A lifetime of acts of resistance: Denise O’Brien and Larry Harris create a future for generations

Small Towns
Farm and Food

For almost 50 years, Denise O’Brien and Larry Harris have worked together to do what’s right. They preserve and improve the soil health on their farm and fight for thriving rural life for future generations.

For their lifetime of work, the couple from Atlantic, Iowa, is recognized with the Center’s 2023 Seventh Generation Award.

Both were raised in Atlantic, and after heading different directions across the U.S., came back to create a legacy.

Shaped by experiences then coming together

After graduating from Iowa State University, Larry spent time in Colorado for a couple of years before coming back to help his dad and uncle farm. In Colorado, he worked at a mine.

“It was a good experience,” he said. “Gave me some insight into the destruction that goes on with resource utilization.”

During Denise’s senior year of high school, from 1967-68, she was a Rotary exchange student in Hiroshima, Japan. She then went to the University of Iowa, and transferred to Creighton University. After that, she lived in California and Vermont, where she worked as an emergency room technician and spent as much time outside as she could.

She came back to Atlantic for two family weddings and her mom was ill. She had the idea of staying for 6 months, instead, she ended up settling in after she met Larry at a local bar. They had a mutual interest in organic farming and a love for the outdoors. 

A different way of farming

Their way of farming started with Larry’s interest in organic gardening. They didn’t want to grow corn and soybeans or use chemicals, they wanted to have a diversified farm and focus on small grains.

“I was interested in the environment and realized that industrial agriculture was going the wrong direction,” Larry said. “Even when we farmed here, we rotated crops and we had livestock.”

They raised dairy cows until 1996, and were able to feed small grains to the cattle. They also organically planted an apple orchard, put in 2 acres of strawberries, and grew a quarter of an acre of asparagus and raspberries.

“We’ve lived by a set of principles and I think that’s given us credibility,” Denise said. “We did it because we felt it was in our gut that we had to do.”

They focused more on soil health and worked towards a profitable bottom line.

“Actually, we have always sought how to work in balance with nature and sometimes refer to that as an act of resistance,” Denise said. “The type of farming we have done over the years has been an act of resistance because we’ve gone against mainstream agriculture.”

When they started farming organically, they studied the scientific background behind farming. They knew the soil was important.

“We learned about that from the very beginning,” Larry said. “About all the life in the soil. All the creatures.”

Throughout the years, they’ve gone back and forth with neighbors, even with Larry’s uncle, who they rented pasture and cropland from. At one meeting, Uncle Ralph voiced his opinion.

“He kind of thumped the table and said, ‘I was one of the first farmers in Cass County to use anhydrous ammonia,’” Denise said. “And Larry thumped the table and said, ‘I bet you don’t have any earthworms either.’ At that point, we knew Uncle Ralph had written us off. Crazies that were talking about earthworms.”

Now, his grandsons are inheriting family land and are learning about soil health. Larry and Denise are additionally seeing potential change from others in the area.

“There’s hope because we see young people interested in farming and starting small diversified  farms,” Larry said. “More people are starting to figure out, things aren’t quite right. It’s time to change some things and do things differently.”

Deciding their future forward

In the early 1980s, when the farm crisis erupted, Denise and Larry were asked to speak about alternative agriculture at a National Catholic Rural Conference in Des Moines. They were teed up to talk about their work with strawberries and raspberries on their farm.

“There was a panel taking place before us. I’ll never forget that,” Denise said. “We were in the audience, we hadn’t gone up to the front yet. And, these people, the banks were taking their sheep away. The audience was in tears. And, Larry and I were going, ‘what?’ We felt sheepish going up to talk about planting strawberries.”

That evening they made a decision to become involved with what was going on all over Iowa and the Midwest.

“We made up our minds,” Denise said. “Larry would stay home and take care of the kids and I would go out on the road. That started my career as a farm activist.”

The work of an activist

“I’d have to say that it was the farm crisis that sparked us to work on these issues, and the injustices that were happening to the land, to the people, that kept that fire burning,” Denise said. 

