The Women of Farm Justice: Forgotten by Women Today?

“The farm crisis now may turn into a food crisis in the 90s.”

Carolyn Hauser, Donahue show, 1985

“We’re setting ourselves on fire out here, because we’re trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave that has already come across us, coming across our small towns, and it’s coming your way, whether you want to know it or not, and you’d better face it!”

Anonymous woman, Donahue Show, 1985

Women of the Food Movement

Anyone who works for food justice quickly learns that there are a lot of women, including many young women, in prominent roles, leading the movement. Here is a small, personal sampling of some of the names I’ve run across, and a some of their involvements:

Jill Richardson, author, Recipe for America, blogger/manager, right here at La Vida Locavore

Paula Crossfield, blog manager, Civil Eats

Ann Butkowski, (former) Simple Good and Tasty blogger

Nicole Betancourt, founder and CEO of Parent Earth (video project)

Anna Lappe, author, Diet for a Hot Planet

Nikki Henderson, Executive Director, People’s Grocery

Christina Schiavoni, Director of the Global Movements Program at WHY Hunger

Renata Brillinger, Executive Director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network

Marion Nestle, author, Food Politics

Alice Waters, Chez Panisse

Amy Witteman, Elanor Starmor and Alicia Harvey, out of Tufts University and then into a variety of important movement roles.

If you look these women up, in their organizations, you find that in many cases, they’re surrounded largely by other women. That’s my impression.

Now, obviously, half of the people in this country are women, and they’ve long been functioning in leadership roles for running the country. That’s not at all news, and to suggest that it is is probably to sound sexist. When I attended the large conference of the Community Food Security Coalition in Oakland California last fall, however, it seemed to me that a large majority of the participants and workshop leaders were women. Maybe it’s just me, but it strikes me that, for some reason, food issues especially appeal to, if not all women, at least to many of the brightest young women of today.

Will These Women fail and Be Forgotten?

Today we’re fighting a savage food and farm crisis, and the vested special interests of huge agribusiness corporations. Five years ago I heard a lot of optimism in the food movement. Today that optimism seems to have been tempered a bit. From time to time I wonder what the future holds for the food movement, and for the women who have been leading it.

Will the movement fail, die down, and fade away? Will these prominent women finally concede defeat. Will their work, fall by the wayside. Will the movement conclude that, even with all of these resources, it’s a hopeless cause?

What about all of their work? Will it be preserved, archived? Or will they be forgotten, even by other women who are food or farm activists, for example? Will the book become obsolete, for example, causing the food movement books of today to drop off of future resource lists.

Ok, so, what if, then, sometime farther into the future a new movement springs up, with a new cadre of bright young women, for example, featured prominently among it’s leaders? Will they and their male counterparts read the books of the food movement women of today? Will they study the archives of those who have gone before? Or will those books be forgotten, and those archives ignored? Will the food movement books of today even be cited in the books of the future? Will people start over fresh, not building upon the food movement work that is being done today? Will they instead be influenced by some new set of theories that become trendy in that time, catching the attention of mainstream media for a while? Will a new paradigm emerge that has no place for the facts and theory of the leaders of today? Will, then, today’s food movement ideas, even when remembered, lack the traction needed to make it into the major food and farm justice trends of the future?

Women of the Farm Crisis

Why do I speculate in these strange and negative ways? Why do I imagine such a negative future? Most of the answer lies in the story of the women of the family farm justice movement, the women of the farm crisis of the 1980s (the crisis which continued through 2006, with massive consequences impacting us today).

These are women that I met, saw and heard about, starting when I first became involved in farm justice issues 27 years ago. Here’s a personal list of some prominent names from my memory, plus a somewhat sparse recollection of their involvements:

Ann Kanten, co-founder, Minnesota Farm Advocates; MN Dept. Ag.; Chair, United Farmer & Rancher Congress.

Helen Waller, Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils,

Carol Hodne, organizer, US Farmers Association, Executive Director, North American Farm Alliance

Barb Grabner, Joanne Alsup and others at PrairieFire Rural Action, Rural Women’s Conf.

Denise O’Brien, a co-founder of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition; director, Women’s Leadership Development Project at PrairieFire Rural Action, president, National Family Farm Coalition, candidate, Iowa Sec. of Ag.

