Developing women’s leadership in food and agricultural systems – Food Tank


During a recent interview, a farmer, activist and co-founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) discussed the importance of cultivating women farmers’ leadership skills and including them in decision-making processes.

In the 1990s, O’Brien helped launch WFAN in response to the agricultural crisis of the 1980s, when farm debt reached extremely high levels. “I was working in the state of Iowa with women who were the sirens of the farm crisis,” O’Brien told Food Tank. “They’re the ones who made the headlines saying that some things aren’t right.”

She hoped to provide a space for women working in food and agriculture systems to come together and learn from each other. “[I]It seemed necessary to start finding these women and recognizing them for the work they do and have[e] a safe place for us women to go,” O’Brien says.

WFAN members, which include farmers, gardeners, educators, activists, and more, currently represent all fifty U.S. states and several countries. The programs serve to connect young women farmers with mentors, train women to run for office, and encourage conversations about food justice and land equity. They also organize conferences to bring members together.

O’Brien stepped back from a leadership position with WFAN in the early 2000s, but still monitors the organization’s progress. “It’s wonderful for me as a co-founder to sit down and watch the accomplishments of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network and where they are going, especially on issues of land, diversity and community. “

Despite progress, in part thanks to the work of WFAN, imbalances remain. According to O’Brien, this not only leads to the persistence of gender disparities, but also slows progress in mitigating the climate crisis. She calls on women across the United States who have been influenced by WFAN’s Women Caring for the Land Women Caring program.

“[They] want natural resources and conservation practices on their land, and they want families on the land. And that’s the exact opposite of what’s happening,” O’Brien told Food Tank. “And yet women’s voices aren’t heard enough to know that for a whole list of issues we have in the United States, we need to focus on conservation, rural development, families on the land.”

To address this concern, O’Brien argues that women need to be more involved in decision-making processes. “Maybe the next generation will be more accepting of that,” she says, “and I’m hopeful about that.”

Listen to the full conversation with Denise O’Brien on “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” to hear more about O’Brien’s thoughts on getting food producers on the ballot, how the Student debt weighs on young and beginning farmers, and on opportunities to encourage more farmers to switch to climate-smart agricultural practices.

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Photo courtesy of Zoe Schaeffer, Unsplash


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