I am the Daughter of a Conventional Farmer—and a Sustainable Ag Advocate

'I grew up on the urban-rural divide. I live it every day. And I’ve come to see how we collectively suffer when we see it as a debate, rather than an opportunity for growth and understanding.'


To most people, my dad is a headline, a stereotype. He’s a 62-year old conventional corn and soy farmer living in Iowa, a Trump supporter, and—some assume—a backward, ignorant white man. But to me, he’s a kind and reliable man trying to make the best decisions for his family and himself.

I grew up on a nine-mile stretch of road east of Des Moines, in a town called Mitchellville. My parents shuttled me back and forth on this road between our fourth-generation farm and my grandparents’ farm. Like most farms, we required off-farm income and my mom worked in Des Moines for DuPont Pioneer and later Wells Fargo for our health insurance.

I watched my parents’ ecstasy through high corn and soy markets and despair through low markets. My parents were married at the beginning of the 1980s farm crisis, and while I grew up during many of the “good years,” the fear of the next crisis still hovers over my family.

Over the years, my status as a Midwest farmer’s daughter has been met with a variety of reactions. In liberal, urban spaces, I am asked incessant questions about pesticides and meat consumption by the same people who are concerned about subsidies and how much money they think my father makes while “polluting the earth.” On the coasts, the most common reaction is, “I’m sorry.”

In rural and suburban Midwestern spaces folks are often curious about how many acres my father works. Does he have any livestock? “I don’t really know,” I was coached to respond. An exact number of acres might translate into an understanding of net worth, which my father told me was none of their business. And in his eyes, the less I understood about farming, the easier it would be for me to fit into the professional world.

My father encouraged me to pursue a stable career in corporate America. Instead, I started working for conservation and agriculture nonprofits. I wanted to understand the food system from as many perspectives as possible. At first, my views on the best ways to change the food system came directly from the coastal food movement: support local, organic farmers; transition conventional acres to organic; save the bees.

All good things, but when I tried to talk to my father about them I was always asked about the financial viability of these operations. As my work took me deeper into the food system and I worked with a wide range of farmers, I realized that many of the farmers doing the “better” farming were also struggling.

After seeing how broken the system is, I have been compelled to want to change it. Like many of the other farmer’s daughters I’ve met, my experiences drive me to want to create a new and better vision for the food system. But that doesn’t mean I think we should leave farmers like my father behind.

Those struggles include a high percentage of rural households reliant on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lack of medical care and closing hospitals, and increasing rates of opioid addiction. All of these issues need to be addressed, and as a farmer’s daughter, I know that they are symptoms of a larger wound that stems from living at the mercy of a highly consolidated, volatile set of markets that prioritize profit over people.

As more farmland changes hands and family farmers are pushed off the land, farmer’s daughters could play a critical role in shaping our food system and shifting the larger narrative about what we should prioritize within that system. As we’ve watched our families and neighbors struggle and thrive, we’ve seen the holes in the food system and have the tools and transformational stories to bridge the divisive conversation happening today.

A Unique Role

The farmer’s daughters I’ve known were less likely to be encouraged to stay on the farm than their male counterparts. And for that reason, they’ve been more likely to pursue educational and career paths that bring them to urban communities. Once they are integrated into the urban or corporate world, they often find themselves trying to explain rural life to people who have never stepped foot on a farm. And many of them find themselves drawn to return.

“I was never asked to drive a tractor or help with the real farm chores. I was never taught about the business side of things, no one ever asked if I saw myself farming,” says Wendy Johnson, an Iowa organic farmer who returned to her family’s land after spending over a decade working as a photo stylist in Minnesota, California, Japan, and Brazil. Over the past 8 years, she has rented land from her family and has slowly worked toward her vision of farming with more sustainable practices, including more cover crops, continuous no-till, and small-scale livestock production.

“I saw the farm as fun and pretty,” says Johnson of her childhood. She has learned the business side as an adult, and has learned many of the hard realities of farming. But re-creating the beautiful life she caught a glimpse of as a child has always been part of what drives her.

