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Where are the Women? A Word for the Presidential Forum

Editor's note: Sherri Dugger, executive director of Women, Food and Agriculture Network and the Indiana Farmers Union, and co-chair of the national coalition of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers for a Green New Deal, prepared these remarks for the Farmers, Soil & Climate 2020 Iowa presidential forum, held on Janury 25, 2020. Reprinted here with permission from the author.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Sherri Dugger. I co-own Dugger Family Farm in Morristown, Indiana, with my husband, Randy. I serve as the executive director for Women, Food and Agriculture Network and also for Indiana Farmers Union.

I want to start out by telling you a little about me. I like to tell people I was born to eat. As a newborn, I weighed in at a hefty 12.3 pounds. I’m certain that I tumbled into this world hungry. And, for as long as I can remember, I have always loved food. The only trouble is that I—like most Americans—never really thought much about what was on my plate. I never considered how the food was raised, what chemicals it might have in it, or the impact those chemicals would have on my body. 

That is until I found myself editing a monthly publication called Farm Indiana. I was nearly 15 years into my journalism career — and almost 40 years old — when I began assigning and reading stories about food and agriculture. It was during the five years that I edited Farm Indiana that my husband and I moved to the country, and I became passionate about our local food system, about how our food is raised, and about the impact agriculture has on our land and natural resources. 

It was then that I learned the language from the field. I came to understand what a family farm was. Even more so what it meant to be an “independent” family farmer. These are your direct market farmers, the men and women who sell vegetables and eggs through weekly delivery programs or from a table at the farmers market. These independent someones, as you might guess, are underdogs in the food and agriculture system. Many of them go out of business, through no fault of their own. 

I also learned what a CAFO is. For those of you listening who may not know, CAFO stands for a concentrated animal feeding operation. It’s where thousands, or sometimes millions, of animals are raised in a factory for food. The origin story for your pepperoni pizza, for example, starts in these industrial operations, where hogs are often caged, unable sometimes for their entire lives, to even turn over. It’s a “pig prison,” as I heard one woman describe it recently. A pig prison just so we can eat … for “cheap.” As an aside, I also came to understand that CAFOs are responsible for the emissions of more than 168 gases, and are the country’s largest sources of poisonous emissions like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. But unlike other factories, they aren’t required to even report these emissions. CAFOs are also one of the largest water pollution sources in the country.

At the same time that I was editing Farm Indiana, my husband and I were restoring our farmhouse and building out a small farm. We put up fences and raised buildings. We welcomed goats, chickens, alpacas, bees, and donkeys to live with us there. We carved out spaces to grow vegetables, built raised beds, eventually erected a high tunnel, and planted hundreds of trees and bushes. We also opened a small local food store on the property.

And we learned how much work it takes to grow your own food, to market your food ... and, in short, to be farmers. We discovered how hard it is to “sell” people on the idea of local food. We also made friends with a good number of farmers along the way. Then we watched as, one by one, many of them shuttered their operations, unable to survive in a system that pits multi-national corporations against family farms. This country has seen the loss of 95 percent of independent egg farmers, 90 percent of pig producers, and 88 percent of dairy producers in the last 40 years. These producers have fallen victim to politicians and industrial agriculture trade associations pursuing anti-competitive policies and practices and securing subsidies that favor the biggest operators. It’s a food system that measures success by offering food (and, more accurately, food-like products) for the lowest price point, ignoring the many extra costs that go into the manufacture of that product—the impact on the environment, on the animals, on human health, and, most importantly, the catastrophic impacts on the future of our world.

If you wonder why you receive a cancer diagnosis one day, you really shouldn’t. One out of two people are now being diagnosed with cancer. One out of thirty-six children have autism. One out of ten suffer from attention deficit disorder. Another one out of 10 suffer from asthma. One out of four have allergies. One out of four also have diabetes. One out of three are obese. One out of two are suffering from major depression.

