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June 22, 2006

Marianne Craft Norton – Activist and Iowa Sheep Farmer

I have been away for a couple of days at a Gathering of Women and will be away for a couple more.  It’s a lovely group that has been going for 20 years and that I had the honor of being invited to join last year.  The group of 25-35 meets once a year for 3 days for retreat, refuge, play and thoughtful discussion.  These are women who have been leaders in various fields who first came together to share their experience of being women in mostly men’s fields, to look at how to balance their work and personal lives and to think about how to take leadership in the larger world. 

This year I met a woman who had not been there last year because she moved to Iowa in 1989 and only occasionally makes it back for the Gathering.

Older activists in Washington State will know Marianne Craft Norton from her work in open government, the environmental movement and promoting citizen involvement.  She was instrumental in preserving Pioneer Park on Mercer Island, working to involve citizens in the planning for the Mercer Island and Seattle portions of 1-90, and putting Initiative 276, the Open Government initiative on the ballot in 1972.  After the initiative passed, she spent years lobbying the legislature and fighting in court to preserve the tenets of that Initiative.  She also worked with her husband in the Washington Environmental Council.

She moved with her husband, Bob Norton, from Washington State to Iowa in 1989 to preserve and protect family farms that had been in her family for 100 years.  And she continues to focus on land use planning and community-building in a very different setting.  She works with people in a three-county area of Northeastern Iowa to learn about what each of the various farmers and craftspeople are growing and producing so as to help people take advantage of what they have locally and to plan for the possibility of economic dislocation.  She says that as a result of what she and others have been doing, people are waking up to saving community and preserving local farming. 

The interview with Marianne is after the fold.

Q: What started you off on the path of activism?

MCN:  One day in the mid-60’s, I woke up to read that the federal government wanted to put a 14-lane highway across Mercer Island.  I knew that would tear up our community. I had already worked on preserving Pioneer Park on the island. A lot of citizens had come together and formed the Mercer Island Environmental Council in the mid-60’s so we   had a nucleus of people working together.   A local artist, Ted Rand, made a drawing of a large dragon choking Mercer Island and that was a wonderful call to action.

We got a lot of citizens involved and monitored all the Highway Department meetings and city council meetings. We elected two members of our council, including my husband, to the Mercer Island city council.  That way we were able to Were able to negotiate directly with the federal government. 

People in Seattle in the affected areas of Mt. Baker and Rainier Valley worked with us and we were able to slow down the process and get more citizens involved.  Working together, both groups got more. 

Q:  After you were successful with that, where did you put your energy?

MCN:  Then I got involved with the AAUW where we realized the state needed more citizen input into highway construction.  Dan Evans was Governor.  He also wanted citizen input and, with our help, he formed a Department of Transportation that replaced the Highway Department.  We started talking about public transit in our state. 

That led me to work with the WEC and a group of Seattle people involved in transit to put Initiative 276 on the ballot. We came together as the Coalition for Open Government (COG).  At the time, citizens were left out of legislative meetings where votes were taken.  In secret, under the influence of corporate lobbyists, a small group voted down an environmental bill that citizens and most legislators and the governor clearly wanted. It called for disclosure of campaign contributions, public information of how much lobbyists were paid, open meetings and citizen input into the legislative process.  We worked to communicate the need in meetings all over the state.

Q:  And it passed?

MCN: This was right after Watergate so the Initiative passed.  However corporate interests challenged the Initiative after it passed.  A state judge appointed me to represent the citizens of state of Washington in the case so we got the attorneys working.  Everything was upheld at the Superior Court level except term limitations.  US Supreme Court did not rule on it, effectively upholding the other aspects of the Initiative.

Q: What else did you do between then and the time you left to go to Iowa?

MCN:  From 1972 to 1989, we lobbied to defend Initiative 276.  The WEC had other items before the legislature.  I was active in the AAUW.  In 1980, I directed the John Anderson campaign in Washington State.  And I was on several state boards.

I also began going back to Iowa because my father was ill. 

Q:  You grew up in Iowa.  What about your family?  How was it for them?

MCN: Bob Norton liked the farm.  He was a good sport and very supportive.  He liked open spaces.  By the time we left, our three children were out of the house. 

Q:  So how did you continue your activism?

MCN: It was just in a different form.  I was still focused on land use policy.  We lived in
Northeast Iowa and the land there is not fertile.  It’s hilly and rocky.  We went back because we didn’t think we could trust renters to care for it in the same way.  It was an issue of saving family farms.  My father had acquired a total of 4 small farms, for a total of 400 acres.   He believed in family farms, a variety of animals, the use of animal fertilizer, and rotated crops. 

When we she went back, we decided to raise sheep, alfalfa hay and pasture.  We decided that sheep would be the best use of the land and the least detrimental.  We selected a rare breed, called Jacob sheep, which we raised for wool.  The advantage of rare breeds is that we were able to save those genes.  We became very active in the Jacob Sheep-breeders Association.  For 16 years, I edited and put out the newsletter for the Association.  We held national meetings at our farm.  We took the sheep to churches and schools and had college classes coming out to see what we were doing.

Q:  I also hear you talking about the community-building aspects of what you are doing.  Talk about that.

MCN:  We are members of a wonderful food coop in town.  We talk about the importance of community and land use planning. 

We also meet as part of a three county coalition of different groups.  We learn what products each location produces.  We want to support each other, to buy strawberries locally rather than from California or Mexico.  It’s important to keep our own economy going.  Then, in case of crisis or economic dislocation, will know how we can barter and trade.  It’s our way of being more sustainable and saving the land.  There are a few larger dairy farms in the area and one huge hog farm.   The dairy farms are interested in what we are doing because more people want dairy products produced using purer methods.

People in the area see the need for this community building.  We work with professors at Iowa State and Drake University.  We get both support and opposition. 

Q: What do you see as the results of what you are doing there?

MCN:  People are waking up to saving community and understanding the need for local farming.  More people catching on.  When people come to her farm, they come to look at sheep, but we always talk about land use planning as well.

Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on June 22, 2006 at 10:22 PM in Interviews | Permalink


I find Marianne Craft Norton's focus on keeping the local resources and economy going very interesting.

Recently, I sat and read the entire transcript of testimony (http://www.usda.gov/documents/FBFWA110305.doc) that farmers and others gave on the upcoming Farm Bill in Cheney Washington. At least one person there talked about the importance of preserving the sustainability and stability of farmland in a world where we know there may be serious disruptions coming from climate change, etc. This farmer invoked the images of Katrina, the images of coastal cities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Wendell Berry talks about the importance of understanding that each place on earth is completely different. With current moncrop industrial agriculture, the differences are overlooked, erased. In the short term, this gives advantages. In the long term, we will not always be able to rely on the same industrial methods, as they deplete the soil, impoverish the farmers, contribute to climate change, and rely on petroleum sources that are becoming more expensive and are likely to dwindle.

So preserving and restoring the expertise of the farmer in the particular needs and distinguishing characteristics of each place is of great value.

Posted by: Noemie Maxwell | Jun 26, 2006 10:11:18 AM

Yes. I was so taken with the way Marianne is able to do so many things while just living in the community. She was born and raised there so she understands it well and her father knew what was important, it sounds like.

Posted by: Lynn | Jun 26, 2006 12:42:32 PM

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