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The University of Iowa Libraries

Guide to the Denise O'Brien papers

Collection Overview

Date Span: 1964-2006
Creator: O'Brien, Denise (1949-)
Extent: 9.20 linear feet.
Collection Number: IWA0156
Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Summary: Organic farmer and political activist who served as president of National Family Farm Coalition.

Alternate Extent Statement: Photographs and artifacts in Box 22
Oversize materials in map case

Access: The papers are open for research.

Use: Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to The University of Iowa.

Acquisition: The papers (donor no. 228) were donated by Denise O'Brien in 1994 and subsequent years.

Preferred Citation: Denise O'Brien papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Address: 100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City, IA 52242
Phone: 319-335-5068
Curator: Kären Mason
Email: lib-women@uiowa.edu
Website: http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/iwa

Denise O'Brien, organic farmer,political activist, and lobbyist, was born to Joe and Doris O'Brien on December 6, 1949 in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up in Atlantic, Iowa. O'Brien attended Atlantic High School and lived as an exchange student in Japan,an experience she credits with politicizing her. After graduating from Atlantic High School in 1968, she attended the University of Iowa for one semester and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, the following year. After one year at Creighton, she moved to the San Francisco area, where she became involved in anti-war protests and the whole foods movement. She then moved to Vermont, where she lived in a rural setting for six years before returning to Atlantic in 1976. In Atlantic,she met and married Larry Harris; they had three children, Briana, Trevor, and Caia. O'Brien and Harris began an organic fruit and dairy farm on the Harris' family farm north of Atlantic, experimenting with various organic crops and livestock.

As low commodity prices and escalating interest rates led to widespread farm foreclosures, they became involved with the Prairie Progressive group from Adair County that included Daniel Levitas and David Ostendorf of Rural America, Inc. Denise O'Brien and Larry Harris hosted the first Iowa Farm Unity Coalition meeting in 1982, launching O'Brien's career as an activist with the Coalition. In addition, O'Brien joined the Farmers' Union and other groups. She was a board member of Prairie Fire Rural Action, initiating and directing its Women's Leadership Development Project. Recognizing the need for women in leadership roles, she served as president of the National Family Farm Coalition from 1993 to 1995. At that time, the Coalition represented thirty-nine family farm and rural advocacy organizations across the country. In 1990 she ran for Cass County Supervisor and in 1996 ran for a seat on the school board in the Atlantic district.

In 1995, O'Brien and her daughter Briana Harris attended the United Nation's International Conference on Women in Beijing, China. In June 1997, O'Brien spoke to the United Nations General Assembly at the Earth Summit Plus Five on behalf of the world's farmers, as one of the ten non-governmental speakers and the only United States citizen. Out of these experiences, O'Brien recognizedthe importance of developing a network of farm women to speak for and organize around the needs of women in agriculture. These efforts led her to create the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN) in 1997; she served as its director from its inception. O'Brien has received numerous awards for her activism.

The Denise O'Brien papers date from 1964 to 2006 and measure 9.2 linear feet. The papers are arranged in nine series, Biographical and family, Community involvement, Conferences, Correspondence, Organizational involvement,Resource files, Writings, Photographs, and Artifacts.

The Biographical and family series contains biographies, awards, resumés, an appointment book, and passports.In addition to O'Brien's schoolwork, English papers, a class reunion booklet, and newspaper clippings, the series includes sporadic farm records andcorrespondence with Briana Harris, who attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Community Involvement series concerns O'Brien's activities with the United Methodist Church, the Atlantic School District, the PTA, her work with the Family Crisis Support Network in Atlantic, and files from her unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Atlantic School Board. It also includes materials concerning school children's tours of the Harris-O'Brien farm.

The Conferences series consists of notes, programs, and other materials that O'Brien collected at local, national and international events such as conferences, campaigns, forums, and summits.

The Correspondence series contains both personal and organizational correspondence. Electronic mail and paper mail items are intermixed. Items of interest include letters from Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Correspondence to and from Briana Harris is located in the Biographical and family series.

The Organizational Involvement series consists of records and papers from organizations in which O'Brien has been a member, officer, or observer.

The Resource Files series contains books, magazines, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and memos maintained by O'Brien for informational purposes. These files concern agricultural organizations, agribusiness andenvironmental issues, Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) and Bovine somatotropin(BST), the farm crisis and farm bills, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade(GATT), health care and insurance, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),sustainable agriculture, and women's organizations.