This is our current state of health today. If you need answers, look to the world in which we now live, where 65 percent of Indiana’s waterways, for instance, are unfit for recreation. (It’s not just that the water is unfit for drinking. This is water you shouldn’t even dip your toe into.) Nationwide, approximately 40 percent of the lakes in America are too polluted for fishing, aquatic life, or swimming, and over half of our waters overall are impaired, lacking the water quality needed to sustain biodiversity. 

These are the costs of cheap food. And our current administration is in support of rolling back nearly every protection we have for our natural world. Climate change? Also a cost of cheap food. Skyrocketing healthcare bills? Also a cost of cheap food. Glyphosate in your newborn baby’s blood? Also a cost of cheap food. And our food system offers taxpayer-provided subsidies to the biggest entities—and the biggest offenders when it comes to stripping our natural resources and poisoning our lands, our water, our air, and our bodies for the purpose of profit.

Add to that our climate crisis. Farmers and ranchers everywhere are being hit with increasingly unpredictable weather. We lack parity in our agriculture system. We are seeing ever-increasing consolidation, a lack of transparency in food labeling, and subsidies that damage our soil, water, and climate, while propping up multinational corporations and industrial-scale mega farms. Family farmers are also being taxed in a mandatory Checkoff program that has been shown to directly benefit their corporate competition. 

“I can’t unlearn this,” I began to regularly tell my husband as we uncovered more about our food system. I also couldn’t sit quietly aside. In 2016, I left the world of journalism and entered the advocacy realm. I began working for Indiana Farmers Union first, later taking on contract work for The Humane Society of the United States, for Earthjustice, and for American Grassfed Association before settling into a full-time job with Women, Food and Agriculture Network. In early 2019, I re-established the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, which is a collective of approximately 50 Midwest-based organizations working in support of regenerative agriculture and local food systems. I also serve as a co-chair for Farmers and Ranchers for a Green New Deal, a bipartisan national coalition.

As a professional journalist, I had been trained to trust in facts. Facts shepherd us. They teach us the value of loss and the immense power of gain. They protect us ... sometimes from ourselves. They remind us of our history, and, at times regretfully, of our mistakes. 

I still believe in facts today. But I wonder: Is this nation great when we are no longer a society of truth seekers? Is this nation great when we fiercely cling to our beliefs and opinions, in spite of the realities before us? We lap up stories that have been masterfully spun ... stories that separate families and communities, stories that silence critics, and stories that instill fear. Here, in the Great US of A, we are quick to anger, and we make no mind of hate. Here, in the USA, we talk of feeding the world when, still, one in five children goes hungry. Is this the USA we desire? 

I believe in facts because I learned everything I know about agriculture from stories filled with them. At first, by editing those stories. And, now, by living out these stories. Last week, I stood among strangers as we introduced ourselves during a day-long workshop. There were other advocates there. There were farmers, too. And, through the tears, several on both sides of the fence told their stories. They were battling cancers. (I am one of them.) They were struggling with unresolved neurological problems. They were fighting the destructive forces of concentrated animal feeding operations situated in too-close proximity to their homes. These supersized industrial operations made going outside for a breath of fresh air impossible, due to the overwhelming stench of animal waste and death. For reasons as diverse as their stories, these folks all felt stuck. They feel unseen and ignored.

The environment, biodiversity, our natural resources and ecosystems, as well as our health, our cultures and our communities, are all under attack. It’s easy to feel defeated in this work. But daily I remind myself to not lose sight of the goal: We must envision and work toward a world we can proudly leave to future generations. Policy change must come at all levels. We must collaborate as systems thinkers who understand that global problems can be solved through local, state, regional and grassroots solutions. We are nothing without water, without air, and without soil. 

One answer to our current climate problems, as so many of us know, can be found in good soil. Author Ronnie Cummins recently wrote: “One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that, along with switching to renewable energy, the major solution to global warming and climate change … lies in regenerating what’s right under our feet and at the tips of our knives and forks.”

