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The road still traveled

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

s_Robin

When they started 38 years ago, they wanted a voice, for themselves, for their business, and for their way of life. When a group of Oregon farm wives organized as the Oregon Women for Agriculture in 1969, they were among the first of their kind; so far ahead of the pack that this Oregon outpost helped birth the national American Agri-Women group in 1974.

As with all pioneers, they had to change expectations of who they were and what they would do. “Early on, we were expected to be the kitchen group, or were asked to decorate the tables,” remembers Deanna Dyksterhuis, a past president who has a family farm in Corvallis. The elegant Dyksterhuis then remarks softly that they put a swift end to that nonsense.

Education was their goal, for themselves and the world outside the farm. In the decades since they started, these women have lobbied Congress and the state, helped create the Summer Agricultural Institute to connect teachers to their world, and started agriculture scholarships for students at Oregon State University.

It is education with a large dose of sisterhood that draws them together for their annual convention, which this year was at the Hotel Oregon in McMinnville. About 40 of the group’s 350 members attended the early March event, which mixed talks by experts on branding, new regulations and alternative energy with wine tasting and trips to a local nursery and creamery. There also was a panel of founding members who talked about the long road they had traveled, and the long road that still stretches ahead.

Farms owned or operated by women are increasing in Oregon. In its latest figures, the state lists about 7,100 farms where women are the principal operators, up from about 6,000 in 1997. Most of these are small farms, earning less than $10,000 a year. The increase in women-run farms has been attributed to that small-farm growth, daughters returning to the family farm to care for aging parents, and more women who keep the farm after their husbands die or they divorce.

But you can’t rely on statistics to give you the whole picture. Given that there are 40,000 farms in the state, and 92% of them are family-owned, there are many more women who own their farms with husbands. They aren’t officially counted; they remain invisible.

It is that enduring invisibility that past president Marjorie Ehry sees as OWA’s biggest challenge. That, and “just surviving.”

“Most of our young women are working off the farm full-time to make it,” she says, “and they don’t have time to get involved.”

This generaton wonders if the next generation will replace them.

“When I first joined we were all full-time farm wives; you married your husband and that’s what you did,” says Dyksterhuis. “Our kids looked at how hard we worked and said, ‘No way.’”

That said, they know they’ve made progress. You only have to look at the June 1973 OWA newsletter to see that: There’s a recipe for lunch-box berries along with coverage of several farm-related bills in the state Legislature and a call for the membership to get involved. There’s also a picture of the group’s officers, identified as: president, Mrs. George (Liz) VanLeeuwen; secretary, Mrs. Grant (Genevieve) Lindsay; first vice president, Mrs. William (Theda) Tucker; and treasurer, Mrs. Everett (Phyllis) Falk.

Thirty-four years later, when the formidable past presidents line up to get their picture taken together, their nametags say Liz, Loydee, Judy, Deanna, Marjorie, Gerry — the parentheses long ago having been discarded.

— Robin Doussard
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