The Writings series contains notebooks in which O'Brien recorded her thoughts and reactions during the many meetings and conferences that she attended, as well as professional writings and speeches. It also includes texts of testimony she presented at various public hearings.

The Photographs series contains photographs of O'Brien, members of her family, friends, and the farmstead.

The Artifacts series consists of nametags and pins from numerous conferences, as well as bumper stickers. It also includes a plaque for the Dixon Terry Leadership Award she received in 1992 from the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition.
Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) (IWA).

Postings from the WFAN electronic listserv have been printed out by Iowa Women's Archives staff.

Browse by Series:
Series 1: BIOGRAPHICAL AND FAMILY
Series 2: COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Series 3: CONFERENCES
Series 4: CORRESPONDENCE
Series 5: ORGANIZATIONAL INVOLVEMENT
Series 6: RESOURCE FILES
Series 7: WRITINGS
Series 8: PHOTOGRAPHS
Series 9: ARTIFACTS

  • Series 1: BIOGRAPHICAL AND FAMILY
  • Box 1:
  • General - 1995-1999
  • Appointment books and passport - 1985, 1989, 1990
  • Appointment books - 1993-1995
  • Education - 1964-1988
  • Medical report - 1991
  • Children's school projects, undated
  • Briana Harris' e-mail Aug. 27-Nov. 17 - 1996
  • Briana Harris' e-mail Nov. 18-Dec. 19 - 1996-1997
  • Briana Harris' e-mail Jan. 2-Feb. 14 - 1998-1999
  • Larry Harris, Delegate to Democratic caucus - 1986
  • Farming: Financial records - 1976-1997
  • Box 2:
  • Farming: Beefalo - 1975-1978
  • Farming: Organic beef market - 1977-1985
  • Farming: Pest control - 1981
  • Newspaper clippings [one article from 1994 filed in map case, drawer 6] - 1992-1997, 2004
  • Box 24:
  • Biographical newspaper clipping [filed in map case, drawer 6] - 1994
  • Series 2: COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
  • Box 2:
  • Campaign: Newspaper clippings - 1996
  • Campaign: Supervisor - 1990
  • Campaign: Campaign sign, undated [oversize: filed in map case]
  • Campaign: Secretary of Agriculture - 2006
  • Atlantic Community School District and PTA - 1992-1993
  • Atlantic High School commencement address - 1998
  • Atlantic Womens Health Conference - 1999, 2000
  • Family Crisis Support Network - 2000
  • Farm tours for school children, undated
  • United Methodist Church - 1997
  • Volunteering - 1986-1999
  • Box 24:
  • Campaign sign, undated [filed in map case, drawer 6]
  • Series 3: CONFERENCES
  • Box 2:
  • "Agricultural Policy Conference," Des Moines Aug. 12 - 1984
  • Association for Women in Development: Fifth International Forum, Washington D.C., November 21-24 - 1991
  • Association for Women in Development: Sixth International Forum, Washington D.C., October 21-24 - 1993
  • "Beyond Rio: Earth Charter Iowa," Part I and II, Sept. 1992, Mar. 1993 - 1992, 1993
  • "Being a Good Steward of our Resources: Living a Quality Life," September 5-7 - 1992
  • Box 3:
  • "Bringing Beijing Back: Local Actions and Global Strategies," Davenport, Iowa, Nov. 10-12 - 1995
  • "Bringing Rio Home: Using Agenda 21 to Promote Sustainable Agriculture," Mlheim and Ruhr, Germany, August 31-September 3 - 1993
  • Campaign for Human Development, Fifteenth Anniversary, Collegeville, MN, Aug. 11-14 - 1985
  • Earth Summit: Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 3-14 - 1992
  • Earth Summit: Earth Summit +5, Washington D. C., June 23-27 - 1997
  • Farmers Disaster Assistance Conference, Surviving the Disaster of 1993, Bloomington, MN, November 18-20 - 1993
  • Federacion Nacional de la Mujer Rural, First International meeting, Segovia, Spain, Sept. 3-6 - 1998
  • "Focus on Tomorrows Leaders: Making a Difference in Public Policy Issues" Ames, IA, July 30-August 2 - 1997
  • Fourth Annual Institute on Women and Economic Development, Ms. Foundation Conference, Peachtree City, Georgia, September 5-8 - 1991
