The power of one: the perspective of a long-time activist
By Tom Parker
“I always thought that if the work got done, I could go home and just farm,” stated long –time farm activist Denise O’Brien. “But I’ve never been able to do that because we have to continually fight for rural America and even more so now. ” O’Brien from Atlantic, Iowa spoke to the Kansas Rural Center November 2017 Conference participants on the power of grassroots engagement, working with others, and “what can one person do?”
O’Brien’s activism started with the 1980’s Farm Crisis, but since then she has worked on agriculture and conservation policy at the state, national and international levels, founded the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), organized the Women’s Task Force of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, directed the Rural Women’s Leadership Development Project of Prairie Fire Rural Action, Inc., and served as president of the National Family Farm Coalition. She is currently president of the Pesticide Action Network, and is still active with WFAN and other groups. She also raises vegetables for local markets.
But it was the farm crisis that baptized her in the fire of activism. She returns to lessons learned there, when she thinks of just staying home and farming. She remembers those farmers on the brink of disaster and the statements she heard time and time again. “They felt that if they just kept their heads down and kept farming, and worked harder and harder, the crisis would go away,” she said. “It didn’t.”
Farm women, she learned, had no such pretensions or delusions. They tallied the books and totaled the losses and took off-farm jobs to put food on the table. Across the Midwest, a pervasive sense of helplessness spread like a virus. People felt ashamed and isolated and alone. Against the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, what could one person do?
O’Brien had an answer to that, and the answer back then was the same as now, 40 years later. “The short answer is to seek out like-minded people and together work for change,” she said. “The long answer takes time.”
Farming has always been difficult, but it’s even more difficult when the odds are stacked against you, she said. “We struggle every day to keep a balance with Mother Nature,” she said. “She rules. She’s in charge.”
Other outside forces are even more unpredictable. High interest rates and a drop in land prices in the 1980s turned the farming community upside down both economically and structurally. Today’s trend toward agribusiness or industrial agriculture —which she defines as an industrial assembly line method of agriculture—is a trend away from agriculture as we know it. Instead of replenishing the soil and the farming communities that rely on it, agribusiness is based on an extractive economy that depletes and diminishes rather than restores. It is agriculture without the culture, and culture defines our communities.
“We’re farmers, we’re retail business owners, we’re entrepreneurs, we’re doctors, we’re counselors, we’re teachers and so much more, and we have chosen to be as independent as possible, chosen to be in rural America,” she said. “We like to think of ourselves as independent, but we’re dependent on our communities.”
And those communities are emptying out. The great outmigration from the countryside to the cities has been increasing for more than a decade and shows no signs of slowing. Small independently-owned businesses can’t compete against retailers like Walmart and Amazon. Once-thriving downtowns are being replaced with empty storefronts.
“We’re being left in the dust,” O’Brien said. “And we don’t want to be dust. We want to be soil—soil that’s clean, soil that’s living, soil that’s teeming with microbes.”
Historically, there have been times when people had to rise up and pull things together, she said. Such was certainly the case in the 1980s, and it was driven by farmers. Today’s local food movements, CSA’s, farmers markets, and other programs build on their hard work and dedication, as do organizations such as the Kansas Rural Center. O’Brien is quick to quote Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Nevertheless, today’s challenges are, like the weather, as unprecedented as they are unpredictable, and the undercurrent of worry that has lain dormant is stirring. “The worry has always been there,” she said, “but it seems we’re more worried now.”
Her own worries include constant threats from aerial spray drift from neighboring farms. Though she has met with pilots to warn them of her farm’s certified organic status, the response has been one of dismissal.
A lifetime of battling for the American farmer has left her with a clear understanding of what’s at stake. She flashes through a series of photographs showing rows of organic crops, fellow farmers, family members standing in front of a wooden barn, and a colorful tree frog. “This is why I farm,” she said. “I farm because of my family, because of the food I can grow, because of the beauty. I have the pleasure of seeing nature every day.”
She’s reached the age when she’s considered an elder in the movement for sustainable agriculture, and is warming to the idea of mentoring after a friend told her that people are listening. Passing on information to younger generations has enabled her to keep abreast of modern social networking methods such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as discovering new uses and recipes for the crops she produces.
Attending conferences on global food issues has expanded her horizons to other cultures and other worldviews. During one such conference she came across a saying from Haiti that could be considered a summation of her life’s work: “There are more mountains behind the mountains we see.”
“So,” O’Brien said, “our work is never done.” She takes pleasure, though, in the rise of new young energy and commitment to the issues and values she has spent a lifetime working to protect.