Margaret Krome is the policy director at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. She serves on the boards for the National Center for Appropriate Technology and the Wisconsin Board of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. She has been instrumental in efforts to promote local, sustainable food systems in the state. She spoke with Erstwhile Luddite about her experiences as was the first woman to lead sustainable agriculture policy efforts in Wisconsin.
Margaret Krome: Before we start I want to explain that although I suppose I was the first woman to do a number of things, that wasn’t my intent. I’ve always believed that the sustainable agriculture movement was better when you didn’t try to be a trail blazer, when you are part of a group working together. I came into my career at a time when the movement was starting, but being the first to do something wasn’t a goal. Had I recognized that I was the first on some things, I probably would have backed off a little because I think that when movements have people who start to self aggrandize, that’s a real problem.
Erstwhile Luddite: So noted. How did you get into the field of agriculture?
MK: I was an English lit major at UVA. I loved botany but almost all the biology classes there were premed. The exception was this biological station up in the mountains that I visited. I became passionate for botany. I graduated and did other things, but always tried to take botany and forestry classes. Did you know the USDA has its own grad school? When I was in Washington, D.C., I took classes there on agriculture and biology.
I was working for a time on a Legal Aid project. I wasn’t an attorney, this was just a job I had to help me learn lobbying and pursue other interests. It was a really good job, but I found myself clearly uncomfortable in Washington, it’s all about the star system, not the cooperative style that I prefer. The attitude there is “If you can’t take credit for it, why bother?” I was a good lobbyist, but I knew I couldn’t live there long-term.
I went into the Peace Corps, getting agro-forestry work in Cameroon. The problem with that type of work is that the organizations you can work for move you around so much. If you want to put your roots down somewhere, that’s too painful a way to live. So I thought about what [a Peace Corps type of job] would be in the US. I happened to be doing this at the right time, as the sustainable agriculture movement was coming into play.
I applied to graduate schools. I came back and took an Amtrak around to see them. When I got to Madison, there was snow on the ground, and I went polka dancing, and I decided this was home.
I was a very active grad student. I helped to get sustainable agriculture classes started and I drafted the legislation for Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and formed the coalition to get it passed. As I look back, that was spunky! At the time I didn’t really think about it. I was a student and working a job and I did that too.
[As I continued in the movement] I grew a tough hide. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that if you have to tune out assaults on your basic assumptions and motives all the time, you still have to be careful not break your antennae. You have to still be able to take input. For a time, I got too tough and wasn’t sensitive to the needs and wishes around me.
When I became a little more willing to take hits and listen to criticism, I developed wonderful friendships.
Some people still feel that tendency to see things in too binary a way. It’s a strong tendency when you are an advocate dealing with people every day who attack the fundamental basis of your work. It’s easier to just blow them off as people who will never understand than to actually pick a clear path through.
EL: What’s kept you going through low points?
MK: I’ve been blessed with an even keel. I’ve sometimes had to really take people on. I don’t like that, but I don’t shudder. I have a clear sense of justice that tells me I have to do X and not Y. You get a certain number of battle scars and they strengthen your keel.
Also, I have an incredibly supportive husband who, for one thing, has tenure. In this economy, that really matters. Expenses can get tight, but I don’t have to stress too much. So many millions of people are struggling and I don’t have to. That makes things easier.
EL: The sustainable agriculture movement originally and to some extent still views itself in part as a social justice movement. Was outreach to women specifically part of that at the outset?
MK: It’s funny you should mention that because the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) just had a call today to discuss social justice and access to the movement.
Sustainable agriculture as a movement came about in the 80s. At first there was not explicit outreach to women like you see now, but there were many women in the movement. Now, the growing edge of the movement is overwhelmingly female. Sustainable agriculture and agriculture policy schools’ applicants are at least 2/3 women. We still have many wonderful male leaders, but we also have many wonderful women leaders.
EL: Do you think the greater number of women as leaders has changed the movement at all?
MK: I’m curious to see if it will. I was one of three co-founders of NSAC. The others were men. I made a point of talking about process. I’ve become more touchy feely over the years. I think we have to have a culture of nurture. It’s not only women who nurture, but I’m the one who talks about that culture. It’s an important thing that characterizes the movement. I wouldn’t be surprised that as there are more women we pay more attention to it.
EL: What has been your greatest accomplishment?
MK: First I’ll tell you about the legislative victories. These are the things you would put on a resume. They are very important and I am extremely proud of them, but then I will tell you what is most important to me.
Legislatively, creating CIAS was very important. Also, being part of the group that created MACSAC (the Madison Area Community Supported Agricultural Coalition), and creating the coalition for the Pesticide Use and Risk Reduction Project at UW-Madison. At the national level, I’m proud of coordinating the appropriations campaigns for federal funding for sustainable agriculture for going on 20 years. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars—actually probably into the billion-plus, as I think of it.
But my hope is to be forgotten—that the movement will be healthy and it will be because we worked to create new leadership. I talk to so many young people about career paths and try to develop them as leaders. I would like to know that our movement has the vitality to embrace new issues as we go forward because of the structures we are putting into place now.
It’s not that I don’t have an ego or am self-effacing. The ego is good; it’s the “fire in the belly.” And I can be territorial, so don’t get in my way. It’s just the ultimate point is that we will all actually be forgotten. But if you have a job you really care about and are attached to a movement, what you really want is that the movement continues with competency. Then there is no need to write any history, because it’s still alive.