March 26, 2010
March is National Women’s History month, making yesterday (March 25) a fitting date for the USDA “Women and Working Lands: Past, Present, Future” forum held at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The forum celebrated the hard work and achievements of women farmers, ranchers and foresters across the nation, and was moderated by USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Women and Working Lands is a diverse group of agency representatives working to find better ways for the USDA to address the needs of women on working lands.
Building the Foundation for an Agricultural Revolution
The event kicked off with a keynote address by Christie Vilsack, literacy advocate and wife of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. In her remarks, Mrs. Vilsack established themes of storytelling, outreach and education, and the value of intergenerational connections in highlighting food and farming as integral to the development of a healthy nation. She thanked the scores of USDA women working hard in the D.C. headquarters and on the ground to promote education, innovation and fruitful partnerships with farmers, and challenged women in all sectors of agriculture to tell their stories to the next generation. Contemplating how best to encourage young women to pursue careers in food and farming, she remarked, “We should start seeing computers as the campfires of the 21st century,” noting that computer networks are ideal forums for spreading the word about the USDA and the efforts of individual women working to improve the future of agriculture.
Following Mrs. Vilsack’s address were short speeches and a panel discussion given by four women active in the farming and outreach communities: Nancy Baker, agro-forester and forest stewardship mentor from Pennsylvania; Vicki Hebb, Sioux rancher and director of Native Women and Youth in Agriculture; Nicolette Hahn Niman, California rancher, attorney, and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms; and Tammy Steele, Oklahoma farmer and attorney working with Oklahoma Women in Agriculture.
“You have to be willing to put your boots on, and then I’ll help you up.”
So goes Vicki Hebb’s mantra—one which Vicki and her co-panelists addressed at length while building upon on Mrs. Vilsack’s themes of outreach, education, and giving back. Nancy Baker emphasized education, and the necessity of better mentoring systems for female forest land owners, who are growing in number, yet still very much disconnected from established support systems. Nicolette Hahn Niman pointed to what she sees as a wealth of budding interest in traditional and organic farming systems among younger generations, and highlighted the importance of fostering and encouraging the connections to the land that these youth so obviously seek; “We’ve lost our spiritual connection to the land,” she said, arguing that we must work to regain this if we ever hope to achieve a balanced, vital and well-understood food system in America.
Vicki reflected this emphasis on youth education in her remarks, leading with the recent discovery that the average rancher is 57-years-old. She presented a galvanizing case for better agricultural education and assistance for youth, stating that “The time is now to stand up, to get involved, to educate our youth and to help them out!” Tammy Steele focused important attention on the need to develop better models for outreach and education within underserved communities—communities of both farmers and regular citizens—and addressed the vital role of community empowerment in preserving family farms and improving access to healthy food for all people.
Understanding the Food and Agriculture Story
“Twenty years ago, when I told people at a party that I worked in agriculture policy, I was left alone in a corner with my gin and tonic; today, I’m the belle of the ball,” said Dep. Sec. Merrigan, pointing out that food and agricultural are returning to prominence in the mainstream psyche. During Q&A time, audience members focused on questions that fundamentally related to this emerging reality and the importance of leveraging it for substantive change.
In response to a question asking how we can convey to people the significant value of food and sustainable agriculture systems, Nicolette replied that the key is getting people to understand the story behind their food—when we highlight the systems at work in the food production cycle, and the implications of our food-buying decisions, she said, we encourage an important shift in focus from cost to value.
One audience member related her story of growing up in North Carolina, where she had been interested in agriculture, but had never heard about the USDA until she moved to Washington, D.C. How, she asked, is this possible, and is the agency prioritizing outreach so that new generations are not ignorant of its resources? This question cut to the heart of the problem that dominated the forum, which was: How can we best publicize the innovative and exciting work being done by the USDA, sustainable agriculture advocacy organizations, state working groups, and individual farmers, ranchers and foresters in the pursuit of more viable and socially-valued food and agriculture systems?
Perhaps more important than the answers to this proposed by speakers, panelists and audience members was the energy and conviction with which they proposed them, demonstrating that the story of food and agriculture in the U.S. is in no danger of going unheard, championed as it is by women so deeply committed to protecting and revitalizing it.