As told to Emily Kestel
Suzan Erem is an organizer and writer. In 2015, she co-founded the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, which is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting land to grow healthy food. She continues to serve as its executive director. She lives in Cedar County.
The following story has been formatted to be entirely in her own words, and has been edited and condensed for clarity. This story mentions suicide and may be triggering to some.
I was the third illegal abortion that my Catholic mother could not endure. I found that out when I was 25. It was a huge relief. Most folks can’t believe that, they just cringe. But it gave me the answer to the way my family had treated me all my life. It wasn’t because I was fat or smart or short or obedient or honest or the opposite of all those. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was just resented for being born.
I grew up in northern New Jersey. My mom was an undiagnosed, self-medicated bipolar. My dad was an immigrant doctor from Turkey and worked 14 hours a day to support his family. They had a son and a daughter one year apart so they had their perfect family. They decided to have no more children, but she was incredibly fertile. She had two abortions after my siblings were born. And then I came along six years later.
My siblings did not like me. They did not want me there. For most of my childhood, I was tormented, humiliated and demeaned. I’d be left alone in the house with them after school and they would accuse me of lying and make me hold Tabasco sauce in my mouth for five minutes. I remember one time, I was singing to myself. My sister came up and said, “Shut up, you sound like crap. Don’t make anybody listen to that.”
After a four-year custody battle – which my siblings told me was my fault – I ended up getting shipped up to my father’s sister’s house in upstate New York to be raised. She did a good job of protecting me from my siblings, but by then I had learned to not speak up and to be as invisible as possible.
When you’re constantly confronted with a sense that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve a space on this earth, you want to be as quiet as a mouse. Because otherwise people will hurt or humiliate you. I tried really hard not to speak up. I was a loner in high school. I was on some sports teams because I was trying to avoid the house, but I didn’t have many friends. There were some suicide attempts in there. When you feel like you’re not supposed to be there, it doesn’t feel like a big deal to kill yourself. I lost my voice before I ever had it. I had it humiliated out of me or something.
I came to Iowa to escape a toxic situation. I fell in love with Iowa.
The very first demonstration I ever went to was at the University of Iowa. Thousands of students were at the Pentacrest demanding the end of apartheid in South Africa and that the university divest from South Africa. I saw thousands of people all cheering and ranting for the same thing and supporting each other when the police came to arrest them. I thought, “Wow, this is something I could do. This is something that raises the voices of people who don’t have one.” I learned how to organize people.
It’s the most energizing and fulfilling thing you can do to help facilitate and encourage people to come together. We’re not really trained as Americans to work together on things. We’ve got our own suburban homes with our own lawn mowers and our own snowblowers. There’s competition at work to get ahead at everyone else’s expense. When you can bring people together on common ground and move something forward, it’s just a great reason to get up in the morning. I learned that I kind of had an aptitude for that.
I ended up marrying an Iowan. I thought I would be here the rest of my life. He had bigger ideas. He dragged me back out east to go into business with my mother and her second husband. I was 13 years younger than him. Our very own pastor told me that if our marriage failed, it would be my fault because I was too stubborn, so I felt like I had to go. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight; he was not prepared. After a year there, he said we could come back to the Midwest, and Chicago would be a steppingstone.
I found a job in Oak Park, which is a suburb on the west edge of Chicago, as a communications director for a large union.
Nine years later, I left him. It took a while to figure out that he was never moving back to Iowa. We’d had a daughter. My husband started traveling a lot. I was stuck at home trying to raise a baby with a demanding job. I had no role model. I had nothing to go on. All I knew is what I didn’t want to be.
By the time she was 3, we were at loggerheads. I thought, “I only have one choice here: If I don’t get out of this girl’s life, I’m going to ruin it.” So I stepped away. I left him and I left her with him. I only moved a few blocks away; it was not like I disappeared. I still saw her. But it was enough for me to gain a sense of self-esteem and self-respect.
I was going on 30 by then. It was so hard to face the people who didn’t approve of me leaving my daughter, who didn’t understand that it was for her own good. When you’re in that situation, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Leaving her was probably the most terrifying thing I did. I spent many years in a lot of tears that she would hate me and never forgive me. But she got it. She understood. Over time, we became extremely close. She grew up a free spirit with confidence and courage.
In 1997 after my dad died, I’d put money down on a property in Cedar County, Iowa. I couldn’t afford a house. I couldn’t afford anything more than a tent. My young daughter and I would come out and go camping and exploring in the summer.
