Denise O’Brien is an organic farmer and progressive political activist from Atlantic, Iowa. In 1997, she co-founded the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, an organization dedicated to providing women a an outlet to build food systems and communities with a focus on sustainability and environmentalism. She spoke before the UN General Assembly on behalf of the world’s farmers in 1997 and served on former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s Farm Crisis Policy Task Force in 1999. O’Brien has received much acclaim for her work, including the Gloria Steinem Award in 1997 and a place in the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
In June 2006 O’Brien ran for secretary of agriculture. After upsetting former Vilsack Policy Director Dusky Terry in Iowa’s Democratic primary, she went on to lose a close race to Republican Bill Northey in the November general election.
I spoke with O’Brien over the phone to discuss the race and the future of progressive politics in Iowa agriculture.
Gavin Aronsen: You narrowly lost the race for Secretary of Agriculture last November. In a climate that was so forgiving to Democratic candidates, what does this result mean for the progressive movement in Iowa?
Denise O’Brien: People have told me, have been very, very supportive of what I did, saying that it wasn’t a loss, that it was a real gain. And, so, even though I only lost by two percentage points – and if you figure it out I lost by 13,000 votes – one of the reasons that I lost what that the Farm Bureau insurance company was able to raise a lot of money to spend. They did not want me elected as secretary of agriculture.
So, I guess I would say that where it puts the progressive movement on notice is that we have a lot of work to do about campaign reform and clean campaigns. I was just really upset, and they did some keeping stuff to the last 72 hours that we were unable to respond to.
GA: Former Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge received criticism from progressives for her environmental record and some of her ties to corporate agriculture interests. Now, with Bill Northey as the new secretary of agriculture and Judge now lieutenant governor, how concerned are you about eco-friendly agriculture and the state of family farms?
DO: Well, with the current secretary I’m very concerned because he doesn’t get it that we need family farms structure of agriculture in Iowa. In fact, he believes that the structure of agriculture is a family farm structure, and he doesn’t get that it’s a corporate structure. And, so, my concern with him is that he’ll be the mouthpiece for agribusiness and industrial agriculture and will pretty much follow the guidelines, or follow what they’re going to dictate that he do. I don’t think he is a creative thinker. I don’t think he has much imagination, and so I believe that Iowa agriculture is in danger with him at the helm.
Given that, and you asked me about Secretary Judge, or Patty Judge, I think she’s less of a threat than Northey because I feel that as I was with her on the campaign trail that she seemed to me to have shifted in her support for family farms structure. Now, it will be somewhat difficult to be able to gauge that with her as lieutenant governor; it will be hard to gauge her direct influence on the Culver administration. She’s going to be a big part of it, but it’s going to be hard for people to measure exactly how much of an influence she’s going to be.
GA: During the campaign, you drove a bus fueled by biodiesel to emphasize the importance of renewable fuels beyond ethanol. Still, ethanol-based fuel commands the majority of the public’s focus. Are you concerned that other alternative fuels are being ignored, and how effectively do you think the new legislature and governor will address the issue?
DO: Well, I personally feel like – I’m hearing more now than I did earlier in the campaign that corn-based ethanol isn’t the only answer and I’m feeling better about that.
What I don’t feel good about is I don’t see a real effort being made to make sure that the renewable energy is owned by Iowans. And I’m real concerned about that, because I think we’re going to move into this next phase that, you know, probably at some point corporations will own all of this, and that doesn’t make me very happy. It’s just a very big concern because we have to make sure that Iowa keeps dollars in Iowa, and the way we do that is to own these industries. And, frankly, I just don’t see, I don’t see that happening.
GA: You don’t see it from a legislative standpoint, either?
DO: I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’m trying to watch the legislation as close as possible. I know there’s people that are up there that are very sensitive to these things and will, you know, work hard to make it happen, but I haven’t seen any indication yet that that part – Iowa-owned biofuels – is of a highest priority.
GA: How do you think the new legislature will address other sustainable agriculture concerns such as urban sprawl and the future of local food systems?
DO: Well, I’ve been working with several people up there and I feel that there is a commitment to local foods and local food systems by some of the legislature, and I’m hoping that they’re able to pull through will some good legislation. And we’re working on some, so I’m very hopeful that there will be some pieces of legislation that will come through that will support infrastructure for a local food system.
GA: And this is my last question – you kind of answered it already, but now that the midterm elections are over, beyond what you’ve already said, what’s next for you and Iowa agriculture? Any future political aspirations or anything?
DO: I feel very optimistic in that I got nearly, just very short of half a million votes. So it’s clear to me that people do want change in Iowa and Iowa agriculture. So I will continue to devote my time and effort to, you know, these changes, to help these changes in Iowa agriculture. And I’m excited about that. I think that there’s some opportunities that will present themselves and I just have to take advantage of those, and I do want to continue to be a spokesperson for sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and – you know – in the state of Iowa. I think that can happen quite easily.
GA: Is there any big ag issue that you know of that I’m missing out on here?
DO: What I think is going to continue to raise its fiery head is the whole thing about local control, and the legislature seems not to want to deal with that, and yet there’s a lot of people that want to. So I think that remains to be seen, what’s going to happen in that realm. I’m thinking that even though some of the leaders in the legislature don’t want to deal with it, that they’re going to have to. I think that will be one thing.
What else. Clean elections. Again, Pam Jochum has been a real advocate for – she’s a representative from Dubuque – and she’s been a real advocate for clean elections, and I hope that she’s finding the support that she needs in the legislature to be able to get some legislation moved that way. So, I think there’s a lot of possibilities out there because of things done, if the legislature has the political will.