  • "Harvesting Our Potential" - 1986-1996
  • Iowa Cafe, Lewis IA, May 24 - 2001
  • Iowa Womens Hall of Fame, Aug. 26 - 2000
  • Manila Peoples Forum on APEC '96, Manila, Philippines, November 18-24 - 1996
  • National Campaign for Family Farms and Environment meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Washington D. C., June 12 - 1995
  • Box 4:
  • National Consultation on Food Security, Ames, IA, May 21 - 1997
  • National Dairy Summit, York, PA, June 21 - 1993
  • "National Dialogue for a Sustainable Agriculture," Washington, D.C., Feb. 25-27 - 1994
  • National Network of Grantmakers, Zion, IL, Nov. 12-14 - 1986
  • National Rural Conference, Ames, IA, April 25 - 1995
  • North American Farmers Alliance Tour of Nicaragua - 1985
  • "Priorities '95," University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, Oct. 14-15 - 1994
  • "Priorities '95," University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, Oct. 14-15, Briana Harris papers - 1995
  • Public Forum on Agriculture and Food, Niigata, Japan, Feb. 28 - 1998
  • Rural Development Forum, April 6-7 - 1992
  • "Rural and Farm Women in Historical Perspective," Fifth Conference, Chevy Chase, MD, December 1-4 - 1994
  • "Rural and Farm Women in Historical Perspective," Sixth Conference, Waco TX, Sept. 18-21 - 1997
  • Rural Women's Workshop on Food Security, Rome, Italy, November 6-8 (3 folders) - 1996
  • Second National Conference on Organic/Sustainable Agriculture Policies, March 23-24 - 1990
  • Box 5:
  • "Second World Conference on Women in Agriculture," Washington, D. C., June 28-July 7 - 1998
  • Sixtieth Annual Meeting of Rural Sociological Society, Toronto, Ontario, Aug. 13-17 - 1997
  • Small Flock Growers and Wool Crafters, First National Conference, June. 23-26 - 1985
  • "A Social Agenda for the 21st Century," Des Moines, IA, Sept. 27 - 1997
  • "Strategic Planning Meeting for a National Women's Organizing Body," Lake Bluff, IL, Oct. 3-5 - 1997
  • United Nations Association, Midwest Public Hearing on Environment and Development, Sept. 22 - 1991
  • United Nations Earth Summit Intersessional Meeting of Commission on Sustainable Development, New York, Feb. 24-Mar.7 - 1997
  • United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, September 4-15: Briana Harris notes - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: Brochures and handouts - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: Globalization of agriculture workshop - 1995
  • Box 6:
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: MS delegate profiles - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: National Family Farm Coalition position - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: News coverage - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: Speeches and papers - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: United States delegation preparation - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: Women's organizations publications - 1995
  • U.N. 4th World Conference on Women: Non-governmental Organization (NGO) Forum on Women, Beijing, China, Aug. 30-Sept 8 - 1995
  • United Nations General Assembly hearing on Agenda 21, June 23-27 - 1997
  • Box 7:
  • United Nations General Assembly hearing on Agenda 21, June 23-27 - 1997
  • United States House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture Public Hearing, Sept. 23 - 1992
  • "Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference," Sinsinawa, WI, Mar. 4-6 - 1999
  • Via Campesina, Philippines, Dec. 1-10 - 1995
  • Via Campesina, Second International Conference, La Trinidad, Mexico, April 18-20 - 1996
  • "Women, Empowerment, and Sustainable Futures," Racine, WI, July 9-12 - 1998
  • "Women Hold up Half the Sky," Des Moines, IA, May 3-5 (2 folders) - 1990
  • Women's History Month presentation, Southwest Iowa Community College, Creston, IA, Mar.14 - 2001
  • Workshop on Women and the Environment, Green Bay, WI, November 9-11 - 1990
