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Davis wants to build Farmers Union membership in Iowa

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 01/07/2013 1:58 PM

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AMES, Iowa —Whitney Davis isn't a traditional farm organization president.

Davis was elected to lead the Iowa Farmers Union at the group's annual meeting in November.

She lives in Des Moines and runs the trails program for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Until a year ago, she'd scarcely heard of the farm organization.

On the other hand, Davis is an example of the growing diversity in family farm agriculture.

She grew up in the Grinnell-Gilman area. She owns farm land in Marshall and Jasper counties that her mother manages. Davis' mother raised beef cattle and farmed alongside Davis' grandfather, and she helped with the operation as a youngster.

Davis earned a general studies degree from the University of Iowa and operated a bread baking business called, "Utility Shop," selling at two farmers markets. She was the Grinnell Local Foods Alliance coordinator and ran the Energy Corps for the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

"I believe what I have to offer is leadership and a fresh perspective," Davis said during a recent interview. "The face of family farm agriculture is changing and becoming more diverse. We need to find a way to meet that change, while continuing to build on IFU's strong history of grassroots advocacy."

Davis was asked to be a Farmers Union board member a year ago by Donna Winburn, a longtime Farmers Union board member from Grinnell.

Jana Linderman, who served on the Iowa Farmers Union board and last April became the group's managing director, encouraged Davis to get involved.

"I was talking to Jana last spring, and she convinced me of the need for Farmers Union in this state," Davis said.

Linderman grew up on a Carrington, N.D., farm. Her parents were group members. As a youngster she attended Farmers Union camp and worked one summer for the National Farmers Union. Linderman is a graduate of Iowa State University and Georgetown University Law School and was staff attorney for Plains Justice. She and her husband, Phillip, and their toddler son, Sam, live in Cedar Rapids.

Linderman would some day like to farm part of her parents' ground. Her dream is to grow organic grain and process it into whiskey or vodka in her own micro distillery.

"I would not have run for president if it hadn't been for Jana," Davis said.

Last spring, Linderman and Davis met with Sally Gran, who owns Tabletop Farm near Nevada with her husband, Luke, about the potential for energizing the organization. Gran is a young and beginning farmer representative on the Farmers Union board.

Newly elected vice president Thomas Burkhead is a grower/operator for Grade A Gardens, a 10-acre certified-organic produce farm in Johnston, and also manages his family's century farm near Rockwell City. He has attended Washinton D.C., fly-ins.

"There was all this wonderful energy, and we began meeting with potential partners like Women Food and Agriculture Network, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Leopold Center," Davis said. "We asked if they were interested in partnering on policy, and the answer was a hands-down yes if we demonstrated that we were embracing what they do."

The challenge is how does Farmers Union continue to be relevant given the changing face of family farm agriculture, Linderman said.

Building membership will be the focus in the coming year.

"With growing interest in sustainable farming and local food systems, now is a great time for organizations with similar goals to pull together and work on exceptional change at a policy level," Davis said. "We hope to be that voice in Iowa."