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Denise O'Brien papers

Identifier: IWA0156

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Scope and Contents

The Denise O'Brien papers date from 1964 to 2007 and measure 15.2 linear feet. The papers are arranged in ten series, Biographical and family, Community involvement, Conferences, Correspondence, Organizational involvement, Resource files, Writings, Photographs, Artifacts, and Audiovisual.

The Biographical and family series contains biographies, awards, resumés, an appointment book, and passports. In addition to O'Brien's schoolwork, English papers, a class reunion booklet, and newspaper clippings, the series includes sporadic farm records and correspondence with Briana Harris, who attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Information about her experience with Hurricane Mitch can also be found in this series.

The Community Involvement series concerns O'Brien's activities with the United Methodist Church, the Atlantic School District, the PTA, her work with the Family Crisis Support Network in Atlantic, and files from her unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Atlantic School Board. It also includes materials concerning school children's tours of the Harris-O'Brien farm. Information from her 2006 campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture can be found in the sub-series, Campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Along with fundraising and budget reports, newspaper clippings about O’Brien’s campaign, major talking points from her candidacy, information about her opponent Bill Northey, and the 2006 election results are also included in this sub-series.

The Conferences series consists of notes, programs, nametags, and other materials that O'Brien collected at local, national and international events such as conferences, campaigns, forums, and summits.

The Correspondence series contains both personal and organizational correspondence. Electronic mail and paper mail items are intermixed. Items of interest include letters from Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Campaign contributors’ correspondence from O’Brien’s 2006 bid for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture can also be found in this series. Correspondence to and from Briana Harris is located in the Biographical and family series.

The Organizational Involvement series consists of records, papers, notes, and information from or about organizations in which O'Brien has been a member, officer, or observer. Her work with the WFAN (Women, Food, & Agriculture Network) as a founding member along with her fellowship role as a WK Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow are both highlighted in individual sub-series. The WFAN sub-series covers general information and resources from the organization while the WK Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow sub-series includes materials from her trip to the Costa Rican EARTH University and the numerous notebooks O’Brien filled while she was a WK Kellogg fellow.

The Resource Files series contains books, magazines, newspaper articles, pamphlets, and memos maintained by O'Brien for informational purposes. These files concern agricultural organizations, agribusiness and environmental issues, Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) and Bovine somatotropin (BST), the farm crisis and farm bills, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), health care and insurance, North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), sustainable agriculture, and women's organizations. Resources also include information about various ecofeminist causes such as international women in agriculture and newspaper clippings about Iowan female farmers.

The Writings series contains notebooks in which O'Brien recorded her thoughts and reactions during the many meetings and conferences that she attended, as well as professional writings and speeches. It also includes texts of testimony she presented at various public hearings and a copy of the speech she gave to the United Nations on behalf of the world’s farmers.

The Photographs series contains photographs of O'Brien, members of her family, friends, and the farmstead.

The Artifacts series consists of nametags, pins, and folders from numerous conferences, as well as bumper stickers. It also includes a plaque for the Dixon Terry Leadership Award she received in 1992 from the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition. The series concludes with campaign T-shirts and memorabilia such as a button from O’Brien’s 2006 bid for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.


  • Creation: 1964-2007


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

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 recognized the 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.

O’Brien continued her environmental activism, ultimately culminating in her 2006 campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Although winning the primary, she was unsuccessful in the general election and was beaten by her Republican counterpart by a slim margin.


15.20 Linear Feet

Photographs and artifacts in Box 22, 41, and 42, Oversize materials in map case boxes

Language of Materials



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

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no. 228) were donated by Denise O'Brien in 1994 and subsequent years.

Related Materials

Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) (IWA).

Postings from the WFAN electronic listserv have been printed out by Iowa Women's Archives staff.

Rachel Bohlmann, 1996; Lisa Peperkorn, 1997; Doris Malkmus, 2001; Emma Barton-Norris, 2021.
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Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)