Recently, I attended the Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference (WISA), held in Portland, Oregon. It’s a national conference that’s held every couple of years in different locations around the U.S.

This year’s conference was organized by a national group of stakeholders, including Oregon State University (the Small Farms program and Cooperative Extension Service). Also sitting on the organizing committee were staff from Cooperative Extension programs in Idaho, Vermont, Georgia and North Carolina. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program had a seat at the table, as did the USDA’s Resource Management Agency; MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service); and the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (including the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network). The Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network also helped with event planning.

Hundreds of women attended. It was one of the most exciting and energetic conferences I’ve ever attended. Absolutely stellar. I met women whose work I’ve long admired and reconnected with old food systems friends. I was incredibly heartened by the many, many young women who participated in the conference; I loved speaking with them and learning about their work. It is significant and bodes well for our future.

The keynote speaker was Natasha Bowens (her book – The Color of Food – is a #mustread). She challenged a rapt audience to tap into the strength of women farmers. She also said this, which struck me as a profound truth:

“We are not truly sustainable unless we are truly connected.”

I participated in several presentations and had the privilege of facilitating a Trailblazers panel that featured three women producers: Jeanne Carver, Joan Thorndike and Diane Green. I’ve come to know and admire these women as we planned this presentation over the last couple of months.

Jeanne Carver and her husband, Dan, own and operate an historic ranch in Oregon. The Imperial Stock Ranch was established in 1871, and the ranch headquarters are a National Historic District. The Carvers have developed value added businesses, including fiber sales, to industry leaders such as Ralph Lauren. (The Carvers provided yarn for the Team USA opening ceremony uniforms for the 2014 Winter Olympics. They are now also working with Patagonia).

Jeanne offered observations that resonated deeply with conference participants, including this: “The greatest measure of sustainability is that we’re still standing.” In a conversation we had before the conference, Jeanne told me that the idea of “maker” in today’s culture is an important concept:

“I think about coffee roasters, microbreweries, the chefs who emphasize nose-to-tail, butchers who use the whole animal…these are the new rock stars. Growers are the new sexy. The concept of maker – the craftsman in food and textile areas – has elevated farmers’ work. It’s honoring skills most citizens are removed from…less than 2% farm. Most people want to relate to this…but for a long time, no one was listening.”

Joan Thorndike is a fresh-cut flower producer in Southern Oregon. Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, she founded La Mera Gardens, which now works in partnership with Fry Family Farms, producing specialty cut flowers on open fields and in greenhouses. Joan is a charter member of the Slow Flowers movement. (Learn more about that work by reading my Q&A with California flower producer Mike Mellano).

In a conversation we had before the conference, Joan shared her feeling that “…farming has been elevated to a different status…What has kept me going in adversity is that it is a social good to keep land in agriculture and encourage the next generation.” At a packed lunch, Joan introduced her daughter, who has joined her in the business. She shared that she is “falling in love with what I do over and over again…although it’s not perfect.” She also noted that “value add” can also mean being “super good” at what you do.

Diane Green, with her husband, owns and operates Greentree Naturals, a small acreage organic farm near Sandpoint, Idaho. Diane emphasized that her operation has added value by creating on-farm partnerships and through education. Diane also stressed that it’s vital “to take care of yourself…your land, your body, your family.”

Another panel that I participated in explored how women can lead change in the food system. It was led by the energetic Lisa Kivirist (farmer, author, entrepreneur, activist – read our Q&A with Lisa here). Some of the takeaways from this panel included the need to provide each other opportunities, and to be generous with our time.

Storytelling emerged as a theme of the conference. I was thrilled to co-facilitate a image001workshop on digital storytelling with Audra Mulkern of the Female Farmer Project. (Read our Q&A with Audra to learn more about her work). Audra’s images of women farmers are becoming known around the world, with good reason. As our readers know, I’m always on the lookout for good podcasts and am thrilled that the Female Farmer Project has added this medium to its portfolio. The inaugural episode – featuring Amber Waves – is here. Audra and co-host Kate Doughty have lots of great content lined up, so stay tuned.

I participated on a panel with other female authors writing about food and agriculture. There are some really great books out there…I’ll save that post for another day. But quickly, do go out and buy Carolyn Sachs latest book (co-authored): The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture. Carolyn is a rural sociologist on faculty at Penn State. I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time (it figures into my own scholarship). It was amazing to sit on a panel with her.


You may also be interested in reading:

Q&A with Mary Peabody, founding director of Women’s Ag Network

Women used their work on the land to press for suffrage

Hilal Elver, United Nations

Sarah Nolan, The Abundant Table