Remembering Kathy Ozer, Fierce Advocate of Family Farmers

Paying tribute to a powerhouse of the food and farm movements.


Kathy Ozer told it like it was. The long-time executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) was also strategic, articulate, well-connected, and dogged in her efforts to ensure that farmers always had a place at the table. Ozer passed away on January 22, after along battle with lymphoma, and she will be greatly missed by many in the sustainable agriculture community. (Read her obituary here.)

In addition to a tenure at NFFC that spanned over two decades, Ozer was on the board of the Citizens Trade Campaign and Jobs with Justice and had worked closely on policy issues with the Community Food Security Coalition. Since 1999, she had also been part of the farmer delegations at the World Trade Organization in Seattle and Cancun and at the United Nations.

Former Deputy U.S. Agriculture Secretary and Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University Kathleen Merrigan captured Ozer well: “Empathetic, patient, unwavering. Kathy was a D.C. insider grounded by grassroots sensibility. I will miss my friend.” And colleague and friend Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau said this of Ozer: “She knew more about federal agricultural policy and legislative strategy than anyone.” And we couldn’t agree more. Here’s what Ozer’s colleagues had to say about her.

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In the words of our friend and ally, Doug Gurian-Sherman, “Her contributions, her dedication to small farms and people of color, her kindness, and her incredible knowledge and wisdom will be greatly missed by all of us who knew here, and those that did not.”

[Kathy] was a beacon of light and a rock of determination. Although we can never fill her shoes, we will honor her many years of service to bettering this world—especially for all the people who nurture and support us through good food—by staying in the fight. We hope you are inspired to do the same. Even though Kathy’s no longer with us physically, we know she’s with us in spirit and that her commitment to NFFC’s mission lives on. Members of our executive committee are working on plans to make sure NFFC continues to do the work that Kathy so fearlessly led through the years.

— Lisa Griffith, outreach director, National Family Farm Coalition

 

Kathy was one of the kindest, most generous, and dedicated warriors for justice. Kathy Ozer connotes grassroots advocacy. Twelve years ago, I met her at a Farmers Market Promotion Program reception in D.C. as we were both gushing over the local cheeses, and we got to talking about dairy policy and then the farm bill. In signature Kathy style, she sweetly offered to give me a ride home, and by the time we reached my apartment, she had offered me a job at NFFC. But she really offered me an invaluable education on how to fight for what you believe in with joy and love. There is so much I could share about Kathy from her steadfast commitment on those early morning and late night dairy committee calls to the generous way she always took the time to answer a question thoughtfully no matter who inquired or what it was about. Kathy had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. And she made the best berry crisp. Here’s to being the optimistic change agents that would make her proud.

— Deb Eschmeyer, former White House Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition and Executive Director of Let’s Move!

 

Kathy’s laugh, her smile, her being a “bag lady” (her words), her presence, her consummate knowledge of food politics, and especially D.C. politics, always prepared me to do a lot with a little … Kathy was a different kind of activist. She was intense, yes, but her overflowing compassion and empathy for family farmers matched her intensity. In addition to the many ways Kathy mentored me, this compassion and drive motivated me to take leave from my doctoral program and go work on small farms for People’s Grocery in 2008. Since then, my career has been ever changed and devoted to agri-health. Thank you, Kathy. Keep laughing and fighting from above.

— Rebecca Kanter, Research Fellow at INTA-Universidad de Chile

 

[Kathy] stood with all our communities for many years of dedicated and indefatigable service and upliftment. In this work of justice, relationships and cooperative action mean everything, and Kathy will be sorely missed. Our hearts are hurting but we are standing with all of NFFC, her husband, and all of her family as we honor her amazing life. The great beyond has again just gotten greater.

— Lorette Picciano and the Board and Staff of the Rural Coalition

 

Kathy was a force—a powerhouse, ally, teacher, and friend to many of us, and a critical voice in our movement work. She fought tirelessly for decades to uplift independent family farmers, always willing to engage in authentic dialogue and to teach others from her own experience. As she joins our political ancestors, I know that I, and many of us, stand on her shoulders. Kathy believed in the power of our movement, and contributed her expertise to helping shape a strong cross-sector coalition. Our foundation is shaped by her work, and now, more than ever, we at HEAL are committed to ensuring that it continues. Together, we will win.

