International Women’s Day Reflections from the Louisiana Women in Agriculture Conference
Mar. 8, 2018
Louisiana Women Lead the Way
By Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA Executive Director
In February 2018, more than 300 women descended upon Alexandria for Louisiana's 8th Annual Women in Agriculture Conference, organized by the dynamic Amy Robertson. She is the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Services’ Public Affairs Specialist for Louisiana. The warm and lively gathering of specialists, practitioners, and families navigating the changing winds from commodities to niche markets is a testament to a growing confidence in rural America to harness some sort of control over the future. Richard MCarthy with event organizer Amy Robertson
My returns to my home state, Louisiana, are always bittersweet. Once the plane lands, humidity seeps into the cabin. (This I do not miss.) On the other hand, smiles abound and the pace is noticeably slower than at Slow Food USA HQ in New York City. I miss the people and their general consensus that the Protestant work ethic is overrated. This is not to say that people do not work hard: they do! However, life is not defined by work alone: faith, family, fishing, and food prevail. This is especially the case in rural Louisiana (where the conference was staged).
New leadership is emerging in Louisiana’s state and federal agencies, land grant universities, and it's women. They possess a real knack for bringing in new voices whose stories resonate with the women who traveled from all corners of the state. Some are contemplating the launch of new agricultural enterprises while others are attempting to reinvent existing ones.
A northeast Louisiana farmer describes the difficulties small farmers face in finding markets and navigating legal requirements
The day opened with welcome remarks from Dr. Carrie Castille, the State Director for USDA Rural Development and a 2008 Terra Madre delegate. At the time, she held a high-ranking role in the Louisiana Department of Agriculture where she deployed the Specialty Crops funding with great enthusiasm and promoted agricultural tourism in new ways. Two keynote speakers followed, both dynamic young women who are growing a new world within the shell of the old.
Red Ants Pants’ Sarah Calhoun described how her high-risk venture to establish a women’s apparel business for rural women who work in Montana has taken her into the world of downtown development, music festivals, and philanthropy in a county that The Economist determined had the lowest income in the USA. Her direct marketing successes are built upon wise observations about an under-served market and a keen desire to build bridges through fun and humor to those who may be suspicious of an East Coast newcomer to big sky country. She embodied Slow Food values in so many different ways.
East Texas’ Kimberly Ratcliff brought to the group her story of returning home from a successful finance career in Manhattan in order to help make her parents’ Caney Creek Ranch a multifaceted business with a future and, as she put it, “to prove to New York finance people that agriculture matters more than just numbers on futures markets.” What is especially exciting about her story is the idea that you can go home. The problems of shrinking rural farm populations paints a bleak picture of the future. Ratcliff’s story seemed to resonate with the audience: a healthy mix of commodity growers and niche vegetable producers, timber and cotton, rice and crawfish.
The conference also provided an exciting glimpse into one of Louisiana’s most exciting farm operations: Inglewood Farm. The state’s largest USDA Certified Organic farm, Inglewood hosted a tour of its pecan, vegetable, corn/soybean, and cattle operations. When one listens to farm director Elisabeth Keller describe the iterative process of “trying to figure out how to make regenerative principles work in hot and humid Louisiana,” it is particularly exciting to consider how open and public the learning process is. Inglewood is a force and a remarkable resource in a state that so dearly needs successful examples of how the alternative can work.
Beth James, rice farmer (left) and Elisabeth Keller of Inglewood Farm (right)
Staged in Central Louisiana (locally referred to as CenLa), I was encouraged to listen to a mother who was convinced to attend by her daughter. She had returned from Louisiana State University with a degree and big ideas about how to incorporate Slow Food values into their families’ crawfish and rice operations.
And finally, it is also worth noting that the location and the tone of the gathering managed to weave the personalities and voices of urban Louisiana (e.g., New Orleans’ grocery innovator Simone Reggie) with rural, black with white. This is no easy feat. It is indeed a glimpse of how much our world is changing; how Obama-era investments towards technical assistance to women and minority agriculture hit the ground with real impact. Once condemned to the margins, genuine excitement for farm-to-school, raw milk, cottage industry regulations, and small-batch processing filled the room. There is reason to be hopeful.
Slow Food Executive Director Richard McCarthy addressed the Women in Agriculture Conference in Alexandria, Louisiana on February 23, 2018.
Image at top: certified organic pecans from Inglewood Farm
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