The complexity of agriculture guided Anna to the Center

Small Towns

Note: Anna Johnson is a Policy Program Associate and started working with us in August. She will play an important role helping to move our farm and conservation policy work forward. This includes a focus on strengthening conservation programs, reforming federal crop insurance, and leveling the playing field for beginning farmers and ranchers.

I grew up in the mid-size town of Annapolis, Md. The similarities to rural life were few. I was outside early every morning, but it was to catch the school bus because my high school of 1,100 kids started at 7:17 a.m. We went swimming in the local creek in the summer, but it was in the calm spot between two well-trafficked bridges. So how, after a childhood primarily filled with reading indoors, did I come to love rural places and decide to work at the Center for Rural Affairs?

It wasn’t until I had graduated from college that I ever lived anywhere remotely rural. I’d gotten interested in food and agriculture in college, taking classes in agroecology and agroforestry. I also did a summer internship at the land grant North Carolina State University in their plant pathology department. From these experiences, I learned to love the complexity of agriculture – how soil and water and plant genetics and human decisions all play interconnected roles. But studying agriculture is a far cry from the real thing, so when I graduated, I was itching to get out there and just grow something.

So after college, I spent a couple years working on small farms and living in rural communities. I’m happiest when I’m learning new things, and I learned so much during that time: how to drive a tractor, do morning chores in the winter, close gates behind me, and when it’s polite to wave at passing cars (answer: when your hands aren’t full). I learned the frustration that an untimely rain can bring, the stress of juggling farm production and marketing and home life, and the rhythm of planning errands into town. It was a rich, challenging and beautiful time of my life, and I miss it every day.

During those years, I realized that even though I loved farm work and rural life, to farm on my own I would need land, the chutzpah and financial skills to start my own business, and preferably a business partner. I had none of these things, and felt like there were a few more experiences I needed before I would be ready to work on getting them. But, that didn’t mean I was ready to leave agriculture behind, so when the opportunity came up to work on agricultural policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I couldn’t pass it up.  I spent a couple years working in Washington, D.C., and learned to love the complexity of agricultural policy.

But after a while, city life began to chafe. I wanted to get away from the traffic and the abnormally high cost of living. I missed being in regular contact with agricultural places even if I still wasn’t ready to try and start my own farm. When the call came that there was a place for me at Iowa State (thanks Drs. Morton and Arbuckle!), I accepted immediately and haven’t looked back.

I’ve been living in Iowa for two fabulous years. I kept on learning and earned a master’s degree in rural sociology and sustainable agriculture. After graduating, I looked for work that would keep me in Iowa and allow me to work on agriculture and rural places, something that would allow me to apply what I’d learned on farms, at USDA and in my master’s program. When the opportunity came up to work with the unapologetically rural Center for Rural Affairs on agricultural policy, I couldn’t pass it up.

So here I am, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m looking forward to getting to know the wider community of the Center, so please feel free to drop me a line introducing yourself. I’d like to hear your story, too.