I‘ve been involved with the sustainable agriculture movement for 20 years. From my first interactions with pioneering visionaries to current partnerships with leading innovators, women have been at the forefront of changing the culture of food and agriculture.
My first exposure to a different kind of agriculture occurred while taking a university course called “Urban Farm.” Landscape architecture professor Ann Bettman’s brainchild, the course involved hands-on gardening and compost pile maintenance. The reading list included books by John Jeavons, Bill Mollison and Steve Solomon.
After university, I worked on a small organic farm. We grew diverse culinary herbs and specialty vegetables, selling directly to natural-food retailers and local restaurants. The farm manager, Anji Yellowhorses, was from Mayan ancestry and had married a full-blooded Navajo. She ran the farm with tough love, insatiable curiosity and experimentation, and a contagious joy of growing plants.
In 1998, I joined the Oregon Tilth staff. I was hired by Yvonne Frost, who had grown the certification program with a vision of organic food available on the shelves of every supermarket across the country. That’s also when I met Lynn Coody, Oregon Tilth’s policy director, whose grass roots advocacy helped shape key policy changes to support organic. Coody worked closely with Rep. DeFazio’s office to introduce the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 on the House floor.
As a new Tilth employee, I further educated myself on the challenges facing our food system. I read Vandana Shiva’s book, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. It helped shape my understanding of critical issues – the importance of the public domain, the right to seed and food sovereignty, and the threats of a new colonialism occurring at the genetic level represented by trends to patent and genetically engineer plants. Her writing was concise, clear and infused with inherent wisdom.
Later in my career, I engaged in national policy and advocacy work. That’s when I came across Kathleen Merrigan, a long-time sustainable food policy advocate in D.C. Back in 1990, she was a staffer for Senator Leahy, who helped pass OFPA in the Senate. From 2009 to 2013, Merrigan served as the USDA Deputy Secretary. During her tenure, she worked to reorient the culture at USDA through initiatives like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. Rather than create stand-alone programs subject to elimination by future administrations, Merrigan embedded sustainable agriculture into all the agency’s programs – marketing, natural resources conservation, research and education, ag statistics, foreign trade and risk management.
Today, the Organic Seed Alliance, Organic Farming Research Foundation, Organic Trade Association, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services, and the Sustainable Food Trade Association are all led by experienced and visionary women. Women are leading the merger of Seattle Tilth and Tilth Producers of Washington to bridge urban and rural communities in Washington. Oregon Tilth’s current board president has spent her career working to support rural communities while protecting our natural resources. And finally, the growth and success of Oregon Tilth’s certification and education programs have occurred under the leadership of dedicated and talented women.
It’s been an honor and privilege to be mentored by and work in partnership with so many amazing women.