, been so underrepresented in agriculture policy and national farming agendas?

Ask Iowa farmer, Denise O’Brien. But she’s not trying to teach the old farm dogs new math – she’s advocating for women to organize and reinvent the system.

For the past twenty years, O’Brien has led the charge of organizing and promoting the voice and face of women in agriculture and is founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. “Finally, the tides are starting to turn for women farmers as policies just start to change,” explains O’Brien. “But it should have happened a long time ago and there’s still much we as women, from growers to grocery shoppers, can do to create a healthy food system for future generations.”

O’Brien racks up a history of seeing opportunity in crisis. Her agriculture advocacy work started back during the farming crisis of the 1980s when many family farms collapsed and were forced into foreclosure. “It was the women on the farms who saw this economic gloom on the horizon as they often kept the accounting books and could see were things were heading long term,” O’Brien recalls. “But the problem was these women still often considered themselves ‘just farm wives’ and no one took their voice seriously. We women needed to get out of the role of just making coffee at meetings.”

This launched O’Brien on the road of agriculture activism, balancing multiple roles of helping run her family’s diversified dairy and produce farm, Rolling Acres, raising children and serving as a national advocate and spokeswoman for women in agriculture. “I realized during that farm crisis of the 1980s that if I didn’t step to the plate to organize women, if I didn’t instigate something, perhaps no one would,” adds O’Brien. In 1997 she launched the Women, Food and Agriculture Network to help women farmers develop the organizational and speaking skills to collectively advocate for a stronger voice and representation.

You don’t need to be a farmer to support women in agriculture. “Whatever your background, there’s a role each of us women can play to support a healthy, green and fair food system,” O’Brien explains.

Here are some steps to get started:

1. Connect with Kindred Spirits
Start coalition building by connecting with others in your community who share your healthy food values. O’Brien first met many of her local tribe of kindred spirits through starting a food co-op, drawing people together with a desire to purchase natural foods not available in their rural area. “Turns out we were all kindred spirits on other levels as well, such as politics and organic gardening,” adds O’Brien.

2. Be Available
Make yourself available to attend meetings, particularly those that are traditionally dominated by men such as local planning and farm service meetings. When her children were young, O’Brien would often attend meetings with her kids in tow: “I wanted my kids to grow up realizing the importance of being involved and active with the issues you consider important.”

3. Support Other Women
Supporting other women goes beyond mentoring. “Women need to be each other’s cheerleaders,” O’Brien explains. “Give words of encouragement, show up at meeting and events, create connections and grow networks between women.”

4. Join Advocacy Groups
Agriculture groups like the Women, Food & Agriculture Network and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition synthesize key farming issues, making it easier for you to take action on food and agriculture policy, such as writing letters to representatives.“

Related links:
See Jane Grow: Women Farmers Sow Seeds of Hope
Cows aren’t Legos: Sassy Insights from an Organic Dairy Farmer
A True Campaign for Change: Five Tips to Stir Up the Local Foods Movement in Your Community

Photo Credit: Denise O’Brien

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