For the first couple of years, Johnson shared stories about what she was doing with friends in California, friends who had never been on a farm. And she found herself trying to bridge two very different worlds.

And although she had a good relationship with her family, Johnson has also been met with the kind of hard realities other farmer’s daughters have faced. Most of today’s farm communities are aging and young people are often scarce. In many places, women who take up farming might not be treated with the respect as their male counterparts. And if their brothers or cousins have taken over the family farm, these women might be less likely to have access to land.

Some, like Lauren Rudersdorf from Brodhead, Wisconsin, have to strike out on their own. Like me, she watched her parents attach their personal wealth to market fluctuations on their diversified family farm. Her parents worked off-farm for the majority of their income and by the time they gave up the farm they resented the life they had built.

“I saw the brokenness from the inside, the lack of a balanced life,” she wrote recently in a post on the Midwest Environmental Advocates blog. “I saw them doing something they loved and taking immense pride in it, but feeling like little more than a cog in a system… It broke my heart and I knew there had to be [something] better.”

In 2013, Rudersdorf started Raleigh’s Hillside Farm, a certified-organic, community supported agriculture (CSA) farm south of Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, Kyle. She also works off the farm for a nonprofit environmental law center. Her parents help with the farm, and she said that they were surprised and proud when Lauren and Kyle made a profit in their second year.

Translating

 Advancing an inclusive vision of food and farming isn’t easy—especially when most people, even in agricultural states like Iowa, seem to know very little about the realities farmers and rural Americans face.

Rudersdorf hopes to help turn the tide by sharing recipes and stories about farm life on her blog, where she educates her customers about vegetable production and farm finances. Like many farmer’s daughters, she is often in the role of translating farm life to a larger audience.

Kayla Koether has also had experience translating rural issues for a larger audience. She’s a farmer’s daughter running for Iowa House District 55. Koether worked with her father on their livestock farm and studied international agriculture and rural development at Grinnell College.

When Koether brought her city-born college friends to the farm she made a point to show them not only her family’s livestock operation, but also other farms in the area so that they could gain a larger understanding of farming in her area.

“Sometimes you end up translating agriculture to people who don’t fully understand it,” said Koether. “It’s not that they don’t want to understand, it’s that they haven’t had the opportunity to try.”

In order to be a translator you need to have access to audiences on both sides of the divide. And those of us who do, often feel compelled to help urban consumers and policy makers understand the struggles of rural America. Because while most rural folks are forced to go to the cities nearby for basic necessities, urban folks can go years without interacting with their rural neighbors.

In college, when I submitted an essay about my experiences as a teenager in the punk scene in Des Moines, my writing instructor said, “I thought you grew up in the country?”

“Yes,” I said. “Both of these things are true.”

Each family has its own complicated dynamics and every farmer’s daughter experiences the farm differently. But it is an undeniably unique way to grow up.

“I came of age right around the 1980s in Iowa, during the farm crisis,” Carolyn Van Meter told me over the phone. “There was no way anyone was going to stay in Iowa. Even if we had planned for careers that weren’t related to agriculture, there just weren’t many job openings. We all left.”

Van Meter ended up in Jupiter, Florida, where she owns a tax preparation, estate, and financial planning business. At age 61, Van Meter has owned Iowa farmland for five years and is starting to see her childhood peers begin to inherit and buy into their family farms too.

When Van Meter confirmed that she would inherit land from her family, she looked for resources. She had discussed the farm transition with her parents in a fairly open manner, but she found there were still things she didn’t understand. In December, she became a certified International Farm Transition Network (IFTN) coordinator, in an effort to help farmers in the process of transitioning in and out or farming. As a farmer’s daughter, she can understand the nuances of farm transition such as grief and ancestral ties. She knows that a farm is not only a home, but a livelihood, and a way of life.

Compassion & Empathy

Farmer’s daughters’ ability to occupy two spaces at once also shows up in political discussions.