Susan Bright, Indiana Citizens Action

Lou Ann Kling, co-founder, Minnesota Farm Advocates

Alice Tripp, farm activist and gubernatorial candidate, Minnesota,

Patty Kakac, Minnesota farm activist and folk singer

Joanne Hardimon, Illinois South Project

Pam Baldwin, Idaho Rural Council

Barb Meister, founder, Students Empowered for Rural Action; Texas Dept. of Agriculture

Mary Ellen Lloyd, National Council of Churches

Dorothy Robertson, Community Farm Alliance

Lynn Hayes, founding attorney, Farmers Legal Action Group

Sarah Vogel, lead counsel, Coleman v. [sec of ag] Block; ND Comm. of Ag.

Initially, starting in the 1950s, the resurgence of the family farm (farm justice) movement, (responding to attacks on the New Deal Farm Programs, starting in 1953,) was dominated by men. Meanwhile the women’s movement came along.

By the 1980s, most of the women listed above were active leaders in the movement, and some were developing and providing resources specifically to rural women. PrairieFire Rural Action, for example, published a newsletter, Women of the Land. They also held a rural women’s conference each year for more than a decade, starting in the 1980s, as part of their Women’s Leadership Development Project. There were also special editions of various serial publications focusing on this work.

Forgotten Women, Forgotten Farm Justice

In comparing the two groups of women, those from the family farm justice movement of the 1980s farm crisis, and those from the new food movement, who are working on the food crisis of today, I see many similarities. Certainly the goals are essentially the same.

On the other hand, I have yet to see any significant mention of the work of the earlier women in the work of the later women. I have yet to see any food movement blogs on this topic (thus me writing this blog). While visiting the Iowa Women’s Archive last year, I was told that the files of women like Carol Hodne, a giant in the farm justice movement, had been almost totally ignored over the years, a major disappointment for the project. Likewise, in contacts with staff of the National Council of Churches of Christ, I’ve found that the name of Mary Ellen Lloyd, their farm justice predecessor, is not even known, nor is the work from her era (ie. the Farm Crisis Resource Packet, the farm justice resolutions passed by NCCC). This is also true for many of the staff I’ve met of mainline denominations in Washington D.C., that are working on food and farm issues from a religious perspective today. (But when I mentioned this fact to the board of the National Family Farm Coalition recently, one longtime member said he’d seen Mary Ellen at an event in Wisconsin or somewhere in recent years. She and they are not forgotten in some circles!)

Meanwhile the leading farm policy goal for most of the farm crisis women of history remains almost entirely unknown in the food movement today. I’ve rarely seen any of the women on my food movement list, (and the many other food movement women and men, who’s work I’ve reviewed over the past five years,) make any reference to any part of the policy components of those concerns. I refer here to the Save the Family Farm Act, which made a strong showing in the Senate and took a stand in the House in 1985, the Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill, which continues today as the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition. The Food Movement appears to not even know about that history, including that women’s history. Though I’ve mentioned the importance of these policies and programs to many of these women (via blogs, etc.,) I’ve seen virtually no advocacy on them from the women (and men) of today’s food movement. The enormous outpouring of farm justice work that those women did (and archived, and many more like them,) has essentially, for all practical purposes, been forgotten, lost in the dustbins of history, even by the bloggers and authors.

Ironically, one of the major concerns of the women of farm justice, as seen my initial quotes from 1985, (above,) was the need for a major, consumer side food movement. That movement did not emerge in time for the women (and men,) of farm justice to be successful. We find, then, that quite a few of the farm justice women women of the past have retired into relative noninvolvement on these issues, which contrasts sharply with their earlier idealism (such as a sheet of Prairiefire staff/leader visions for the world, 50 years ahead, which I found in archives at the University of Iowa). A number of their organizatins have folded. Clearly, the fight for justice has been costly, in very personal ways.


This, then, is the source for my strange and negative speculations. To quote a poem from below, “The torch that falling hands,” “these prairie Mothers” and other women “have hurled” has not been “seized” by the leading women (and men) advocating for food justice today, not that I’ve seen. Will, then, these bright, young, compassionate women in food movement of today fail? Will they fail without even knowing about, let alone, understanding, or advocating for, the farm justice policy torch from the falling hands of their foremothers?

Perhaps they will fail, at least on the biggest farm justice issue, for which the needed polcies remain largely unknown. Perhaps, however, they will not be forgotten. After all, we live today in the era of the world wide web, where information has increased enormously in accessibility. The internet remains a major barrier between the women of the farm crisis, and the women of the food crisis, however. Few publications from the farm justice work of the past, especially from the organizations that have fallen away, (ie. PrairieFire, the North American Farm Alliance,) have made it onto the internet, and those few that do exist are hard to find.