She started going to meetings in Des Moines, taking her 6-month-old daughter with her. Then, the couple helped start the Progressive Prairie Alliance and the Farm Unity Coalition.

Through the ‘80s, she recognized the importance of women on the farm. Women were calling attention to the farm crisis as they looked at the books. As a board member of Prairie Fire, Denise wrote grants to begin a rural women’s leadership development project, to give voice to women. She then left the board and worked as the director of that project for a couple of years. 

When Denise left Prairie Fire, she continued her activist journey. She worked her way into leadership of the National Family Farm Coalition, serving as chair from ‘92 to ‘93

Then, in 1995, the United Nations scheduled a Women’s Conference for Beijing. Denise got involved.

“We researched and came up with an Economic Research Service (ERS) report, published in 1993. We learned that 50% of the farmland in the U.S. was owned by women or in partnership with others,” she said. “Land was acquired either through inheritance—husbands, siblings, or whatever. But, that seemed like a really big share of the land.”

Denise and a group of farmers and academics from around the country researched for case studies of women landowners and women farmers in the U.S. They found lots of documentation of women farmers around the world but nothing on women farmers in the U.S.

“That just really piqued my interest,” Denise said. 

The group of women created a network to gather information on women farmers and landowners, and they worked to insert gender in agriculture into the United Nations documents.

“Women from around the world were working on these things,” Denise said. “And, I went to New York to lots of meetings and the United Nations. I also went to Washington D.C. a lot. Larry took care of the kids and the farm while I was away. That was the way we did things.”

After the Women’s Conference, Denise went back to the farm, not knowing quite what to do. She attended meetings and met other women working on women’s issues. She started working with Betty Wells, an Iowa State rural sociologist, to bring women together based on their work from Beijing and started a nonprofit, Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN).

The nonprofit’s first project was surveying women landowners on where and how they got their information.

“That’s when all these things started coming up,” Denise said. “Women didn’t go to farm meetings because they were so male-dominated.”

WFAN put together programs to assist women to learn about their land and conservation.

“I always ask a lot of questions,” Denise said. “And asking questions opens more doors. And, I’ve been a problem solver.”

By the late ‘90s, Denise had spoken as a woman farmer at a number of conferences. There, she would be approached by young women interested in farming. So WFAN started an on-farm hands-on experience which still exists today, called Harvesting Our Potential.

In 2006, Denise ran for secretary of agriculture in Iowa. She then stepped down from executive director at Women Food and Agriculture, as she felt she had taken it as far as she could. In 2011, she spent a year in Afghanistan as an agriculture advisor.

Today, she’s working to strengthen the Democratic party in Iowa. She is the chair of the Cass County Democrats. Her hope is to represent agriculture and rural voices.  

“I’ve laid the foundation for a lot of things, local food, women’s empowerment, and things like that,” she said. “Those things are being taken care of. Other leaders have stepped in so I don’t need to be as involved. The people who are working on those issues are skilled and passionate and moving forward. Where I need to be a voice now, I feel strongly, is building our democracy.”

Meanwhile, at the farm

One day in the ‘90s, Larry and Denise saw in the paper that Iowa’s infrastructure of bridges was falling apart. Larry had worked to build bridges in high school and felt a call to help out and to earn a paycheck as milk prices were very low. He ended up with a 35-year career. He and Denise continued to milk cows for a couple more years.

In the late early 2000s, Denise started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) and ran it for 10 years, while Larry worked off the farm.

Today, the couple is focusing on building a strawbale house. Their daughter and son-in-law will eventually purchase the 17 acres of property and move into the main house. Denise and Larry hope to move into the strawbale house this summer. 

In the meantime, the couple is sharing the infrastructure that’s built on the farm. This winter, a couple used the high tunnel to grow lettuce. Denise spends her days in the greenhouse and sells bedding plants in the spring. The apple orchard they planted in the early ‘80s has been damaged by chemicals from a farmer to the west of them and is no longer viable. In February, they gifted a sprayer to a farm couple to use on their apple orchard.