Farmers and ranchers understand that they can be a part of the solution to climate change—not just a cause of it. With the right approaches, farmers can build healthy soils, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon in the soil, and increase productivity and profitability. We need climate-smart policy to encourage and incentivize better agricultural practices. We need systems in place that offer equal access to markets, fair prices, truth in labeling, and representation at all levels of government for all farmers. We need legislation that promotes a just and ecological agricultural and food system. 

Organic, holistic, and regenerative agriculture offers us the opportunity to improve environmental, social, and economic measures the world over. With innovative energy, agriculture and land use practices, we can move beyond business as usual, which favors profits over people. We can mitigate climate change and reverse global warming. We can dramatically improve our failing public health. We can increase the nutritional density of foods. We can lift rural communities, food producers, and farmworkers out of poverty. We can preserve biodiversity, and we can improve the quality of our life-giving air, soil, and water. I believe this, and it is why I am committed to this work today. 

One farmer, he calls himself Trogg, talked about his little girl during that recent workshop that I attended. When his daughter was five or so years old, she ran into the fields, he said, where she promptly pulled a beet from the soil, bit into its flesh and gleefully wore the fruits of her effort on her cheeks and chin. In Lady Liberty style, he held his phone up to show us a picture. Her smile and sundress were blanketed in magenta-tinted juice. Trogg’s little girl became the heroine of our workshop that day. She represented the future we all hoped to see, where a child would someday become a woman who would understand the value of her food, the health that could be found in the soil, and the natural beauty and bounty of our world—if only we could learn to care for it and to show it a little respect.

I am that woman today, though it certainly took me a long time and a lot of living to get here. I realize the value of my voice and of my buying choices. I am clear about the need for my perspectives in this noisy world, and I am convinced that each of us, individually and collectively, can create the change we wish to see. 

So lastly, on behalf of others like me, I ask our Presidential candidates today: Where are the women? 

Women cultivate over 300 million acres and contribute $13 billion to the national economy. Women farmers and farmworkers produce and process more than half the world’s food. Women own or co-own one-third of the agricultural land in the United States. Fifty-two percent of restaurant workers are women. Thirty-six percent of farmers are women. Women are leading efforts to transform our food system into one that is healthy, regenerative, and just. 

Women, Food and Agriculture Network, also referred to as WFAN, began in 1994 as a working group prior to the United Nation’s 4th International Conference on Women. While at the conference, Iowa farmer Denise O’Brien found that, although most other nations participating in the conference were able to bring research and data about women working in agriculture to the table, the United States had no such information to offer. Though women have served foundationally on farms for centuries, they simply weren’t being counted. After the conference, O’Brien worked for the next few years to build a community of interest linking women, food systems, and sustainable agriculture. In 1997, a group of Iowa women began to work with Denise to formalize the organization’s structure. WFAN eventually grew into an independent network of what is now 10,000-plus women working in the fields of sustainable agriculture and food systems development, as farmers, consumers, advocates, teachers, students, and policy-makers.

So, where are these women at your discussion tables? Where are these women on your leadership teams? Who are the women helping you to make decisions today? I believe at least seven women will speak at today’s event. I speak to you on behalf of them. I also speak to you on behalf of my friends Kara Brewer Boyd, Carrie Balkcom, and Liz Stelk. I speak to you on behalf of Denise O’Brien. And Kriss Marion. DeAndra Beard. Karen Washington. Leah Penniman. And Sharrona Moore. These are women working in the food and agriculture system today. And I speak to you on behalf of the thousands of other women leading organic and regenerative agriculture organizations and operations who understand the value of clean air, clean water, and healthy soil. Together, and with our eyes open to the realities before us, we have hope, and we offer promise and insight into the solutions needed to regenerate our world and our soils. 

I ask that you bring us alongside you. Ask us to tell you what we know. Help us to share these stories. Empower us by amplifying our messages. Allow us to assist you in building a stronger, healthier and united nation. We are stewards. We are caretakers. We are farmers, food system workers, homesteaders, academics, advocates, activists, landowners, business owners, CEOs, directors, and organizers.  

In short: We are leaders. And we are ready to be heard. Thank you.