Thursday, February 3, 2011

Women Fixing Food: A Conference for Women, Food, and Agriculture & SLT

I've been fired up about this great organization and their work since last weekend, but have been too busy to write about it here until now.
On Saturday, I drove to Clive with two friends to attend the annual conference for an organization that I've been a member of for a couple years now, Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN).  This network of farmers and activists was founded by this inspirational woman, Denise O'Brien.
Denise radiates both authority and warmth.  She has farmed with her husband in southwest Iowa for over thirty years, and has been an activist for family farms and sustainable agriculture just as long.  She has been an IATP fellow, is a Kellogg Fellows Speaker, and has been recorded in the Iowa Women's Archive.  At this conference, Denise announced that the USDA will be sending her to Kabul to educate and advocate for sustainable agriculture in a country that so direly needs it.  (Did I mention she's a sprightly 60 years old?)  In short, Denise inspires everyone around her.  She kept a low profile at the conference, mostly standing at the back of the room, but she did give a sendoff and thanked all attendees for their passion and hard work.
Before I tell you the details of the conference, I'd like to discuss conferences in general.  In my experience, conferences can range from glorified networking sessions to days filled with inspiration and clear action items that lead participants to new heights.  Sometimes conferences are far too large to be practical, with schedules full of location changes and conflicting sessions.
This conference gave me exactly what I was looking for.  With around 75 attendees from extremely diverse backgrounds, we were able to relate to each other because we all play some part in the bigger picture: the food industry is changing the world, and women are leading the way.
(I think this photo says something about the atmosphere of the conference.)
Before we looked forward, we began the day by looking at the history of women in agriculture in this country, beginning with the Women's Land Army.
I learned of the Women's Land Army, a WWI movement of women into the fields for the good of the country, from the conference's keynote speaker, Temra Costa.  Temra was is the author of an interesting book called Farmer Jane, which is a collection of stories of women around the world who are changing agriculture and the food industry.  The stories range from farmer activists like Denise to chefs and community organizers.  Temra writes with eloquence and perspective, and shows great respect for the power women have, especially when we recognize the power we share.  She reminded us that in many families women make most of the food purchasing decisions in the home and are in charge of planning and preparing meals.
Her keynote set the tone for a positive day full of hope and productivity.
After her keynote, attendees had some time to network, browse the silent auction tables, and check out some of the vendor displays.  The items for the silent auction were all donated, and these were some excellent offerings.  On this table, left to right, was a six-pound jar of honey with a bottle of wine, a wine tasting at a local winery, and a handmade bowl filled with local eggs.
These cupcakes caught everyone's eye.
And you can bet there was some Rosie's Best granola up there!
This is Kathy, the wonderful high bigger who claimed the granola.  Thank you, Kathy, and I hope you love it!
One sponsor display I found particularly interesting was this one about TIF reform.  If you'd like to read more about it, check out the website here.
The caption of this photo, which shows urban sprawl butted right up against a farm, says
"TIF is frequently used to aid economic development in suburbs while promoting development in open spaces and farmland on the rural/urban fringe.  Since 2006, Iowa has developed 2.5 acres for every new person added to the population.  We develop an acre of land every 20 minutes."
Lots of great networking.
Some board members.
After our networking time, we moved on to the mother-daughter business panel.  Since I'm launching my own small food-based business, I was looking forward to hearing how these women made it happen so close to where I live, and with their daughters helping them along the way.  They did not disappoint.  This might have been my favorite part of the day, given the inspiring stories and lively conversation between the panelists and the audience.
First we heard from Donna and Maggie of Prairieland Herbs.  Mother Donna has the green thumb and grows the herbs, and daughter Maggie mixes the herbs into luxurious bath and body products.  Maggie also maintains their Facebook page, which can give a great glimpse into the day-to-day operations of a family-based business.
Donna is trained as a chemist and worked in industry before leaving her job to work with Maggie.  I asked her how she made the leap from a normal routine with a consistent paycheck to her new way of life, which, while thrilling and soul-satisfying, came with huge amounts of risk.  She paused for a moment and said, "Well, I think you have to be a little bit crazy, and to really hate what you're doing."  I appreciated her honesty and her story gave me hope about transitioning myself someday.
The other set of people we met on the panel were from Twin Girl's Garden.  Mother Paula talked about making a small farm work in rural Iowa, and the pride that comes from feeding her two girls, Truen and Elena.  It was so interesting to hear how each of the daughters have developed their own interests on the farm, and how both of them were much better at selling at market than their mother.
The garden also has it's very own tech person, Lisa, a former veterinarian.  She writes for the garden blog and has her own website filled with musings on rural life and meaning here.
If you can believe it, this all happened before LUNCH!  Of course, lunch was full of local foods and was absolutely delicious.  We had a corn and sausage chowder with potatoes and onions from Fairfield Farm, a fresh green salad from The Berry Patch, and some great preserves on bread from La Mie Bakery with my favorite quark cheese from Milton Creamery.
I wish I had sun like this at home.  The wall of windows gave great natural light.
Some ginger rhubarb jam.
We also got some wonderful ice cream from Picket Fence Creamery in Woodward.
After lunch, we heard briefly from Angie Tagtow with the Iowa Food Systems Council.  I highly recommend looking into joining the council.  They take a wide view of the food systems in general, rather than any one specific area, and have been growing and doing great work since they started in 2000.
One of the best parts of the day was a chance to hear from some of the interns from the past year.  WFAN sends a few women each year to intern on farms around the state.  Each and every one of these women hoped to eventually operate their own farms and got hands on experience thanks to the donations of members.  What more could you hope for when giving to a non-profit?  The woman in the green shirt who is speaking said she simply could not have afforded the hands-on experience without the financial support of WFAN.
The final session I'd like to tell you about was presented by Amy Alesh, a PhD student at Iowa State. Amy studies wild bees and their role in agriculture.  I had so much fun picking her brain about bees, and I learned some really interesting things.

  • Of the more than four thousand species of bees in North America, only 24 of them are honey bees.
  • The proximity of a farm to a natural landscape is incredibly important for bee populations.
  • Most wild bees nest underground, so tilling destroys their habitat.
  • While most bees used for commercial pollination are generalists, many wild bees are very specific about the type of flower they will pollinate.  Amy is specifically interested in the squash bee, because they're so darn cute.  (It's true!)
  • Row covers are good for pest control and extending the growing season, but they inhibit pollination.
  • Bees like flowers that are white, yellow, and blue, and they cannot see flowers that are red.
  • Some interesting websites:
Needless to say, this day left a huge impression on me.  I felt so uplifted and inspired by the work of these women, who are off in different parts of the state and country quietly doing some of the best work I've witnessed.  Part of my role is to write about them here, and hope that you can be inspired, too.
I'd like to leave you with a quote from Donna's husband.  Whenever she brings up another wild idea, he says, "If you're not going to do this, who will?"

If you'd like, you can watch this video of attendees discussing their favorite part of the day.

Finally, it's Simple Lives Thursday! Link up your posts, and apologies for mine being so late in the day. Busy bee :)

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