Kathy, who died January 22, was a force of nature – a city kid who devoted her life to advocating for independent family farmers in the halls of Congress, which seemed to care less about rural America every year. She wrestled wins where she could and nurtured the next generation of farm activists even in defeats. After her diagnosis in 2015, she boasted about how she had rarely been sick a day in her life. She continued working through treatment as she was able – which was a lot, because side effects barely touched her. So it was unfathomable to learn that Kathy had passed away last week from complications from the disease, far too young at 58, with so much left to do.
Kathy grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, attended the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and studied economics at the University of Massachusetts. She worked as an organizer after college with the U.S. Student Association before finding her calling at the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), soon after it was founded in the late 1980s, during the farm crisis.
She hit the ground running, becoming one of the core authors of the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act, which saved thousands of family farms from foreclosure and slowed the farm crisis. While the Credit Act was critical, she saw that it wasn’t enough. Family farms kept consolidating and going out of business as farm size increased. She listened to what farmers said they needed and she fought for a fair price, for a crop reserve, for equity for dairy farmers, for programs to assist black farmers, and much more.
“She wasn’t afraid to tackle issues that some people may have had reservations about,” said Iowa farmer George Naylor, co-founder and past board president of NFFC.
Although her opinions were sometimes unpopular in a nation that didn’t seem to have much time for rural concerns, Kathy was a respected, knowledgeable voice in Washington, D.C. – and she brought farmers along.
“We always had a seat at the table because of her,” said Denise O’Brien, a long-time organic vegetable farmer in western Iowa and past NFFC board president.
Ralph Paige, longtime farmer advocate and former executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, agreed. “She made sure black farmers were at the table,” at a time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was starting to confront its long legacy of discrimination, he said.
Kathy saw connections everywhere and expanded family-farm advocacy to include new voices. The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a Massachusetts-based coalition of independent fishing families, is a member of NFFC because Kathy understood that fishing communities face pressures of consolidation and corporate control that are similar to those facing farm communities. NFFC supports campaigns of groups like the Farmworker Association of Florida and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The farm coalition has partnerships with consumer and environmental organizations, as well.
“She helped to bring the whole farm movement together,” said Paige. And she expanded the definition of who should be there.
“She had an amazingly egalitarian way about her,” said Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid. “She treated everyone with the same style and the same humor. She took care of everyone.”
Kathy opened doors, bringing farmers and new advocates to lobby on Capitol Hill, gladly sharing her contacts, and always making connections. She taught so many of us about farm policy; she knew more than anyone, but she was always patient, wanting us to understand it ourselves. And no detail was too small—she would find airline-ticket deals for farmers and arrange the catering for meetings, share job opportunities, and offer her apartment or her Amtrak rewards trips to colleagues. Debra Eschmeyer, most recently the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and a co-founder of FoodCorps, still uses cooking equipment Kathy passed along to her over a decade ago.
Deb writes about meeting Kathy at a reception in 2005, “gushing over the cheeses,” which led, typically, to talking about dairy policy and the farm bill.
“In signature Kathy style, she offered me a ride home, and by the time we reached my apartment, she had offered me a job at NFFC.” But it was so much more than a job for Kathy, and she taught us that too. “Really,” Deb wrote in an email, “she offered me an invaluable education on how to fight for what you believe in with joy and love.”
Reflecting on their long careers of activism together, Naylor, a co-founder of NFFC, said, “Kathy stayed in the trenches no matter how damn bleak things were”—and always with joy and love. She was unstoppable. Fortunately, she trained a small army of farmer advocates to follow in her footsteps. With her no longer with us, we will have to be unstoppable too.
Siena Chrisman, who grew up in northwest Massachusetts, is a writer and researcher addressing agriculture policy and social justice. Her work has appeared in Civil Eats, Modern Farmer, Edible Brooklyn, Grist, and others, and she is currently working on a book about the 1980s farm crisis. Read more at www.sienachrisman.com. She lives in Brooklyn.