RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

We Need More Like Kathy Ozer

OK, Dear Activist. You’re overwhelmed by the necessity of having to go to a demonstration every couple of days. You go to sleep thinking of new marching rhymes to call out to the crowd. Your email box is full of messages about how-to-phone-your-representative and the advantages of personal visits to the Capitol. And you’ve laminated your signs, knowing you’ll use them over and over, and stowed them under the backseat of the car.

Sit down, friend. Focus. Find a role model. Someone effective, focused and brilliant.

We lost, just last month, one of the most effective organizers in the family farming world. Kathy Ozer, Director of the National Family Farm Coalition, was taken from us by non-Hopkins Lymphoma, on Jan. 22. She was just 58 years old, had never been sick and was reacting well to the long series of tests, treatments and more tests that the modern cancer-patient endures. But now she’s gone.

Her story should be inspiring to those of us exhausted and frustrated by the present conditions of the progressive populist world. Here it is:

Kathy grew up in Bethesda, Md., and attended Sidwell Friends, a comfortable private school in Washington, D.C. If the name is familiar, this is the school where Sasha and Malia Obama go, and the alma mater of Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore III and the Nixon girls. From its founding by the Quakers, Sidwell graduates have been instructed in social justice. The mission has been to educate them to be socially responsible adults. The Quakers were abolitionists, remember, and Sidwell from an early time has taught against discrimination and has worked to become thoroughly racially integrated. As much as teaching lessons, Sidwell Friends teaches democracy.

Graduating, Kathy moved on to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, took up economics and became interested in policy. After college, she became an organizer with the US Student Association, another group that has been frankly multicultural and inclusive since founding. Today, USSA’s constitution demands that the board is 50% people of color and the group fights for LGBTQ rights and the reduction of student debt.

Kathy left USSA to become involved with the farm movement. She worked on the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act, which changed the way USDA loans were managed. That Act saved thousands of family farms from foreclosure in the midst of Reagan’s Farm Crisis when family farmers all over the nation were losing their homes and livelihoods. The countryside was ripe for takeover by confusion, racism and violence as people looked for someone to blame for their misery.

She joined National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), soon after it was founded, in the midst of the Reagan administration and the farm crisis. NFFC was founded to help the farmers and stop the negativity that could have taken over. Kathy was the perfect advocate. In 1992, she helped organize a demonstration on the steps of the Capitol and marched with black farmers to demand that Congress fund the Minority Farmers’ Rights Act.

She became NFFC director in 1993 and served as director until her death. “She wasn’t afraid to tackle issues that some people may have had reservations about,” says Iowa farmer George Naylor, co-founder and past board president of NFFC.

One of those “issues” was—and is—racism. As corporate consolidation has taken over the commodity markets and made it harder and harder for farmers to make a living, Kathy made sure that African-American farmers were included in the actions of NFFC. By 1999, it was obvious there was a pattern of discrimination in processing loans for black farmers. Kathy quietly supported and met with black farmers as they filed Pigford v. Glickman, a class action lawsuit that farmers won. Pigford has paid out nearly a billion dollars to those discriminated against.

Of course, she could not have done this without firm and loving support at home. Kathy’s husband David Battey supported her role, and was a gracious host when she appeared at their Georgetown door with guests, perhaps unexpected and at odd hours. David joined us for meetings and other local and national events with Kathy, including many of the Farm Aid concerts, which are one of the few benefits of being a rural organizer.

Kathy’s interest extended to all rural folks who had been discriminated against. I remember being at the NFFC meeting when she brought the Immokalee Workers from Florida to the meeting. What could family farmers possibly have in common with these young, mostly-Latino, tomato pickers that were asking for an extra penny a pound for their harvests? Kathy let them tell their story and I understood that our struggle was the same. We left the meeting to help them picket in front of a Washington DC grocery store and—guess what!—months later, after thoughtful strategy, respectful meetings with landowners and corporate leaders and incessant organizing, they won!

So there’s your role model, Dear Activist. For the farm movement, Kathy is irreplaceable. Someone will carry NFFC forward, and perhaps accomplish even greater goals. But Kathy, dear Kathy …

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2017

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