Our Founding Mothers
Denise O’Brien, WFAN’s founder, worked in agriculture long before she co-founded the Women Food and Agriculture Network in 1997. She has farmed in southwest Iowa for 37 years with her husband Larry Harris, and operated a CSA farm called Rolling Acres that includes three acres of fruits and vegetables and six acres of apples. She also raises organic chickens and turkeys.
Denise grew up in Atlantic, IA, graduated from high school there, and then went on to attend the University of Iowa and Creighton University. In addition to farming, she has been involved with community volunteering and policy work in the agricultural sector. Denise lobbied with the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, directed the Rural Women’s Leadership Development Project of PrairieFire Rural Action, Inc. and was president of the National Family Farm Coalition.
O’Brien has served on numerous advisory boards with the Community Food Security Coalition, the Farm to School Council, and the Iowa Women’s Foundation to name a few. She was a W.F.Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow from 2001-2003. From 2011 to 2012, Denise was a USDA advisor in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
For all her hard work Denise has received awards like the 2005 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iowa Farmer’s Union and the Athena Award from the Atlantic, Iowa Chamber of Commerce. In 2000 Denise was inducted into Iowa’s Women’s Hall of Fame.
On her life work Denise says, “My life has been devoted to raising women’s voices in agriculture. My dream is that the landscape of industrialized agriculture will change as women become the decision makers on their land. To that end I will devote my time on this earth to women, prairie restoration and seed saving.”
To further her vision, Denise speaks at conferences and events on topics like women and agriculture policy, organic agriculture, practical approaches to organic farming, women’s relationship to the land, sustainable living, food security and international perspectives on women in agriculture.
If you would like Denise to speak at your event please click here to email her or call her at 712-249-3197.
The name, Women, Food and Agriculture originated in 1994 when Denise O’Brien and Kathy Lawrence of New York, formed a Women, Food and Agriculture working group in preparation for the United Nation’s Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, in order to remedy the neglect of food and agricultural issues. In November, 1996, under the name of Women, Food and Agriculture, O’Brien attended and helped in fundraising, agenda construction, and identifying additional U.S. participants for the Rural Women’s Workshop at the World Food Summit in Rome. As the work unfolded, however, she found the going difficult without a network.
The needed network began to take shape in February 1997 at a Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Women’s Winter Gathering when a few women decided to create a network to act on their long-standing concerns about systemic rural, agricultural, and environmental problems and gender relations.
WFAN’s mission was established by consensus at an October 28, 1997 retreat: to link and amplify women’s voices on issues of food systems, sustainable communities and environmental integrity. Read more about WFAN’s Herstory here.
WFAN celebrated our 20th anniversary at the 2017 WFAN Annual Conference. We honored our founding mothers with the inaugural Outstanding Women in Sustainable Agriculture Award.