  • World Food Summit, Rome, Italy, November 13-17: Non-governmental organization input, Nov. 13-17 and 23-27 - 1996
  • Box 8:
  • World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, Denmark, March 6-12 - 1995
  • World Trade Organization: Food and Agriculture Day, Seattle, WA, Dec. 2 - 1999
  • World Trade Organization: Listening session, Des Moines, IA, July 12 - 1999
  • World Womens Congress for a Healthy Planet, Miami, FL, November 8-12 - 1991
  • Miscellaneous - 1982-2001
  • Miscellaneous: Conferences at which Denise O'Brien was a presenter - 1983-1999
  • Series 4: CORRESPONDENCE
  • Box 8:
  • Chronological - 1967-1988
  • Chronological - 1990-1991
  • Chronological - 1992-1993
  • Chronological - 1994
  • Box 9:
  • Chronological - 1995
  • Chronological - 1996
  • Chronological - 1997
  • Chronological - 1998
  • Chronological - 1999
  • Chronological - 2000
  • Chronological - 2001
  • Box 10:
  • Correspondence, Undated
  • Series 5: ORGANIZATIONAL INVOLVEMENT
  • Box 10:
  • Alternative Women in Development - 1991
  • Association for Women in Development (AWID): General - 1990-1996
  • Association for Women in Development (AWID): Newsletters and bylaws - 1990-1995
  • Bill Bradley for President - 2000
  • Educational Center for Community Organizing - 1987-1989
  • Farm Aid - 1993-1994
  • Farmers Union: Iowa - 1989
  • Farmers Union: National - 1989-1995
  • Farmers Union: South Dakota - 1990
  • HandsNet - 1994
  • Homestead Pride Poultry Cooperative - 1993-1994
  • Box 11:
  • Industrial Cooperative Association - 1987
  • Iowa Farm Unity Coalition - 1985
  • Iowa Farm Unity Coalition - 1986-1995
  • Iowa Farm Unity Coalition: Published resources - 1981-1986
  • Iowa Peace Makers - 1991
  • Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas - 1995
  • Legal Services Corporation - 1990-1991
  • Ms. Foundation for Women: General - 1985-1992
  • Ms. Foundation for Women: Field network - 1988
  • Ms. Foundation for Women: Dockets and grant lists - 1989-1991
  • National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) General - 1989-1991
  • NFFC General - 1994
  • Box 12:
  • NFFC General - 1994
  • NFFC General - 1995-2000
  • NFFC: Bovine Growth Hormone campaign - 1994-1995
  • NFFC: Case study and book proposal - 1991
  • NFFC: Concept papers - 1995
  • NFFC: Correspondence (2 folders) - 1990-1997
  • NFFC: Dairy, Nutrition, and Conservation Act Campaign - 1995
  • NFFC: Farm bill - 1995
  • NFFC: Grants - 1991-1996
  • Box 13:
  • NFFC: Informational newspaper clippings - 1993-1995
  • NFFC: Minutes and agendas - 1991-1995
  • NFFC: Newsletters - 1990-1994
  • NFFC: Questionnaires - 1995
  • NFFC: Summary materials - 1989-1991
  • NFFC: Trade agreements (2 folders) - 1994-1995
  • National Save the Family Farm Coalition - 1986-1987
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coordinating Council - 1993-1995
  • New Party - 1992
  • Practical Farmers of Iowa - 1994-1999
  • Box 14:
  • Prairie Fire Rural Action (2 folders) - 1985-1996
  • Prairie Fire Rural Action Women's Leadership Development Project - 1987-1988
  • Progressive Prairie Alliance - 1981-1982
  • Rural America - 1981-1984
  • Rural America, Inc. - 1981-1982
  • Trees Forever, undated
  • Rural Caucus - 1985
  • Shared Vision - 1994
  • United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America - 1994-1995
  • United Nations Association of Iowa - 1991-1995
  • Via Campesina - 1995-1996
  • Women's Alternative Economic Network (WAEN) and related organizations
  • WAEN General - 1989-1991
  • WAEN Related - 1988-1991
  • Box 15:
  • WAEN Related - 1988-1991
  • WAEN: Women July/August [oversized: shelved in map case] - 1990
  • Women's Alternative Economic Summit - 1988
  • Women, Food, and Agriculture Network - 1994-1999
  • Women's Foreign Policy Council - 1989-1990
  • Box 24:
  • National Assembly of Religious Women newspaper [filed in map case, drawer 6] - 1990