I recently had a conversation with a young man in a bar in Des Moines. He was a lawyer and, like me, a Bernie Sanders supporter. He said that he didn’t like giving Trump supporters “a pass,” and told me he’d read many profiles about people in Trump country. He felt that he understood them and their struggles but could not excuse their racism. I told him that there’s a big difference between reading a profile about someone in the Washington Post and actively having conversations with people who don’t agree with you. And it’s true—that’s the only way change will happen.

As a queer woman who grew up right on the divide, I am acutely aware of the stereotypes we place on each other. It is far easier to fit someone into a box like “Trump-supporting, racist farmer” than to understand that person as a human. We talk about the urban-rural divide as if it is a debate, rather than an opportunity for growth and understanding. As people sit on both sides of the divide and assume their own views are correct, we collectively suffer.

No one has taught me more about unconventional love than my dad. We disagree all the time and I’m grateful for it.

I lived with my parents during the last presidential election, and he and I watched every debate together. There was anger, frustration, and yelling. There was also laughter and heartfelt conversation. We discussed how the food system doesn’t support the workers producing the food, and how he is essentially a cog in a system, and I listened to his heartbreaking response: “I don’t know how to do it another way. I am too old.”

I keep a photograph of my father and I on my desk. In it, we’re sitting in the combine and I’m probably six years old. My dad is wearing a blue flannel shirt and has a mustache. Shania Twain was probably playing on the radio and I was singing and dancing next to my dad in the cab. Things between my father and I were simple then, and I was more interested in his opinions on my drawings and dolls than what he thinks about industrial agriculture.

No, we don’t always agree about things like pesticide use, meat consumption, farm subsidies, and water quality. But we still share an important bond. And listening to his stories has enhanced and humanized my understanding of the systems oppressing all of us, and allowed us both to reach a point where we can begin to understand one another.

The author with her father. (Photo courtesy Ash Bruxvoort)

The author with her father. (Photo courtesy Ash Bruxvoort)

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  1. Monday, May 7th, 2018
    Dear Ash — Thank for a heartfelt article. As an east coaster who teaches at the intersection of sustainable food systems and nutrition education, who is married to the son of a western Nebraska corn farmer, your article rang very true. We need more conversations. Kudos to you and your father. — Pam
  2. Natalie
    Monday, May 7th, 2018
    Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. I related to so many aspects of this story. We can bridge the gap and avoid abandoning each other if we keep the conversations going, asking each other questions, and sharing our stories. Well done.
  3. Siena Chrisman
    Monday, May 7th, 2018
    What a beautiful, important piece. It was a more circuitous route for me, but something about being the daughter of back-to-the-land parents in rural New England -- and of a displaced Illinois father who mourned how his childhood community had become strip malls and a vacant downtown has also led me to be an urban/rural translator now that I live in NYC. It feels like such a privilege to be able to talk to both, but existing in between these worlds can also feel lonely, which maybe is why my fellow farmer advocate colleagues around the country feel so much like family. I'm glad to know we're part of the same tribe, and thank you for sharing your story.
  4. Sean Thorniley
    Monday, May 7th, 2018
    Thank you Ash! You have put down the BEST piece about "farming" I ever have read. It is exactly what I have been dealing with my entire life and how I try to educate/explain things to folks. I grew up back and forth between Crescent City, CA and Hoisington, KS with stops in Denver, CO every year until I was 16. My family owned land in three States at one point and I "started out"- after being born in San Jose, CA- in Belpre, KA Pop. 150, no paved streets ,or controlled intersection save the railroad crossing at the grain elevator. I moved from there to Alderpoint, CA, {a logging "town"} Pop 150 with no paved streets ,or controlled intersections. I went to school in a two room school house and save for one neighbor a few hundred yards away our next one was over a mile away. When we moved to Crescent City in 1974 the Population was about 1,000, The Big City for us LOL. Del Norte County still had only one Public High School at the time and one Catholic one. So, I understand the strangely wondrous thing that is to grow up in multiple worlds and how cool it is in the long run. Thanks for being so positive and reminding folks its about the conversations and the ability to learn and see things all around you and not just "what's in your own head". I remember how hard it was to explain things to my beloved Grandmother who had never lived outside Kansas about living in Santa Rosa, CA and why I loved many things about San Francisco ;~> I would love to talk/write more about what you are doing and what I am doing and see how to work together to help bridge the divide between those who know and who do not about Farming and the Food Chain and who we all Eat!! Thank you again for such thoughtful and eloquent words!
  5. Monday, May 7th, 2018
    I would like to insert the thought that there is a serious issue involved that isn't just about learning more about the other guy. It's a major cultural issue, that relates to how agri-culture is a part of mainstream culture. There is something called a fragmentation threshhold in biology that also applies in human culture. When you get below a certain level of agri-cultural presence in any regional culture, then you hit the fragmentation threshold, and the basic significance of agri-culture in mainstream culture is lost. It doesn't mean that the agriculture dies but that's when being involved in it is reduced to feeling like a part in a machine instead of a contributor to the regional culture. This is a big deal and we haven't come close to protecting it, probably largely because most people don't understand the concept.
  6. FarmGirlJen
    Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
    I can appreciate this while not agreeing with all of it. Our food system isn't perfect but it is far from broken. It has nourished us out of many now unheard of diseases. As part of a 3rd generation farm, I don't think any of us have felt like a "cog" in the wheel or part of a "system oppressing us all". We work at a job we love and choose this life and not unlike most other US families, have/need dual incomes. That's not a fault of the system, that is consumerism demanding more income to buy more stuff and gender equality so thankfully we women can run the farm and not be the 1950s June Cleaver wife.
  7. Leigh Adcock
    Tuesday, May 8th, 2018
    This is beautifully said, Ash. I walked a somewhat similar path 20 years earlier. My dad was what I would consider a conservation-minded conventional farmer, who hated all the chemicals he was pressured into using on his corn and soybean fields. He knew they killed the wildlife and fish in the creeks. So I walked lots of beans as a kid, for $1.50 an hour. :)
    Thanks for sharing so generously, in this essay and in your work.
  8. Wednesday, May 9th, 2018
    Thank you for sharing your perspective, I really enjoyed starting my day with this.

