Leigh Adcock is a powerhouse in the food movement. She has been executive director of Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) since 2008. Prior to that, she was a board member for the organization for 2 years, and served from 2003 – 2008 as executive director of the Iowa Farmers Union. Leigh has been instrumental in expanding WFAN’s scope to a national level, increasing membership more than six-fold, increasing funding from under $30,000 to $250,000 per year, and creating successful programs such as Women Caring for the Land SM, a conservation program for women farmland owners, and Harvesting Our PotentialSM, the on-farm apprenticeship program which this grant proposal seeks to expand. She is also co-creator of the Plate to Politics project, a collaboration of WFAN, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and The White House Project, designed to recruit and train more rural and farm women all over the U.S. to run for public office at all levels, from the community to the White House. She grew up on a 360-acre conventional grain and beef cattle farm in northwest Iowa, which she currently co-owns with her mother. She and her husband and two teenage sons live on an acreage north of Ames, IA.
What issues have you been focused on?
Women, Food and Agriculture Network provides information for all women involved in healthy food and farming to connect, learn and become empowered to act in their communities. We exist as a network for women because 15 years ago, when we started, there was no Midwest network of women farmers. Now we have members nationwide , and try to keep our members aware of federal funding opportunities and policy. We exist for social support and skills sharing but also for policy work.
What inspires you to do this work?
Originally my inspiration came from two places. I grew up on a conventional farm in Iowa; my father was an outdoorsman and was very careful with his land. I learned about careful farming from him and a love of the outdoors. So I was always interested in the environment. As I’ve become a mom and more aware as a consumer, I’ve seen a link between heath and food, and heath and the environment. It’s a natural link for me to support people who support that.
I am a feminist. I totally embrace it. Opportunities for women in whatever field they prefer should be there and I love working toward that in agriculture.
What’s your overall vision?
That what’s now considered alternative agriculture becomes mainstream. I believe we can have healthy agriculture and a healthy environment and feed people. There is no reason why we can’t feed the planet. It can feed itself using healthy farming methods and in fact it’s the only way we can feed the world. Women must become more involved in creating more systems in the world. The more women have power in creating systems that work, the more things will change for the better.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
I love to check in on Grist and Civil Eats, Huffington Post food pages, those are the three main ones. I’ve really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s work and he’s done a great job of popularizing the movement. I love anything by Barbara Kingsolver. I really liked Temra Costa’s Farmer Jane book last year. I’m also an unabashed crime novel reader too.
Who’s in your community?
My professional community exists in the groups of women who are farming, landowners and advocates all over from Europe to the U.S. In particular, the women who work in other networks:
The Women’s Agricultural Networks (WaGNs) in Vermont , Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
The League of Women Farmers in Southern Oregon. Networks of women are popping up everywhere who are ready for activism training and leadership development.
What are your commitments?
I have two sons, one a college freshman in Portland, the other a sophomore in high school, Richard and David. My husband Ed works at Iowa State University. Family is my first priority. Regarding work, I really want to leave a legacy here of a successful organization. Coming up on five years we’ve grown from 300 to 3,000 and funding has increased almost 10-fold. I’d like to see that growth continue. Staying balanced and sane too. Funny that comes third…
What are your goals?
For WFAN it’s to keep it growing and to continue to ramp up advocacy and leadership training on a national level. We want to find the dollars to prioritize our leadership development program, Plate to Politics. Another goal is to find a way for me to continue to contribute to this work and step aside for the next leader. I’m in my early 50s and I’m ready when the time comes to make a transition smooth and positive. The new leader will have the skill set we need to take it to the next level.
What does change look like to you?
Public opinion has a lot to do with change. I particular with institutional systems like agriculture and food, change looks like more people understanding the connection between food systems and health and ecology and health. But it’s a big ship to turn. There are big interests that want to take financial advantage of this turn and like any big change those that have a financial stake will continue to find a way to keep that. Like Monsanto finding a way to have patents on organic ag. Change means making sure that the people take control of their power, by being aware of what U.S. corporations are doing to the detriment of their health. Change means they make sure they speak up. We need to continue to monitor corporations and stay vigilant so their power doesn’t dominate. As in any capitalist society, change is an educated public aware of social issues, people who stay informed and continue to care and act. The danger is that all the decisions we make are based on money.
Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
Again the key piece for our work is Plate to Politics as ag is probably the most policy dictated sector of our economy. Policy dictates what gets grown, where it’s grown, how much people get paid, and it’s often driven by corporate interests. We have to make sure the public good is protected. So all of us as individuals need to get educated and support the kind of food systems we need to see. Our outreach has to focus on educating women on what’s happening in their communities and supporting them to help digest policy language and chopping it up into bite-sized pieces. We teach them how they can do good on a mom schedule. I think when more women’s voices are heard, more policy will change for the better. Women are more community minded, they are better negotiators—this is gender-based research—women are more likely to reach across party lines, reach compromise and be effective leaders in many ways.
What projects are affiliated with yours?
We have three programs: Plate to Politics, Women Caring for the Land, and Harvesting our Potential which is our work with aspiring and beginning women farmers. We just received a grant to expand that in Iowa and Nebraska. We’ll be doing some structured networking, business planning for career exploration and more detailed week-long classes for women who already have farms. A key piece that’s been missing is training the mentor famers. We will give them training to understand labor law, how to teach, workers’ comp, conflict management, etc. We’ve had a cohort of women who’ve been hosting apprentices for years and doing a really fine job but they’ve had to learn this on the fly, so we want to teach them how to minimize their risk. We’re adapting the Cultivating Success training program which we’ve found to be the best, so the author, Diane Green will help teach that and spread that curriculum in the Midwest.
We’re also hosting the 4th national conference for women in sustainable agriculture “Cultivating Our Food, Farms and Future,” Nov 6-8 in Des Moines, IA. You can learn more about it at our website, www.wfan.org.
What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
Food Corps is phenomenal.
I’m a huge ATTRA fan, everything they do is awesome.
Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
Obviously it’s always a real possibility. Currently I’m worried there’s no new Farm Bill. The fact there isn’t one is a symptom of something that I can’t foresee getting better in the next five years—interparty ideological and money issues on the federal level. Instead of working through compromise they say “I quit.” Now that the election is behind us we’ll see what happens.
At the local level it’s exciting to me that communities of all sizes are creating food and farm plans, that they are setting aside spaces for urban gardens and farmers’ markets and paying attention to food in that way. A county here is incentivizing transition to organic with tax breaks.
In terms of the focus of WFAN, there’s now a record number of women in Congress. It’s sad that it’s so low but good that it’s a record. In the census it’s fabulous that women are growing as farmers; women are entering ag and changing it. That of those areas give me the greatest sense of hope; having those women farming and promoting healthy food systems in their communities.
What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?
Money would be helpful. I’m really heartened by all the private foundations giving to sustainable agriculture. There’s an interesting debate about whether or not to take Walton Family Foundation money but just the fact that Walmart is investing in helping women of color, particular in the Delta states to help get products into their stores is great. Resources are vital. Continuing to work in collaboration; we have to collaborate because resources are scarce. We need to collaborate in a smart way, locally and federally and to present a fairly united front in some key areas.
What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
A beautiful locally grown pork tenderloin, braised in my husband’s home brewed beer served with a bunch of diced locally raised winter vegetables.