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BH-headshot-207x300Today on Rootstock Radio, co-host Anne O’Connor chats with Bridget Holcomb, executive director of the Women, Food & Agriculture Network (WFAN). Bridget holds a Master’s of Public Affairs degree with an emphasis in nonprofit management and has focused her career—from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance to the Michael Fields Agriculture Institute to her leadership at the Women, Food & Agriculture network—on clean water, soil conservation and making a sustainable living from the land.

“We are a network. There are women across the country who feel like the black sheep in their communities. They feel like the only woman who’s trying to make a go of farming on her own. Or they feel like they’re the only one doing some sort of farming that’s outside of the box. And it’s wonderful for us to be able to connect all of these women and make these women realize that they’re not alone. In fact, they’re part of a huge movement,” Bridget says of WFAN. From mentorship programs, to empowering women landowners, to encouraging political advocacy, WFAN is committed to supporting many women in many different roles.

“You women out there who are farming and working in food, you are definitely not alone,” reiterates Bridget. Tune in to Rootstock Radio to learn more about this vibrant, thriving community of women. You can listen at the link above, via iTunes or on Stitcher!

Read more about women in farming here!

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Interview with Bridget Holcomb

July 18, 2016

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Anne O’Connor.

ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Bridget Holcomb, who is the executive director of the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network. Before joining WFAN, Bridget worked in sustainable agriculture advocacy at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and at the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. A native of northern Minnesota, Bridget has focused her work on clean water, soil conservation, and making a sustainable living on the land. Welcome, Bridget.

BRIDGET HOLCOMB: So good to be with you, Anne.

AO: A quick note to our listeners before we get started: Throughout our conversation, today we will like use Women, Food, and Agriculture Network’s acronym, WFAN, but we’ll keep saying it so that you don’t get lost along the way. Bridget, it’s so nice to talk to you today. I know you have gone a lot of different places in sustainable ag, especially here in the Midwest. Can you tell us more about the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network?

BH: I would love to. The most important thing that we do at the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network is that we are a network. There are women across the country who feel like the black sheep in their communities. They feel like they’re the only woman who’s trying to make a go of farming on her own, or they feel like they’re the only ones doing some sort of farming that’s outside of the box. And it’s wonderful for us to be able to connect all of these women and make these women realize that they’re not alone—in fact, they’re part of a huge movement.

AO: That is a critical aspect for women farmers—for women of all kinds of trades and occupations. But in farming, as you say, you know, it can really be a bit of a lonely endeavor to be a woman in agriculture. What is that about? Can you explain any of that to us?

BH: It’s interesting, when you look around all male-dominated professions, women tend to find each other and hold on to each other, to just say not only “Hi, we’ve got each other’s backs,” but also to say we need to do what we can to help other women get to where we are, and we need to know that even though we feel like we are the odd ones out in this room, we deserve to be at the table.

AO: Right. And you know, a lot of times you have farming couples—a man and a woman, generally speaking—and it’s interesting, what I’ve noticed a lot of times when people talk about the farmer, they’re talking about the man. And so even when a woman is holding her own in a partnership, it’s really an interesting way that we speak about farming. What drew you to the network?

BH: So many things drew me to, first, become a member of the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network, and then later join as a staff member. The biggest thing for me was, here is a group that is really doing something to promote sustainable agriculture. One of the best ways that we can promote better agriculture, healthier food systems, all of these things that we work for, is through our network. And we have so much power networking woman to woman, to spread this good food movement, that really I feel like WFAN’s work is some of the most effective work out there in promoting sustainable agriculture and good food systems.

AO: That’s an important piece of the network, that it’s women coming together to change the food system.

BH: Women are changing the food system every day on their own local level through just what they’re doing on their own farms and in their own communities. And it’s exciting to work with these women every day, because by connecting them across the country, we’re really harnessing a whole lot of excited women and a whole lot of motivation. And really, when you’ve got motivated women, you should stand back!

 

AO: Watch out! Can you give us an example of one of the kinds of things that you’ve seen at a local level that’s changed through the work of women in the network?

