REVIEW: Women and Sustainable Agriculture
Girl power
Making sustainable agriculture happen

Reviewed by Laurie Milford

Details:

Women and Sustainable Agriculture: Interviews with 14 Agents of Change

Anna Anderson, McFarland & Co., 2004; ISBN 0-786417-47-1; 220 pp; $35.00

May 12, 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 future.”

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 too soon.

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, Wyo.