A Letter from Laura: Celebrating Women's History Month

Laura Freeman Women's History Month

Dear Friends,

March is Women’s History Month, and several groups have asked me to speak about my life and work.

I was born in the late summer of 1957, which makes me a “boomer,”  but one too young for the jolting summer of 1968. That summer I was riding my pony, while my future husband, nine years older, was heading to Vietnam.

I came of age in the 1970s, married in the spring of 1982 and started farming immediately. One of my first feminist farm memories comes from the National Cattlemen’s Association Meeting in Colorado in 1983.

My mother, a country woman and a darned good farmer, was attending with me, my father, and my new husband. I was pregnant.

Just barely in maternity clothes, I was a “cow belle,” and lucky it was!
Top billing was the tour to the newest, most modern, most cost-effective cattle feedlot. Mom and I went to sign up for our seats on the bus, and the woman on the other side of the table said, “Oh, you don’t want to do that. You’re cow belles! We have a fashion show organized for you.”

Back then, I didn’t protest. I laughed and went with my mom to the fashion show. But when the conference was over, I had my husband drive me to the feedlot, and glimpsed an astounding 100,000 head of cattle on feed.

If I’d tried to be “one of the guys,” I might have seen “low-cost protein production,” as advertised.

But I wasn’t one of the guys.

I was Laura, kicked off the bus, and my first thought at the sight was, “If regular people saw this, they would be appalled.”

And that was the spark that started my career as an agricultural entrepreneur.

By the summer of 1984, I’d become a mom, and we were trying to sell natural beef off the farm. “No antibiotics, no growth hormones, no reprocessed animal tissue, no wood waste.” It didn’t work, so we changed the focus to lean beef, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. That worked, and we were on our way.

Like most mothers, I kept working, kept juggling. Here I am with Alice in a snuggly, ready to evaluate the cow herd early spring, 1984.
In the 1980s, the alternative food landscape was vast and confused. Young people from everywhere were jumping in, rebelling against industrial farming. J.I. Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, and Lady Eve Balfour were ascendant, and in Kentucky we had Wendell Berry to inspire us.

The general public was uncertain, as there were no standards, no common understanding of what the claims meant, why they were important, and how they were validated.

Into this fray I stepped. First with Mel Coleman, founder of Coleman Natural Beef, and then by myself, I went to the USDA in Washington D.C., with the goal of establishing clear standards.

The USDA didn’t know what to make of me, and I wound up talking to people at the Food Safety Inspection Service, a powerful regulatory branch of the USDA. I’m pretty sure they thought eventually I would fail, and this new beef category would go away

Dr. Royce Harr only wanted to test the beef, while I had a bigger mission -- I was determined to change the way cattle were raised and fed. I eventually succeeded, and today beef and chicken raised without antibiotics or growth hormones are available in most supermarkets.

So that is my call to action for Women’s History Month:

See differently. Think differently. Act differently.

It’s our gift and our responsibility.


Laura Freeman    

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