BH: Every year we have a program to train women to become farmers. And we see a cadre of women every year go from “I have this often secret dream of becoming a farmer” to “Oh, now I realize I can do this—this can be my career, this can be my livelihood.” And when that happens, you have women who either have some land in their family or are accessing land somehow, and with a few acres are raising chickens or starting a CSA or raising pigs or wood, or bringing something new to their communities. And by doing so, they’re not only helping diversify agriculture and bringing in new markets, but they’re increasing food security on a local level. And when we have women doing that across the country, we have real change.

AO: So I wanted to just ask you… I know one of the things that you were just describing about how, could this really be my livelihood, could I really make my living farming? That’s something that I have heard every kind of new farmer go through. And so what I hear you saying is women have the regular burden of starting a farming life, which is difficult these days—and even if you are part of a family network and you get a farm, that’s still challenging, but if you’re not, then the challenge becomes that much greater, and the prices of land, the startup costs, the know-how… So that’s true for every beginning farmer. What I’m hearing you saying is that women have an added burden on top of that. And I’m wondering, what does the network do for those new farmers, the women who want to become farmers, they don’t quite know how—what does the program, what does the network offer those women?

BH: Yeah, you absolutely hit it on the head, that it’s not easy for anybody. But women have that added challenge of when they share with friends, family, other farmers that “Yeah, I’m thinking of becoming a farmer,” or “This is something that I am interested in,” the first response that they get isn’t “Great!” It isn’t “Let me show you how to do this.” It’s often cautious at best. But really, often we hear women who come to us say that people said, “Oh, will you be able to lift the bags of feed?” or “Do you have the constitution to do this?”

So the most important thing that we do, in addition to helping them address all of those others issues that you brought up, perhaps the most important thing that we do is tell these women, “This is absolutely possible for you.” We’re going to make sure to connect you with women who are successful farmers, probably going to connect you with women that we have across the country, so that you know you’re not alone. There are a lot of people who have your back.

AO: So part of the network’s most important task is not only to lend a voice of assurance—“Hey, yes, actually you can do this”—but also to demonstrate it: “Here, look at these people over here. They’re doing it, and here’s how you can get started too.” And in fact, I think you have a mentoring program, right?

BH: Yeah, we, with our women who want to become farmers, we make sure that they get on-farm experience with a successful woman farmer, so that they see firsthand that yeah, it can be done. And then we try to share success stories as often as we can from all different types of agriculture and from all over the country, to show, yeah, you women out there who are farming and working in food, you are definitely not alone.

(10:24)

AO: It’s amazing how powerful that can be, for people to understand that no, you’re not crazy, actually—you can do this thing, because there are lots of other people who have done it before you. And that’s a powerful thing to see, and then to have also the practical experience of someone’s understanding of the work.

BH: Right. Like let’s tip you towards realizing that this is possible, and then let’s give you the experience so that you’ll be successful.

AO: Can you think about the kind of woman that you would typically hear from? I mean, is this somebody who’s been raised in a farming family? Is this someone who has gone off and come back and having a second career? What kind of woman, if you can say generally, if there is such a trend of what kind of person comes to farming these days, what do you see?

BH: I think the trend is that there isn’t a trend. The women that we’re working with are coming from farm backgrounds, they’re coming from not-farm backgrounds. They’re coming from college or they’re coming from second careers. Those careers are all over the map; what the women in college are studying are all over the map. I mean, it really does seem like farming is some sort of virus or something, that it’s some sort of bug that you catch. And so we’re not, we’re just here for those women who have caught that farming virus and we’re going to help them be successful.

AO: Yeah, you gotta do it, you gotta do it—like it or not, you gotta do it, farming, when you caught it!

You get people together, they learn practical skills, they learn that they’re able to do… What other kinds of programs does the network provide for women in farming?

BH: One big thing that we do is we also do outreach to women who own farmland. And this is often an invisible group in agriculture, but when you start thinking about who you know who owns the farmland around you, often you realize that a lot of that farmland is owned by women. And the biggest chunk of those women are widows. We work with a lot, a lot of women who weren’t necessarily the primary operator on their farm, but became the full-on farm manager the day their husband died, or the day their brother or father died. And in that situation, with these women who own farmland and aren’t farming it themselves, they’ll hire a, almost always, a male tenant. There are lots of terrible stories about how those women have been treated. So we go in and say, okay, what do you want to do with your land? And let’s make sure that you get to see that happen.