I married my second husband in 2003. In 2010, he and I came back and built a house. We put in prairie and trees on 75 acres. A few years later, my husband turned to me with an op-ed in the New York Times by Lindsey Lusher-Shute, who is the co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition. It said something like, “The No. 1 problem for beginner farmers in the U.S. is land access. The No. 1 reason we have problems getting affordable land is because of people who move out in the middle of nowhere and buy 80 acres and take it out of production.” That was an education. I turned to my husband and said, “We are part of the problem. We’ve got to get it back into production somehow.” We took out the terraces that were overgrown and we put in orchards. I got hooked. That was it. That was how we could make a difference.
I had left Iowa in the late ’80s following the farm crisis. Farmers were getting run off their land. You used to see farmsteads every mile. You don’t see that anymore. I came back and I saw the last nail going into the coffin of the family farm. The state I fell in love with had small farmers who helped each other out when the farmer died and the widow had nobody to harvest. They helped each other out at potlucks. When I came back, there weren’t that many neighbors left. It was one guy on a really big machine. It didn’t feel the same. It felt like Iowa had lost something.
My husband and I joined Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. We met some of the most amazing people from all over the world. We learned that the most diligent, hardworking, respectful, decent people in the world who were learning how to grow food organically, no matter how hard they tried to play by the rules, never had access to land if they didn’t already have wealth. So that contradiction started coming up. We got involved with some of the farming nonprofits like Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Women Food & Ag Network. We realized that this was a much bigger issue. It wasn’t just us and a few people from around the country but it was Iowans, too. Young Iowans couldn’t get on land anymore.
I had to start thinking of a solution: “Is there a way to organize out of this mess? What can I give to my adopted state – that I have spent all these years trying to give back to?” What I learned from the farm crisis stayed with me and informed everything I did.
So I started calling everybody who I could find that were in the newspapers in the ’80s like Denise O’Brien and Jean Lloyd-Jones and these other amazing people and asked them if what I was seeing was actually a problem and what the solutions were. I kept giving Denise updates and finally I said, “What do I do?” And she said, “Just keep talking and talking and talking until you figure out that it’s time to start doing.” She was right. So we started the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust.
Along with 25 founders, we bounced around ideas for two days at a retreat in Perry. At the end, I asked everyone to write down on a piece of paper what level of support they’d offer the endeavor. It was everything from “my name” to “I’ll give you my land.” The cream of the crop volunteered to serve on the board. The biggest names in regenerative, sustainable agriculture in Iowa are willing to serve on the board of a brand new organization. All I need is them. Their names are the ones that are going to open the doors. You could call me the staffer, because it was only because of their blessing and their names associated with the endeavor that we ever got out the door.
But we didn’t start SILT until I tried for a year and a half to pawn it off on every organization and person in the state. I knew that it was going to be this multimillion-dollar endeavor, and I didn’t know any millionaires. I had meetings with anyone dealing with food, farmland and conservation that I could find. I called the American Farmland Trust and everyone they sent me. Nobody wanted to protect a farm in Iowa for sustainable table food production. They couldn’t protect against the pesticides or the GMOs. Every one of those things informed how we were going to create SILT. It wasn’t, “They said no, they turned me down.” It was, “I wonder how we could do it. I wonder what we could do to make it possible.” That didn’t take courage; that took stubbornness.
Once we got started, we even got blessings from some other folks in the nonprofit world. They said, “Your mission is different enough from ours that we’ll help you get started.” But it didn’t last long before we were getting doors shut. People were not inviting us to things. There were panels about agriculture, conservation and preservation, and we weren’t on them.
I got word from other parts of the state saying that “There are some folks that are threatened by you. There are some folks who are going to undermine you.” There were guys in Central Iowa trying to make us invisible. It punches a button when I hear people saying, “Don’t support that organization as long as that woman is running it.”
I was born, so I have the right on this earth to do what is meaningful to me that isn’t harming you. You don’t have the right to push me to the side and say that I’m insignificant when I have done you no harm. That’s really hard. That’s a long way to come, from trying to be invisible to demanding to not be invisible.
But the whisper campaign wasn’t about me. They used me as an excuse to silence the work. I don’t need to be fearless with SILT. I just need to keep getting up in the morning, shrugging off the naysayers and getting the work done.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct factual errors.