Skip to main content

O'Brien, Denise, 1949-



  • Existence: 1949-


Denise O'Brien, organic farmer,political activist, and lobbyist, was born to Joe and Doris O'Brien on December 6, 1949 in Omaha, Nebraska and grew up in Atlantic, Iowa. O'Brien attended Atlantic High School and lived as an exchange student in Japan,an experience she credits with politicizing her. After graduating from Atlantic High School in 1968, she attended the University of Iowa for one semester and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, the following year. After one year at Creighton, she moved to the San Francisco area, where she became involved in anti-war protests and the whole foods movement. She then moved to Vermont, where she lived in a rural setting for six years before returning to Atlantic in 1976. In Atlantic,she met and married Larry Harris; they had three children, Briana, Trevor, and Caia. O'Brien and Harris began an organic fruit and dairy farm on the Harris' family farm north of Atlantic, experimenting with various organic crops and livestock.

As low commodity prices and escalating interest rates led to widespread farm foreclosures, they became involved with the Prairie Progressive group from Adair County that included Daniel Levitas and David Ostendorf of Rural America, Inc. Denise O'Brien and Larry Harris hosted the first Iowa Farm Unity Coalition meeting in 1982, launching O'Brien's career as an activist with the Coalition. In addition, O'Brien joined the Farmers' Union and other groups. She was a board member of Prairie Fire Rural Action, initiating and directing its Women's Leadership Development Project. Recognizing the need for women in leadership roles, she served as president of the National Family Farm Coalition from 1993 to 1995. At that time, the Coalition represented thirty-nine family farm and rural advocacy organizations across the country. In 1990 she ran for Cass County Supervisor and in 1996 ran for a seat on the school board in the Atlantic district.

In 1995, O'Brien and her daughter Briana Harris attended the United Nation's International Conference on Women in Beijing, China. In June 1997, O'Brien spoke to the United Nations General Assembly at the Earth Summit Plus Five on behalf of the world's farmers, as one of the ten non-governmental speakers and the only United States citizen. Out of these experiences, O'Brien recognizedthe importance of developing a network of farm women to speak for and organize around the needs of women in agriculture. These efforts led her to create the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN) in 1997; she served as its director from its inception. O'Brien has received numerous awards for her activism.

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Denise O'Brien papers

Identifier: IWA0156

Organic farmer and political activist who served as president of National Family Farm Coalition.

Dates: 1964-2007

Voices from the Land: An Oral History Project in Iowa

Identifier: IWA0825

Oral histories with Iowa farm women conducted as part of the Rural Women's Project of the Iowa Women's Archives.

Dates: 2000-2001

Women, Food and Agriculture Network records

Identifier: IWA0752

Organization connecting women with progressive approaches to agriculture.

Dates: 1994-2011

Additional filters:

Agriculture 2
Archives (groupings) 2
Farm life 2
Farm management 2
Feminism 2