 AO: Can you think of a situation in which the network was able to provide some assistance and turn a situation around that wasn’t heading in a great direction?

BH: Yeah, I’ll give you three, actually. We had a woman who came in and told us that the grassed waterways that she had put in on her land, she was so proud of. She had a tenant who kept saying that she should let him tear out those grassed waterways so that she could plant more corn. She absolutely refused—and then he came in the middle of the night one night and tore all of them out so he could plant more corn.

We had another woman who just asked, at one of our meetings, she wanted to know what other women in the area were charging for rent. And they all said numbers in the several hundred dollars an acre range. And she said, “Thank you, because I’ve been charging my tenant thirty dollars an acre. He’s been actually trying to get me to come down on my price, and I just have been getting a feeling that he’s been going around town laughing at me.”

And there was another woman who came to one of our meetings and said that her husband had recently died, and at the funeral four men came up to her, all separately. Now, who was going to farm the land, that was already decided, but these four men all said that her late husband had granted them exclusive hunting rights to her land. And she came to our meeting not knowing what to do, and honestly [asking], “Do I grant them all hunting rights? What do I do?” We were the first voice to tell her, “It’s your land. Do whatever you want with it. Allow all of them, allow none of them. Pick one of them. It’s your land.” And it’s amazing to see these women realize, “Wait, I am actually the one in the position of power here.”

The woman who was charging thirty dollars an acre got rid of her tenant and got a tenant that respected her. And the woman who had her grassed waterways torn out got her lawyer and got her grass waterways back.

(16:36)

AO: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Bridget Holcomb, the executive director of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network.

These are very disheartening stories, right? I mean, this is challenging to hear people being treated this way. Is there that kind of support—you know, I mean, when you have these practical issues come up, I would imagine that there’s a lot of emotional support that women provide in those kinds of circumstances as well.

BH: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network is here for. We’re here for those women who are hitting situations like that. We’re here to tell them, “You are not alone, either.” There are a lot of women who own farmlands, and we can connect you to this network of women.

AO: Right. It’s a good resource for people who need someone who is maybe a little more objective and able to have a wider scope on any given situation. So probably somebody in the network has dealt with a similar kind of situation. And it’s always good to be able to bounce off your situation onto other people and hear how other people have dealt with similar circumstances.

BH: Absolutely. And that’s especially true when we’re dealing with local communities, because often women feel like they’re in a difficult situation of, “Well, I don’t want to make this person upset because I go to church with him,” or “he plows my driveway in the winter,” or whatever. But there are other women who have been through that who can say, “Here’s how I dealt with it.”

AO: These things could, the things that you’re speaking of could very easily, I would imagine, bleed over into policy areas, into politics. Is there an aspect of the network, the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network, that deals with politics? The Plate to Politics—tell us about that.

BH: Yes, you’re exactly right that this is another area where a little bit of empowerment can go a long way. We know that women are only 20 percent of Congress. And often at local levels, where a lot of agricultural policy decisions are being made—if you think of your local co-op board, your county board, other smaller local boards—it’s often difficult to find a woman in the room. And when we ask ourselves why is this, it’s not because men are better leaders than women. It is because, while men tend to go out and look for positions to run for, women wait to be asked. And while men tend to assume that if there’s something that they don’t know, they’ll learn it when they need to, women tend to think that there’s always something more that they need to learn before they are ready.

So we believe that (1) decisions will be better if women are at the table, and (2) we can’t really say that these agricultural policy decisions are reflecting what our communities want when half of our population isn’t at the table. So we’re really [unclear] encouraging women to run for office and providing training to help address this.

AO: You know, any time you get a bunch of women together, and they start to understand their power and how to make things shift and move, boy, watch out—that can be real scary for some folks. What kind of resistance do you get with your network?

