Denise O'Brien is a farmer and community organizer from Atlantic, Iowa. She is the former Director of the Women Food and Agriculture Network. She has farmed with her husband, Larry Harris, for thirty one years in the southwest corner of Iowa. Larry is a fourth generation farmer and has lived on and farmed this land all of his life. On the farm, she maintains sixteen acres of fruit and vegetable production. She is also a poultry producer who raises turkeys and chickens using organic practices.
Throughout her farming career, Denise has been extremely involved in her community as well as in the agricultural sector. She is the founder and coordinator of Women Food and Agriculture Network. Her past experiences include organizing the Women's Task Force of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, directing the Rural Women's Leadership Development Project of PrairieFire Rural Action, Inc. and serving as president of the National Family Farm Coalition. She currently serves on the national Board of the Community Food Security Coalition, and was a W.F.Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow form 2001-2003.
Denise has had numerous opportunities to work within the agricultural community by working on policy development on the state, national and international level and becoming involved in the community of local food systems and conservation issues. In 2005, she was a delegate to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Agriculture meeting, Rome, Italy to discuss issues of the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative, and a member of the North America/Europe subglobal design team for the World Bank International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, London, England.
Denise received the 2005 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iowa Farmer's Union and the Athena Award for her community achievements and accomplishments. O'Brien was inducted into Iowa's Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 2006 Denise ran for Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture. After winning the primary against a formidable candidate she ran an effective ‘underdog’ campaign against a well-financed, conventional-ag candidate and came within two percentage points of winning in the general election. Her message of a new vision of a diverse, ecological, locally-based agricultural economy reached a broad audience and found significant support in both urban and rural parts of the state. She most recently served as the Executive Director of Women, Food and Agriculture Network. She has had extensive training in media, especially during her time as a Food and Society Fellow from 2001 to 2003. During her career, Denise has been featured in Ms. Magazine, Organic Trader, the New York Times and has been quoted in the Nation. During the 1980’s Farm Crisis she and her family were featured in the Chicago Tribune and on several major networks. She appeared on Good Morning America with Betty Roland in 1988.
Recently, Denise has been appointed by the Governor of Iowa to two committees: The Farm to School Council, which addresses the barriers and opportunities for schools and institutions to buy food from local farmers ultimately improving the nutrition in our public schools, and the Agriculture and Environment Task Force of the Rebuild Iowa Commision. This Commission was formed after the devastating floods and catastrophic tornadoes in the Spring of 2008.
Denise grew up in Atlantic, Iowa where she graduated from high school. She attended the University of Iowa and Creighton University. She is a lifelong learner attending a variety of classes over the years ranging from business development to agricultural.
Farm Credit Administration Public Hearing on Enhancing Farm Credit System Service to Young, Beginning and Small Farmers and Ranchers
[November 13, 2002]
Where are Farm Leaders? Working Hard for Iowa
Des Moines Register [May 8, 2002]
Perspectives from a Small Iowa Farmer
Indy Media [July 29, 2002]
Atrazine Neither Safe, no Key to Society's Well-Being
Iowa Farmer Today [February 14, 2002]
Women, Food and Agriculture Network quarterly newsletter [1997-2007]