Getting to Know Carol Richardson Smith

Simith_Carol_4x5IndCarol Richardson Smith has worked alongside women within the expanding agriculture community since its very beginnings. Present for the emergence of WFAN, Carol has helped to build sustainable agriculture organizations, and create the Women, Land and Legacy program. Now that she is preparing to transition into retirement, we at WFAN wanted to sit down and see some of what she has learned along the way. Q. You are revered by many as one of the leaders of the network for women active within the developing agriculture climate. Can you give us a bit of a background of your involvement?

Carol: To consider my past, I need to include all work—paid and unpaid—as a significant part of my work is, and almost always has been, volunteer. A long term focus on women, participation, and empowering development has led me down a number of paths.

Most important to me is designing and using highly participatory process for empowering development and the development of my expertise in this area. (Denise O’Brien once told me that she thought this would be my legacy and “gift to the world.”)

Much work in agricultural policy related to these interests has come through faith channels: ranging from volunteer facilitation of a listening process for the “Strangers and Guests” document written by the bishops of the Heartland, and designing the SPARK parish support project for farmers during the ag credit crisis of the 80s to paid career work as the program designer and manager of a rural community support program for the national non profit Catholic Rural Life, which included high level policy work on farm bills and national conferences.

Other policy work has centered around local foods and rural development in Iowa. I am a founding and current board member of both the Community Vitality Center at Iowa State and Iowa Microloan, a founding and past member of the Iowa Food Systems Council board and am a current member of the Iowa Rural Development Council.

Q. You are known as one of the women at the heart of WFAN’s creation. Can you tell me a little about why it felt important to create a women based agricultural community?

Carol: I facilitated a Practical Farmers of Iowa winter women’s weekend in 1992 or 1993, which I have always thought planted the seeds for WFAN. As a session facilitator, I posed questions for consideration-and one of them was “what sustains you?” As dialogue continued, it became clear that support and networking were key to sustaining the women present and their work in agriculture and since the group included actors such as Denise, Betty Wells and others, gatherings were planned to build that needed support for women in agriculture. I would say that WFAN began with those gatherings and evolved from there as it built a network with the listserv, formed leadership, and moved on to adding a project component with the conservation work.

I was a member of the original leadership group until a career change came along. I stayed in touch with what was going on and did do some further planning sessions as facilitation and planning are part of my expertise. I still stay in touch on the WFAN listserv. I went on to become one of the founders of the Women, Land, and Legacy and a member of the WLL State Team as well and it is quite amazing to me to have been part of the foundation of both of these organizations that serve women in agriculture so well.

Q. Well on a lighter note, what has been your favorite part working within this community?

Carol: My very favorite part of my experience and other work with women that I do is the contact and friendship of strong women. It is rare experience for someone of my age and I relish it greatly when it happens.

Two of the gatherings stand out in my mind. At one were encouraged to explore where our impressions of farming and agriculture came from. In my career with ISU extension, I had heard many times that “she was not born on a farm!” In the sharing at that gathering, l realized that I did have farming in my family background---but not Iowa farming. My parents came from New England and I grew up with my father’s farm—the smaller, diversified New England farm. The realization actually sent me back to New Hampshire to see those farms (they still exist)—and now my answer is: “you are right, I was not born on an Iowa farm, but my family has farmed in this country for over 300 years.” It’s kind of a thrill to realize that I really do have an agricultural identity.