BH: We honestly don’t get a lot of resistance. We get a lot of… Occasionally we will get someone who wants to come to our events. And it’s always fun for me—we have an annual conference, and there are usually two to four men who come to our annual conference in the mix of two hundred women. And I always seek them out, because I want to hear about their experience with, you know, being a man in a woman’s conference. And I get two different answers. One answer is, “Oh, I’m really comfortable around women; I’m completely fine here,” which is strange for me to hear because it kind of sounds like they’re talking about dogs. Like, “Oh, I grew up around dogs, it’s really okay.”

And the other answer that I hear is that men will say, “Yeah, it’s been really great, I’ve been learning a lot, it’s really interesting. I wanted to ask a question in that last session but I didn’t because I kind of feel like this isn’t a space for me, and I felt like I would be imposing.” And I love that answer because I get to say, “Great, now you understand what it’s like to be a woman in agriculture.”

(22:55)

AO: I guess the other thing is that it seems likely to me that even though this network is obviously necessary and that women really do need to bolster each other and help support in a male-dominated system, like agriculture is, but I bet there are a lot of men who have a lot of the same questions and a lot of the same concerns that women have, too. And I don’t know—we’re getting better and better about supporting each other and finding ways to network. I think men are more likely to have the support of their neighbors, and they can go and ask questions there.

But I would imagine, you know, I’ve heard any number of stories about men who are working in sustainable agriculture or organic agriculture who really don’t have access to their neighbors because it’s not a friendly sort of place for asking questions because they’re doing different kinds of farming.

BH: Women definitely see this. Women in sustainable agriculture or in anything outside of commodity agriculture definitely experience a lot of the same issues that men do. The good thing for women is that women are better at connecting across those barriers. And I really think it’s something that men can learn from.

And I hope that we all go in the direction that women are currently going in, which is if somebody is doing something across the road in a different way, let me go talk to that person, let me go talk to that woman and ask why, and let’s have a conversation about it. I’m not afraid of realizing at the end of the conversation that we disagree. That’s completely fine. The more important thing is we’ve made that connection and that we’re supporting each other in our own way. And I really hope that that’s the direction that we can all go into, because then we’re sharing a lot more information and we’re moving in such a better direction.

AO: Right. Right, there’s, again, any number of stories in which farmers were resistant to a particular way and then they saw the results, and see the changes on the farm, and then begin to learn and begin to understand that, hey, maybe there are some new things to try out and some new ways to do that would be good—good for me and good for the planet, and good all the way around.

BH: Absolutely. And I think it comes down to, is your initial perspective one of competition or one of what can I do to support my community? And when you first look at agriculture and what your neighbor is doing from the aspect of competition, you’re going to have a negative reaction. You’re going to be less likely to go and talk to that person. And what’s really great about my job is that I get to work with women who absolutely their first question is, “What can I do to support my community?” And when you come from that perspective, not only are you open to trying all of these different farming methods, but you also create a community around you.

AO: So you must feel a lot of that when you have your annual conference. You’ve mentioned the conference for… And this year the conference for the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network is in Nebraska City, Nebraska, November 4 and 5. Do you want to tell us about that?

BH: Yeah. My favorite thing to do at the conference is to stand back and watch two hundred women not be able to stop talking. We provide a whole bunch of information and break-out sessions on topics that our members say that they want to learn about. We also have lots of tours and we go in celebrating local foods, and we have great food. But honestly, the best thing is that we bring amazing women together, and they really see, they truly see that they are not alone and that there are women just like them all over the country. And yes, it’s hard to get them to stop talking and go to the next session. It’s wonderful!

AO: If our listeners wanted to learn more about the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network, where should they go?

BH: If you are a website sort of a person, I’d suggest going to our website, WFAN.org. And we’ve got a really active Facebook group with over seven thousand women in food and agriculture, and you can find us by searching “Women, Food, and Agriculture Network.”

AO: Wow, that’s fun—seven thousand women on Facebook. Fun!

BH: You should join, Anne. You would love it.

AO: I will love it—yes, great. Thank you, Bridget. And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. Remember, Rootstock Radio is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you haven’t subscribed yet, it’s really easy. Just go to iTunes or Stitcher, search for “Rootstock Radio,” and click “Subscribe.” See you next week.

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