Valuing the Perspectives of Colleagues and Partners - American Farmland Trust

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November 20th, 2020

AFT Hires New Midwest Farmland Protection Manager to Help Focus on Underrepresented Farming Communities

Kara O’Connor, Midwest Farmland Protection Manager

For ten years I worked as the government relations director for Wisconsin Farmers Union. One of my roles was to facilitate an annual trip to Washington, D.C., for farmers to learn about the workings of federal agencies and to share their perspectives on farm programs with members of Congress.

On one such trip, a farmer named Ed from western Wisconsin was one of the participants. Not only was this Ed’s first trip to Washington, D.C., it was his first trip ever on an airplane. On our second day of this trip, I happened to be walking next to Ed as our group made its way through the United States Department of Agriculture building. We happened to pass a door with a placard that said “Office of Hearings and Appeals.”

I immediately thought about the cases that I had studied as a law student intern with Farmers Legal Action Group. One case was a class action lawsuit asserting the rights of Black farmers, a First Amendment challenge to commodity checkoff programs, proceedings to clarify the fine points of the new national organic standards. While my thoughts were processing, I heard Ed say, “Wow, take a look at that solid oak molding where the wall meets the ceiling. You don’t see workmanship like that these days.” Ed and I were walking down the same exact hallway, seeing entirely different things.

I had to admit that in years of walking through the halls of the USDA building, I had never looked up to consider the molding near the ceiling. Ed was right – it was some beautiful woodwork. I told him where my mind had been wandering at that moment, and we had a good laugh. Then we both learned something from each other. If not for Ed speaking up, I would have entirely missed something handsome and praiseworthy, and he would have missed learning a little something from me.

Kara O’Connor on DC Trip

This experience of walking with others, who see something different than I do, has been repeated over and over in not only my work with farmers—but in my personal life too. I look down a driveway and see a farm with an uncertain future; the farmer next to me sees a farm with a storied past. A legislator looks at a bill and sees cost savings; I look at the same bill and see the loss of a critical farmland protection program. A farming practice that is useful for resource conservation in Wisconsin may be irrelevant or impractical in Kansas or California. And right here in my own home, I look into my six-year-old daughter’s room and see a mess, while she sees a veterinary hospital where her innumerable stuffed animals are being rescued.

As I begin my new position as Midwest Farmland Protection Manager with American Farmland Trust, my goal is to have open eyes and ears on new and varied perspectives of the colleagues and partners with whom I will work. This is especially important when it comes to Black, Indigenous and People of Color or those who historically have been underrepresented in the agriculture and land trust arenas. I have been grateful for recent opportunities to learn more about Hmong, Latinx, and Black American perspectives on farming, conservation, and relationship to the land in the Midwest. I believe that in my new position with American Farmland Trust, I will have many more opportunities to stop, look up, and see something from another person’s point of view.