“We have to get rid of things and somebody needs to use it,” Denise said. “What we try to do is give anybody who needs help, our experiences, our skills, and our equipment. That’s because we’ve lived through this and we know what the struggle is.”

This summer, a young farmer will use the high tunnel to plant ginger. That same farmer has already planted chestnut trees and garlic on the farm.

“I guess we look at our land as everybody’s land,” Denise said. “It’s not something that is ours because it was never ours to begin with. The land was occupied by the Ioway and the Pottawatie and taken from them in the 1800s. It was never ours to begin with.”

Working alongside the Center

When the couple started farming, they relied on resources such as the Rodale Press, and connected with two other organic farmers in Iowa. While researching alternative energy, they heard about the Center for Rural Affairs.

“We got really interested in the Small Farm Energy Project and at some point, we went up to Walthill and toured several farms,” Larry said. “There we met people who were pretty like-minded, not so much organic, but looking at alternatives for energy and other ways of farming.”

Through their association with the Center, in the early 1980s, they hosted a workshop and fitted their then hog farrowing house with a solar panel to provide heat. The weathered and out-of-date solar wall remains on the building.

Through the farm crisis, they depended on the Center for Rural Affairs for its policy work. Denise, with WFAN, started programs alongside the Center. And, they are faithful readers of the newsletter.

“We’ve certainly appreciated the Center’s resources,” Larry said. “Not only what we’ve been involved in, but the main street entrepreneur work. And, later women-focused food and agriculture work.”

An award of a lifetime

Denise and Larry say being awarded with the Center’s Seventh Generation Award is humbling.

“It’s been a lifetime of doing things, and to be recognized is really special,” Denise said.

“We are just doing things the way we thought we should,” Larry said. “It’s humbling because there are a lot of people who are just as deserving.”

The lifetime service award will be presented at the Southwest Iowa Local Foods Summit this fall. The couple is recognized for their major contributions in improving rural life and protecting our land and water.

“This award is not about us, it’s that there’s a different way to do things,” Denise said. “We’ve been around a long time, the Center has been around for a long time.”

They truly are working to preserve the land for future generations, including their three children and eight grandchildren.

“Hopefully as we transfer the land to the next generation, we’ve instilled in them the principles and the philosophies of caring for the land,” Larry said. “And, we’ve tried to educate them, as much as we could so that every ensuing generation has a chance to survive.”

Through the years, they have had delegations visit their farm from many countries including Japan, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and more, as well as mentored numerous beginning farmers.

“Our legacy is that we’ve lived our principles and it’s based on the land ethic of thinking about the seven generations to come,” Larry said. “Native Americans thought about and considered their impact on the earth and we want to honor that.”

“We are trying to leave the land as good or better than when we acquired use of it,” added Denise.

Capping life with a strawbale house 

An almost completed house sits at the front of their property, with walls thicker than usual and solar panels already placed on the roof.

Strawbales make up the structure, and they are covered by clay plaster. The clay was dug just outside the house. Larry’s brother built the frame, with help on the weekends.

In September 2020, the couple hosted a workshop complete with COVID precautions. Twenty people came from Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, Minnesota, and Nebraska to start the house and learn from a builder.

After the lower level of the house was finished, Denise and Larry hired Jim Schalles, a natural builder from the Omaha area. He created a masonry heater, based on centuries old technology, that will be their source of heat complemented by the in floor heating in the utility room, kitchen, and bathroom.

“I think of this house as a capstone to our life,” Denise said. “That we’ve lived as sustainable a life as we could. So we are living our life out in a house that we’ve helped build and that we’ve used local resources, local products.”

“And it should last for decades, centuries,” Larry said.

And, lime plaster on the north side captures carbon.

“We’re going to live out our life in a carbon sponge,” Denise said. “That kind of fits us.”

Feature photo: Larry Harris and Denise O’Brien have built a strawbale house on their farm. The sustainable structure is made of local products, and lime plaster captures carbon.  |  Photos by Rhea Landholm