2005: Women and Sustainable Agriculture
is a collection of interviews of women who have played major
roles in promoting organic and sustainable farming—businesswomen,
producers, policymakers and advocates. Borrowing from the
methods of sociology, compiling editor Anna Anderson presents
her material as a series of case studies, conducting interviews
of each subject and then framing the transcriptions as chapters.
Some compilers of such collections edit more heavily, shaping
the transcriptions as coherent essays; some edit less, letting
the transcription, or a piece of it, speak for itself. Anderson
takes the hands-off approach. These case studies are down
to earth and colloquial. The advantage, of course, is that
the interviews give insight into the personality and motivations
of each “agent of change.” What Anderson gains
in realism, though, she gives up in coherence. At times, the
subjects ramble. Or they allude to trends or institutions
that need further explanation.
And that’s where an editor can make or break a collection.
A good collection employs introductions and other elements
to give background to the ideas under discussion. At best,
Anderson’s commentaries glance forward, offering a bare-bones
list of next steps toward combating industrial agriculture
and the policies that sink family farms. At worst, the editor’s
notes are mere synopses, failing to consider the implications
of the larger issues at hand.
Stage-setting aside, some of the cases do stand on their
own. For example, who would have known the CEO of Organic
Essentials, one of the two brands of organic tampons I’ve
ever seen, is herself an organic cotton farmer in Texas? Her
name is La Rhea Pepper. She and her husband took over her
grandparents’ farm in the early 1990s and made it organic.
At the time, they couldn’t find mills that would take
the relatively low volume of organic cotton they could produce
from one farm. So Pepper and her husband began to manufacture
fabric and market it themselves. Now they sell forty different
fabrics to buyers who include Mountain Equipment Co-op and
Patagonia. To solve the problem of volume, they started the
Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative. In the mid-1990s,
looking for a way to use the cotton with fibers that are too
short to spin, they founded Organic Essentials. In other words,
Pepper has walked her talk: “For agriculture to change,
the first thing that has to change is the mindset of the people—the
mindset of the women, and the mindset of the men. They’re
going to have to decide to take an active role in their own
Another woman who takes charge is Mona Lee Brock, who, after
losing her farm and her husband to a foreclosure, or “accelerated
loan,” helped to found the Farm Crisis Center in Oklahoma.
She still volunteers as its best-known crisis hotline counselor.
In the beginning, Mona would answer as many as 45 calls a
day from farmers who faced foreclosure and needed emotional
and financial counseling. One Sunday morning Mona answered
the phone before heading out to church. The farmer was desperate.
Mona made him promise he wouldn’t take his own life
before she could reach him. Seconds later, Mona recalls, another
farmer called. She elicited the same promise from him. The
two lived seventy miles apart; she couldn’t reach them
both in good time. So Mona drove first to one and convinced
him to ride with her to the other man’s place. “They
talked it out. They saved each other,” she says. “And
they are still good friends today.”
As compelling a story as this is, neither Anderson nor Brock
attempts to explain the larger forces that lead to farm foreclosures.
If a farmer can’t repay his or her loan, that’s
one thing, but to have a note called in early? Under what
circumstances is that legal? Brock describes one particularly
egregious case, in which a lender suggested to a farmer who
took a loan against a life insurance policy that he kill himself
in order to relieve his family of debt. Anderson reacts:
That is shocking in so many ways that it is unbelievable
that it could have taken place. … Since we haven’t
gone through it and we don’t hear about it, it is hard
to grasp. I mean, we hear about Willie Nelson and the Farm
Aid concert and we may watch a movie on the subject for entertainment,
but we don’t have a clue as to what it is about.
And yet Anderson doesn’t explain “what it is
about.” Anderson was herself surprised by the behavior
of the lender, and yet offers no insight into the system that
makes farmers vulnerable. Sarah Vogel, an attorney who has
dedicated her career to defending farmers against the illegal
and unethical practices of the USDA and agribusinesses, begins
to explain the context, but again Anderson changes course
Women and Sustainable Agriculture gives readers
a glimpse into the lives of women who are making the world
a better place for all of us, farmers and consumers. With
the benefit of a critical reader flagging basic but unanswered
questions, the book might also have served as a solid introduction
to the current state of American agriculture.
Laurie Milford is a writer and editor living in Laramie,