Women in both Iowa and Afghanistan play a major role in agriculture

BY ANNA EGELAND | JUNE 13, 2012 6:30 AM

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Though one may think first of the many differences between Iowa and Afghanistan, one local expert said women's roles in agriculture is one of the several similarities between the two.

Denise O'Brien, an organic farmer from Atlantic, Iowa, returned in April from a yearlong stay in Afghanistan, where she served as an agricultural adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Foreign Service Operations/Overseas. She spoke to a small group of friends and colleagues on Tuesday night at the Newman Catholic Student Center, 104 E. Jefferson St., about her experiences.

O'Brien said one of the similarities she noticed was the local-food infrastructure, which Iowa has been shifting toward and is already present in Afghanistan.

She said her main duty as an agricultural advisor was to work with Afghanistan's Directorate of Agriculture, Infrastructure and Livestock on making agriculture more transparent.

"One of the big things was to work on anti-corruption … everybody wants to skim off something for themselves," she said, citing the sale of weak seed and livestock as corrupt practices.

Despite the problems with agriculture in Afghanistan, she said, Iowa farmers could learn from farming practices in Afghanistan. Upon her return to Iowa, she noticed the extensive soil erosion on Iowa farms and thinks agriculture in Afghanistan could provide clues for how to handle the problem.

O'Brien, who cofounded the Women, Food and Agriculture Network in 1997, said the organization is working on a project called Women Caring for the Land, which includes listening sessions across Iowa. Women own half of the rentable farm land in Iowa, she said.

"Women have a very strong conservation ethic … women feel very strongly about the land and want to preserve the land," she said.

Leigh Adcock, the executive director of the organization, said that while not everyone in the network farms organically, most women choose to participate in small-scale diversified agricultural farming as opposed to commodity agriculture.

"At the time this group was formed, there weren't very many groups for women involved in [small-scale agriculture]," Adcock said. She noted that the number of organizations has increased since then.

Across the ocean in Afghanistan, more than 7,000 miles away, women are very involved in farming and agriculture.

"Many times, [women are] just behind the walls of the compound where lots of the farming goes on," O'Brien said. "They contribute incredible amounts to make agriculture viable and receive very little credit and very little income."

Karen Mason, the curator of the Iowa Women's Archives, noted that women and agriculture have long been linked. 

"I think that women are very close to food traditionally because they are the preparers — that, of course, has changed over the years …" she said.  

While the small-scale, local agriculture in Afghanistan is an ideal model for some Iowa farmers, there are still valuable systems that the United States can share with Afghanistan.

"We were setting up a system in Afghanistan similar to the extension system in the United States," O'Brien said.

The cooperative extension system is a network of state, local, and regional offices that provide "useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small-business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes," according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture official website.

"We worked with leadership, we worked with anti-corruption, and we helped people scale up in poultry production," O'Brien said. "We covered the whole spectrum of what agriculture is about."

Mason said the Iowa Women's Archives are working hard to ensure that O'Brien's stories are not lost.

"We're making sure that all of her efforts with women and agriculture are being preserved," she said.

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