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Iowa UU named rural 'Champion of Change'

White House honors professor and seminarian Linda Barnes, who spreads the word about the importance of food diversity.
By Donald E. Skinner
8.15.11

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Linda Barnes

Linda Barnes visited the White House in July 2011, where she was named a Rural America Champion of Change. (White House photo)

In the middle of Iowa, where biological diversity can consist of fields of corn next to fields of soybeans, Linda Barnes wanted more. More alfalfa, more chickens, more tomatoes, apples, and berries.

To make that happen, Barnes, a Unitarian Universalist, started a two-year degree program in Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture at Marshalltown Community College, where she is a professor of biology. The program trains farmers and aspiring young people to move beyond corn and soybeans, crops that are hard on the land.

Her program, now in its eighth year, caught the attention of the Obama administration, and last month she was summoned to the White House, where she was recognized as a “Champion of Change” for rural America.

Barnes’s interest in food diversity and sustainability goes well beyond the classroom. In May she presented information to a committee at the National Academy of Sciences about barriers to fruit and vegetable production in relation to obesity and the priorities of the Farm Bill. As a result of that presentation she may also be included in an HBO series on food issues (currently titled The Obesity Project) to be aired in 2012.

Good food is also personal to her. She and her husband, Mark Runquist, bought a farmstead and seven acres in 1994 where, with their three children, they have grown crops, including berries, flowers, livestock, and a wide array of vegetables. Some are sold and the rest feed the family. She blogs about the farmstead at highhopesgardens.com.

At the White House on July 6, Barnes and 17 other “Rural Champions of Change” met with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Melody Barnes, the president’s domestic policy advisor, for more than two hours. Participants were invited to describe their work. There was also a discussion about how the USDA is helpful in their work and how it could be more helpful.

Barnes said she told Vilsack and Barnes two things—that the Farm Bill really only applies to large corporate farmers and that its name really should be changed to the “Food Bill” because farming and food production affect not only farmers but the quality of food everyone eats. Up for renewal by Congress in 2012, the Farm Bill is the federal government’s mechanism for governing food and agricultural policy, with provisions governing a wide range of food-related issues, including price supports for crops, agricultural research, and foreign and domestic food programs.

“Many people don’t connect farming to their food,” she said. “It seems to me that if we value healthy, regional, fresh food for all citizens and we value the resources used in production and distribution, then we need to insure those values are reflected in our policies. The most important piece of policy in the country to impact that is the Farm [Food] Bill.”

Her other point to Vilsack and Barnes was about crop insurance. “It’s hard to get insurance if you raise fruits and vegetables. Unless you have a three-year crop history you can’t get it. That’s impossible for many small growers. If this is your business and you can’t insure it, then you’re not being responsible. There’s a whole cadre of young people who want to be on the land, but they bump up against crop insurance. And the inability to get and pay for health insurance.”

President Obama joined the meeting briefly, she said. “He bounced in and said hello and shook our hands and had a real short discussion with each of us. I have to admit to being a little starstruck.”

Barnes said that the session gave her hope. “I put all this effort into creating the Entrepreneurial program and then to see all these other rural champions who did other things, that gives me hope. And the fact that this administration is listening to us."

“I’m still somewhat afraid of what the future holds for the younger generation, including my students, but the good part is that they really get it about the condition of the planet. They’re going to work really hard.”

Barnes began her career on the opposite side of the plant diversity issue. In the 1980s, she worked for a company that was genetically modifying seed corn. “Then, in graduate school, I began asking myself why I was doing this,” she said. After graduation she quit and soon thereafter she and Runquist bought their farm and she went to work for the college. The farm produces about 30 different crops.

She said when they bought the farm they felt pretty alone. Now there are other small farms in the area. “More people are raising eggs for sale as well as grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, even bison and goats.”

Barnes and Runquist have three children, 10, 16, and 18. The farm has been a growth experience for them, she said. “They can all cut up a chicken and pick beans.” Daughter Claire, the oldest, is a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She became interested in hunger issues in high school and spent eight weeks last summer on a food-related internship in India. This summer she has an internship with Vilsack’s USDA office. “Growing up on the farm has shaped almost all of my passions for sustainability and agriculture,” she said.

The family attends the UU Fellowship of Ames, Iowa, which hosts frequent “local meals.” Barnes said, “We put placards in front of each dish to tell where the food came from.”

There are many ways that UUs can become involved in food issues, she noted. “Be mindful of what you eat and where it comes from. Support local farmers and community-supported agriculture. Be outspoken about school lunch programs.” Another way is to support the Unitarian Universalist Association’s current statement of conscience on Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice, approved at the 2011 General Assembly in June.

Barnes noted the federal Farm Bill is coming up for consideration next year. Discussions surrounding the bill will include debate over whether to change the government’s support programs for major crops and whether to increase support for fruit and vegetable growers.

She added, “Community colleges are in a great position to make a difference in creating regional food systems. They need support too.”

In 2009 Barnes gave a keynote address at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Prairie Star District annual conference, urging participants to engage with nature and learn to live sustainably. In her address she said, “We have traded full participation in creation for safety and comfort. We have built communities that think only of ourselves. What species does that? We raise our kids on processed foods. Our skin is unaccustomed to the wind or the light. What phase is the moon in? Which planet now rests in the western sky?

“It is not enough to have hope,” she went on. “We need to live our values, living sustainably not because we hope, but because we are compelled by our convictions and connections and our sense of responsibility. The time of ignorance is over.”

And after all these accomplishments, Barnes has a new goal. She has enrolled at Meadville Lombard Theological School, planning to become a UU minister. “I don’t think I can answer what it is I want to accomplish as a minister just yet,” she said. “Right now I find myself concentrating on the journey rather than its end. I do know there are plenty of opportunities for work in environmental justice right now. I have no doubt that regional foods and access to those foods and sustainable farming will be part of my life in the future.”

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