The 2019 National Farmers Union Women’s Conference took place Jan. 13-17 in San Diego, California. Last year, I attended the Women’s Conference for the first time as a Wisconsin Farmers Union scholarship recipient. Four scholarships were again granted this year to WFU women who had never attended the conference, including Renee Richards and Anastasia Wolf-Flasch, both of South Central Farmers Union; and Amy Wallner and Kirsten Jurcek, both of Kenosha/Racine/Jefferson/Walworth Farmers Union.
Last year's Women’s Conference at the beautiful Catamaran Resort and Spa left enough of an impression on me with its engaging conference sessions and inspiring attendees that I decided to mark my calendar to return to the conference at the same venue this year without financial assistance. WFU often has a large presence at the conference with Wisconsin women coming as both attendees and presenters.
Last year, we heard from the Soil Sisters represented by Lisa Kivirist, Kriss Marion and Katie Christiansen Dickson, who shared the successes of the South Central chapter and the challenges as home bakers involved in championing the “Cookie Bill.” WFU members Alicia Leinburger, Kriss Marion and Sarah Lloyd educated all of us by sharing their experiences in local and state political campaigns. Little did we know then, that our own Kriss Marion was about to announce her very competitive Wisconsin State Senate race just days later!
This year, the conference theme was “Farming in Community.” The event not only focused on the concept of agricultural community building, but it aimed to provide attendees with their own network of women farmers and ranchers they can reach out to throughout the year. Farmers, policy makers, educators, and specialists presented on financial management, food safety, marketing, and conservation.
Wisconsin women once again inspired and provided strong representation at the conference. Lisa Kivirist helped welcome and introduce women to the conference and presented “How She Does It: Women Farmers Generating Income through Farmstays, Value-Added Products, and On Farm Food Service.” Kriss Marion gave an authentic and raw view of politics in her session entitled, “Stepping Up in Leadership, Speaking Out for the Farm: One Woman’s Race to Make a Difference.” Patty Edelburg spoke as National Farmers Union Vice President and shared her story as a Wisconsin dairy farmer and leader in Farmers Union.
WFU Membership Director Deb Jakubek and four fabulous Pheasants Forever farm bill biologists from Wisconsin — Becky Brathal, Gretchen Oleson, Julie Peterson and Tally Hamilton — continued the Wisconsin theme in presenting “Pheasants Forever: Conservation, Connections and Community.” Their session highlighted Women Caring for the Land field days that WFU and Pheasants Forever implemented in the last two years. Many Wisconsin farm photos and families were introduced through the slide show. Wisconsin cheese, sausage and cranberries were served as snacks following the presentation and provided a reminder of the excellent products produced from the farms we had just learned about.
A conference highlight for me was hearing from Karen Washington. Since 1985, Washington has been a community activist, striving to make New York City a better place to live. As a community gardener and board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, she worked with Bronx neighborhoods to turn empty lots into community gardens. In 2010, she co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS), an organization supporting growers in both urban and rural settings. In 2012, Ebony magazine voted Washington one of their 100 most influential African Americans in the country, and in 2014 she was the recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award. I appreciated the chance to hear about Karen’s good work in her state as co-owner/farmer at Rise & Root Farm. Sitting beside her and eating a meal together, we made a connection over the many social issues that farming touches.
As I arrived at the hotel prior to the 2019 conference, I noticed a group of ladies approaching. One friendly and vaguely familiar woman pointed at me and yelled to her cohorts, “She is a farmer!” It was Faith — another returning attendee from Hawaii. She triumphantly motioned to the group of several women surrounding her. “Last year, I was the only one from Hawaii! And now, we have representation from almost every island!” By the end of the 2019 conference, Faith challenged her state to rise to the level of Wisconsin’s participation.
I have attended various conferences in the past where a webinar could have served as replacement. The NFU Women’s Conference is a conference where the women who attend and the interactive sessions are not easily duplicated by any other means than face-to-face.
I encourage those who have never attended to apply for the WFU scholarship for 2020. I challenge local Farmers Union chapters to assist their members to attend or return to the conference next year. Women from WFU can continue the trend of leading at a national level and coming back home renewed and engaged on the farm and in our communities.