Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Connecting the Local with the Global

Guest blogger Samantha Wittrock shares with us her excellent personal account (below) having attended the Women, Food and Agriculture Network conference this year in Fairfield, Iowa.

Bio: Samantha is a grad student pursuing a Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning and Public Health at the University of Iowa. She is interested in food systems planning and promoting healthy food access and food justice in both the local and global context.

On November 14th and 15th, I was fortunate to attend the Women, Food and Agriculture Network’s Annual Conference in Fairfield, Iowa. As I am interested in every aspect of the food system and my mom is considering a venture into sustainable farming, it was the perfect opportunity for us to meet and learn about women who are already deeply involved in this movement.

The Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) was founded in 1997 by Denise O’Brienon their long-standing concerns about systemic rural, agricultural, and environmental problems and gender relation in these domains.” Its mission is “to link and empower women to build food systems and communities that are healthy, just, sustainable, and that promote environmental integrity.” WFAN offers many educational and networking opportunities to women farmers. Successful models through WFAN can translate to learning opportunities and best practices to be shared with organizations similarly working on gender empowerment globally like Oxfam America and vice versa.

We started the conference out by attending a Soil Health 101 intensive in which the speakers covered the basics of soil health, the use of cover crops, tips for managed grazing and mine reclamation.  These speakers, representing Practical Farmers of Iowa, Southwest Badger RC&D and Pathfinders RC&D, highlighted the importance of soil health to crop yields and other natural resources. Time and again the speakers emphasized that soil is the foundation for growing food and creating a healthy farm for years to come. While we attended this intensive, tours of local farms, the community orchard, Maharishi University, the Farm to School greenhouse and the Abundance EcoVillage were also taking place.

Following the first session, we were able to taste some of the delicious local food dishes prepared by two of Fairfield’s female chefs. At this meal and the others throughout the conference, there was something for nearly everyone with vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Many of the items in the meals were actually from some of the women attending the conference, which I thought was a great way for them to market their products and further connect producer and consumer.

The final activity on the first evening was a screening and panel discussion of the film Terra Firma: A Film About Women, War and Healing. Terra Firma follows three women veterans who were able to find healing for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through farming. Sonia Kendrick, founder of Feed Iowa First in Cedar Rapids and Kelly Carlisle of Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project in Oakland California, both veterans, served on the panel with the producers of the film, Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson. Through the film and the discussion that followed, it was amazing to see the great impact that farming can have on our society, not only on the people who are eating it, but also on those who are growing it.

Day 2 of the conference was kicked off with a keynote speech by Karen Washington, founder of Black Urban Growers NYC. Karen discussed the challenges and opportunities in urban farming and shared her experiences with inspiring community involvement. She had many ideas on community mobilization and how to make urban farming more equitable and accessible for all populations. Her speech was incredibly motivating and she kept the audience captivated and excited with ideas they could take back to their communities.

After the keynote speaker, we attended a session called Grassroots Science: Measuring Local Impacts of Air and Water Pollution. Linda Wells of PANNA shared information about tools that sustainable farmers can set up at their farm in order to detect pesticide drift from surrounding farms and what they can do with the information after its been collected.  Mary Skopec highlighted IOWATER’s volunteer training program in which volunteers test, record and monitor water quality across the state of Iowa.

We then sat in on a session titled What Your Farm Bill Can Do for YOU!, in which the speakers talked about support, including crop insurance and disaster assistance, that is available for non-conventional farmers. Lunch came after the second session and attendees learned from Diane Rosenberg of Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, Inc. how relationships are key to anti-CAFO advocacy.

The third, and final session we attended, entitled Resources for Aspiring and Beginning Women Farmers provided information on available loans, financing and training opportunities for women to get their farms up and running. In addition to resources provided in this session, there were also a number of vendors and organizations set up with other information for farmers. These resources ranged from crop insurance and loan information to educational handouts and books.

Throughout the conference we talked to many women who are some of the movers and shakers of the local foods and sustainable agriculture movement. I was inspired by all of the great things that they are doing and taken aback by how down to earth each and every one of them is. They’re all excited for new people to get involved and willing to help out in any way possible. My mom and I walked away from the conference with many ideas as well as next steps for getting her farm up and running. It was incredible and inspiring to see just how much women are contributing to the food system in our state and across the country.