Some of the women of farm justice have survived into the present day, in leadership positions in the farm and food movement of today, and even in work on women’s role in agriculture. Denise O’Brien has founded the Women Food and Agriculture Network. Others may be found on the staffs, boards, or on special committees of groups like the National Family Farm Coalition, (Kathy Ozer, Executive Director,) The Farmers Legal Action Group, and the member organizations of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, sometimes in the top jobs. Rhonda Perry, for example, a long time farm justice advocate, helps lead the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, and co-edits In Motion Magazine (online), one of the leading farm justice sites in the US, (and one I’ve never seen referenced in the food movement).

I give the last lines of this blog to an old farm woman that I knew as a small child in the late 1950s. These are the concluding lines from a poem by my great, great aunt, (my favorite of her poems). She was the youngest child of a large family that pioneered in Iowa. It is a classic expression of the regional (tallgrassprairie/ cornbelt) literature that comes to us from our past. Aunt Martha sums up my concerns better than I ever could.

“Oh, fair young mothers of tomorrow’s world —

When little children gather ’round your knee,

Seize ye the torch that falling hands have hurled

And hold it bravely high for all to see;

Follow the gleam that shines a down years,

Lose not the vision bright that sees the goal;

Relay the message, sent through toil and tears,

“Give them the food to nourish well the soul.”

Follow the paths these prairie Mothers trod,

And hold our Nation close to home and God.”



Dairy Queens, (Anne Kanten, Alice Tripp, Patty Kakacs,) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

Food Movement 1985: Were You There? We Were. (Carolyn Hauser & various anonymous women and men,) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

From the Grassroots Up, Not from the Money Down, (including Helen Waller, Susan Bright, Joanne Hardimon, Pam Baldwin, Dorothy Robertson, from the list above,) National Family Farm Coalition, (3 parts):




America’s Stake in the 1985 Farm Bill, YouTube, (Carol Hodne, et al, slideshow,) League of Rural Voters, Minnesota, (parts 1, 2, 3)




Brad Wilson, Michael Pollan Rebuttal: Debunking Pollan’s ‘Corn Subsidy’ Argument, YouTube, FireweedFarm, (parts 1 & 2)




Carol Hodne Papers, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Women’s Archives, http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/4/resources/1983.

Denise O’Brien Papers, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Women’s Archives, http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/4/resources/2213.

Iowa State University Library, Special Collections, MS 501, North American Farm Alliance, Records, 1982-1988, n.d., http://findingaids.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/manuscripts/MS501.html.

Iowa State University Library, Special Collections, MS 313, PrairieFire Rural Action, Records, 1977-1996, undated, https://cardinal.lib.iastate.edu/repositories/2/resources/296.

Brad Wilson, Fireweed Folk Center, (rural archives collection,) Springville, Iowa.


Martha Hood, “The Pioneer Mother,” From My Window, Whittier Print Shop, (circa 1959), expanded edition, 2014 Brad Wilson.

Carol Hodne, ed. Holding Our Ground: Farm Women Fight Back, North American Farm Alliance Educational Project, Ames, Iowa, 1988.

“Rural Women of the ’90s: After a Decade of Turmoil, What Lies Ahead?” Prairie Journal, A Journal of PrairieFire Rural Action, Vol 2, No. 4, Winter 1991-1992.

“Women and Agriculture,” Agriculture and Human Values, Vol II, No. 1, Winter 1985.

“Women on the Land,” The Churchwoman, Magazine of Church Women United, Vol 51, No. 3, Fall 1985)

“Women of the Land,” A Journal for Rural Women, (circa 1988-9,) Prairiefire Rural Action (serial)

The United Farmer and Rancher Congress: ‘Strengthening the Spirit of America,’ 1986, (full booklet in pdf, includes contributions from Carol Hodne,): http://www.inmotionmagazine.co


Brad Wilson, “Missing Food Movement History: Highlights of Family Farm Justice: 1950-2000,” Word Press, FamilyFarmJustice, 5/25/15, https://familyfarmjustice.wordpress.com .

Interview with Rhonda Perry of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center: Grassroots Missouri Organizing Since 1985: A Variety of Tactics, Consistent Strategies,” In Motion Magazine, http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/ra06/rperry_int05.html.

Brad Wilson, “Petition Pollan to Support Harkin-Gephardt,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/petition-pollan-to-support-harkin-gephardt-by-brad-wilson/ . “Michael Pollan, Lead the Food Movement to Corn Price Floors, change.org, http://www.change.org/petition

Brad Wilson, “Flawed Food History: Farm Justice Missing from Timeline,” https://zcomm.org/zblogs/flawed-food-history-farm-justice-missing-from-timeline-by-brad-wilson/ . It’s a review of the food movement timeline at the Small Planet Institute’s website, focusing on farm justice issues like the dairy crisis.

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