Navina Khanna, director, Health, Environment, Agriculture, and Labor (HEAL) Food Alliance

 

I often remark that discovering a career in the good food movement felt like coming home because the people were so welcoming and inspiring. NFFC hosted the first farm meeting I attended as a newbie with Farm Aid in 2002. Kathy took me in with a warm embrace and quiet coaching. No doubt she did this for countless other people in her time as a leader. What will continue to inspire me most was her unwavering optimism on behalf of family farmers. She fought a steep uphill battle for her entire career, but never seemed daunted or demoralized by the challenge. The strength of her convictions and her passion for her work were so strong it was contagious. I owe her much for that inspiration. We all do.

Laura Edwards-Orr, executive director, Red Tomato

 

Kathy was an unsung hero within the movement. She was a sort of glue that helped bind so many of us together across many divides. We will have to work harder now without her, drawing from all that we have learned from her. The loss to the movement—and to countless numbers of us personally—of such a beautiful, brilliant, humble, and kind revolutionary sister is hard to even process. But her legacy goes way beyond her physical time on this planet. And we will carry on and keep building together.

Christina Schiavoni, PhD Researcher, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands

 

I’ve known Kathy for almost 30 years, and I always considered her the sounding board and the voice of the sole proprietors—the true family farmers in the U.S. Kathy always had an upbeat and positive approach when facing the forces before us. It was Kathy who encouraged me to speak up whenever I visited her office or met new staff. I try to emulate her spirit of not taking any loss personally, and with a bit of time to reflect, to turn that energy into working towards the next victory. Kathy played the long game and we’re all better off because of it and for it.

— Bob Scowcroft, co-founder and former executive director, Organic Farming Research Foundation, trustee, Nell Newman Foundation

 

I met Kathy over two decades ago as the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) was forming. In our many years together on the CFSC board and at CFSC conferences, we always found time to catch up on policy and on life. Kathy Ozer wasn’t just a colleague to us all; she was a friend, a mother, a sister, and a cheerleader. Her presence graced the room whenever she was there, and her perspectives were always valued. We’ve lost a great comrade!

Hugh Joseph, faculty at the Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University

 

I had the great honor and joy of working with Kathy over the past decade(s). She taught me so very much—about the lives, struggles, strengths, and challenges facing family farmers across the country; about the perseverance, grit, and smarts needed to fight federal farm policy battles; about the beautiful steadfast solidarity of farmers and their allies and social movements around the world; and about how to live with grace and courage in this world. Ten years ago, she showed me how to order “eggs broken hard” at breakfast, something I have done ever since, always smiling secretly and thinking of Kathy. We will carry the torch of justice she carried so high and for so long, on and ever on.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist and director of the Grassroots Science Program, Pesticide Action Network

 

I often told Kathy she was “one of my heroes” and I meant it. I learned a lot from her over the years. I met Kathy when I worked as a policy analyst and lobbyist for the Farmers Union, fighting Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH). She had been an important ally ever since. I am deeply saddened by her passing. Kathy was someone who truly cared, rolled up her sleeves, and worked hard to defend family-scale farmers in their uphill fight for fair treatment in Washington. Blessed be her memory.

Mark A. Kastel, the Cornucopia Institute

We have lost a great friend and ally in the struggle to create a more sustainable and just farm and food system. NSAC’s membership joins with partners around the country in mourning and celebrating the life and witness of Kathy Ozer. Throughout those 30 years, we have looked to Kathy as a source of information, shared strategies, and inspiration. Her lifelong commitment to family farmers, racial justice, and opportunity for all will continue to stand as a model for all of us to aspire to. Her dogged determination, nurturing of new advocates, empowerment of partners, and good cheer have helped us enormously, and we will miss her so very much.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

 

I feel so lucky to have counted Kathy as a colleague, friend, teacher, mentor, and cheerleader. She was an eternal fighter for independent family farmers, exceptionally generous, and kind beyond measure. She knew more about farm policy and history than anyone, and she could be an expansive teacher, an in-the-weeds policy wonk, or a practical fact-checker. [She was] always patient, always present—on conference calls, in meetings around the country and the world, ready to answer questions, help with travel arrangements, suggest a helpful contact or idea. “Let’s check in with Kathy,” was a pretty common next step for… just about anything because we could count on her for anything. Being under her wing—in the wide NFFC family of farmers and advocates she brooded—opened doors, made us smarter, and made us feel safe and taken care of. I was far from done talking to her, but I’m tremendously grateful for the life-changing time I had.

Siena Chrisman, advocate, author and Civil Eats contributor

 

Thank you to HEAL and others for the inspiration, contribution, and collaboration on this piece.

The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) is holding an event on Friday, February 17 to raise funds for NFFC and celebrate Kathy’s life and work at The Kitchen/Boston Public Market. Buy tickets here or consider making a donation to NFFC.

 

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