These Old Boots of Mine

By Kathleen Merrigan, GW Food Institute Director

I tried, not too hard, to find a farewell ode to cowboy boots, or at least a good sad country tune.  I felt a need for some fanfare, a final tribute to celebrate my favorite boots that had served me well for more than 20 years but which were now too worn for wear.  These boots accompanied me as I traveled to farms and ranches, processing facilities, slaughterhouses, farmers markets, food pantries, scientific laboratories, terminal markets and more.  They’ve been on what seems an endless tour of American agriculture as I’ve traveled the countryside over the decades, trying to learn as much as I could about our food and agriculture sector.

Last week, when speaking at the Pace Law School-NRDC Future of Food Law event, Professor Margot Pollans asked me whether I thought it was okay for people who did not grow up farming to be engaged in food and agriculture policy. I said yes but I urged people to honor and listen to farmers and ranchers – to walk a bit in their shoes – before proclaiming the do’s and don’ts of farm policy.

I grew up in a rural area next door to a mixed vegetable farm but my extended family was made up almost entirely of school teachers.  Even if I had grown up on my neighbor’s farm or on one of my town’s many dairy farms, I’d still only be expert in what my area produced. Luckily my boots took me to North Dakota to witness sugarbeet production and to stay with a family in a town with a one-room schoolhouse.  My boots took me to tobacco fields in North Carolina, the groves in Florida, cranberry bogs in Wisconsin, cattle ranches in Texas…you get the idea.  My point is that even if you grow up on a farm or a ranch, it’s not sufficient training to engage in national farm policy that covers so many production systems in so many places.  That’s why the best farm policy leaders are good listeners, keen observers, and empathetic.

We lost such a leader last month – Kathy Ozer, long-time Executive Director of the National Family Farm Coalition. Kathy was born a city-girl and lived most of her life here in Washington DC. Yet she had deep connections to farmers and ranchers across the country, many of whom drove across multiple state lines or traveled by plane to attend her memorial service where, as a community committed to socially just and sustainable agriculture, we mourned our loss.  Kathy always stood behind farmers who were the face of the National Family Farm Coalition. Behind the scenes, she patiently answered questions about DC politics and governmental processes, helping people understand how to have impact on national policy. Kathy was always positive, always optimistic, always dedicated to farmers and ranchers.  So yes, it doesn’t require growing up on a farm to be an effective and forceful leader, Kathy proved that.  At her service, there was a basket of buttons with a question to guide our future work:  What would Kathy do? I will try my best to ask myself that from time to time.

I knew my boots had one last wear in them. I didn’t find the right poem or song, but I found an important journey. They took me to Kathy’s memorial service, to say goodbye to a friend and brilliant advocate.