    I have a similar story as I've returned to my family's farm to transition our conventional dairy farm to a regenerative livestock farm. As an unashamed save the world millennial I've had to confront and work on my own ability to stop, listen, and understand, even as I grew up in this setting. I yearn for my hometown to be more like it was in the 70s, when my father was my age.

    It's heart breaking to hear my neighbors share their stories about it hardly, or not, paying and that they dont have options, or feeling cornered.

    I have heard from both "sides" of the sustainable and conventional spectrum suggest that the only solution is for failure and then reset. That may be easier, from a disconnected and heartless, macro view, but on the ground it means ruin for families and communities.

    Planet & People > Profit
  9. Melissa Robins
    Wednesday, May 9th, 2018
    Thank you for sharing this. I am a suburbs girl but have been more and more concerned about big ag. I have come to understand what an important challenge it is to support our family run farmers. I am keen about humane treatment of animals, balanced nature and respect and care for all the people supplying our food. I had never considered the unique opportunity that daughter’s of farmers have in championing a good and just farming community. I applaud you and want you to know that I can imagine the struggles that have compelled our farmers to make either terrible decisions or feel there is no choice at all. My prayers are with you and your family.
  10. Megan Schossow
    Thursday, May 10th, 2018
    I relate to everything in this post. I grew up on a conventional beef and crop farm in southern Minnesota, worked in ag-business following my undergrad, and left to pursue food policy, which is what I am getting my MS in right now. Reading how you speak about your father makes me tear up- because I feel so many of the same things. Though we have very different ideas of politics and sometimes agriculture, no one has loved and supported me like he has.

    This was an awesome post- thank you for writing and sharing. Story telling is a really important part of human connecting, bridging barriers, and making decisions laden with values.
  11. Sally Morgan
    Thursday, May 10th, 2018
    I would also put forth that farming is an identity.
  12. Friday, June 1st, 2018
    Dear Ash. Very well done. Most of our troubles are of our own making because changing oneself too much or too often feels wrong somehow so we argue the toss about most anything in the courage of our convictions. That leads to more mistake making than usual which then has further impacts on the ones we love.