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
Laurie Milford is a writer and editor living in Laramie, Wyo.