  • Series 6: RESOURCE FILES
  • Box 15:
  • Agriculture organizations - 1991-1996
  • Agribusiness and environmental issues - 1981-1997
  • Assisting Beginning Farmers - 1980
  • Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) and Bovine Somatotropin (BST) - 1990-1994
  • Carrie Chapman Catt Hall controversy - 1996
  • Box 16:
  • Copenhagen Declaration for Social Development - 1995
  • Dairy - 1991
  • The ERA: Facts and Action Guide - 1986
  • Farm bills, farm crisis: Country - 1985
  • Farm bills, farm crisis: Newspaper articles - 1977-1990
  • Farm bills, farm crisis: Newspaper articles, "Shattered Dreams: The Rural Crisis" Des Moines Register, December 7 [filed in map case, drawer 6] - 1986
  • Farm bills, farm crisis: Printed materials (2 folders) - 1981-1985
  • Farm bill: Farm issues, Newspaper clippings - 1995
  • Farming, Chicken cooperatives - 1993
  • Box 17:
  • Foundation pour le progres de l'Homme, The GATT in Practice 1996) and Alliance for a Responsible and United World 1996), and Program - 1992-1995
  • Foundation Fredrich Ebert, El Futuro del Campo 1994) and Documentos de Trabajo (1993) General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) - 1991-1994
  • Genetically Modified Organisms - 2000
  • Health care and insurance - 1983-1994
  • Healthy Harvest: A Directory of Sustainable Agricultural and Horticultural Organizations - 1987-1988
  • Healthy Harvest: Integrated Farm Management Program - 1990
  • Iowa League of Rural Voters, Presidential Race Report #4 - 1987
  • Iowa Poultry Cooperative Feasibility Study Planning Phase Report - 1990
  • KU Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Crisis in Global Agriculture - 1986-1987
  • Magazines/journals - 1981-1993
  • Box 18:
  • Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies, New Directions in Farm, Land, and Food Policies - 1978
  • Newsletters - 1982-2000
  • Newsletters: Clergy and Laity Concerned - 1980-1982
  • Newspaper, clippings - 1991-1999
  • North American Farm Alliance, "Farm Women in Action" - 1984
  • North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - 1992-1996
  • Organizing and organization building - 1983-1994
  • PrairieFire Rural Action, Resisting Foreclosure - 1986
  • Resources for Feminist Research, Women and Agricultural Production, vol. 2, March - 1982
  • Rural Sociology, Seventh World Congress preparatory materials - 1988
  • Presbyterian Church, Rural Community in Crisis - 1985
  • Small farm energy project - 1981
  • "Sustainable Agriculture: People, Products, and Profits, Leopold Center. . . Conference Proceedings" - 1994
  • Sustainable/organic agriculture - 1990-1997
  • Box 19:
  • United Nations Earth Summit Agenda 21 - 1997
  • United Nations Association, "A Social Agenda for Iowa for the 21st Century" - 1997
  • United States Farmers' Association, AMMO - 1983
  • Women's issues - 1976-1998
  • Women's issues: "Beijing and Beyond" (2 folders) - 1995
  • Women's Organizations - 1985-1991
  • Box 20:
  • Miscellaneous - 1983-1996
  • Box 24:
  • Farm crisis newspaper articles [filed in map case, drawer 6] - 1983-1985
  • Farm crisis newspaper insert [filed in map case, drawer 6] - 1986
  • Series 7: WRITINGS
  • Box 20:
  • Letters to the Editor - 1992-1999
  • Notebooks - 1987, 1989
  • Notebooks - 1992
  • Notebooks - 1993
  • Notebooks - 1994
  • Notebooks - 1995
  • Box 21:
  • Notebooks - 1995
  • Notebooks - 1996
  • Notebooks - 1997
  • Notebooks, undated (2 folders)
  • Box 22:
  • Notebooks, undated
  • Professional - 1986-2000
  • Speeches - 1994, 1997, 1998
  • Testimony - 1984-1993
  • Series 8: PHOTOGRAPHS
  • Box 22:
  • Photographs - 1940-1997
  • Japanese visitors - 1998
  • Color slides - 1997
  • Series 9: ARTIFACTS
  • Box 22:
  • Bumper stickers - 1986
  • Conference tags - 1994-1997
  • Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, Dixon Terry Leadership Award - 1992
  • Box 23:
  • T-shirt, O'Brien for Secretary of Agriculture - 2006