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Remembering a farmer, advocate, and friend

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Jim French is a regional advocacy lead and an agricultural specialist for Oxfam America. He is also a fifth-generation farmer and rancher in south-central Kansas.

Last week, our friend Terry Steinhour died in a tractor accident while moving hay on his farm. Along with my colleagues Rasa Dawson and Katie Danko, I wanted to take a moment to remember Terry, a kind and gentle soul and a true advocate for Oxfam.

Oxfam America knew about Terry Steinhour before Terry knew much about Oxfam. In 2005, Oxfam field organizers were looking for American farmers that could become spokespeople in our campaign to reform US commodity subsidies. We searched in cotton and soybean fields, pastures, dairy barns, and sheep pens across the nation.

Photo: Rasa Dawson / Oxfam America
Terry Steinhour during his visit to Africa. Photo: Rasa Dawson / Oxfam America

Following a lead, Oxfam organizer Katie Danko reached out to a corn, soybean, and beef farmer outside of Springfield, Illinois. After a very short introduction during corn harvest, Terry had Katie behind the wheel of his combine.

“I had no idea what I was doing, and before I knew it too much corn went into the machine and stopped it cold. I thought it was broken,” recalls Katie.

But Terry gently handled the situation, cleaned out the stalks that plugged the header, and continued to build a wonderful relationship with Katie and the whole Oxfam team. In the next three years, Terry would write opinion pieces for area newspapers, meet with legislators, and take calls from radio interviewers from around the world.

Terry’s most effective and inspired work came after joining four other US farmers on a journey to Senegal and Mali in June 2006. Just days before our flight to Dakar out of Dulles, Terry had broken his foot. He said nothing to Katie. Instead, he told his doctor that he would not miss this trip and that he needed a walking cast that would stand up to the test. When our group came together in DC and had, what was for most of us, our first opportunity to meet Terry face-to-face, we saw him come out of the 6th floor elevator with a large shoe on his right foot, a cane in his hand, and a gentle smile that almost never left his face.  ”Nothing was going to keep me from going on this trip,” Terry said, later calling it “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

The Africa journey was not for the weak of spirit or body. We often left  early in Land Rovers and spent much of the heat of the day touring small villages, walking fields of cotton and ground nuts, climbing stairs to share conversations with ministers of agriculture and trade. Through it all, Terry never flagged, never complained, never failed to grab on to every opportunity to learn and understand the lives and livelihoods of our sisters and brothers in these very poor countries.

On July 11, 2006, I wrote in my journal: “At the end of each day, US farmers and Oxfam field staff join together for a recap—a time to share, a time to help each other process the experiences of the day. Tonight, Terry Steinhour, corn farmer and Farm Bureau member from Illinois, shared that everywhere we went ‘people believe that we may be their last great hope.’

Katie asked, ‘Does that empower you or make you feel pressured?’

Terry responded, ‘Both.’”

Terry came away from Africa with an understanding that changing policies in a rich nation like the US could not only help family farmers in his own nation. He came away with a conviction that he was part of a broader community, one that included cotton and sorghum farmers using 18-inch hand hoes and oxen in places like the Ouelessebougou region of Mali.

Terry dedicated his life to his family, his community, and his land in Illinois. We will treasure all that he did for us, and we will greatly miss him.

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