Board of Trustee, District 6

Kirkwood Community College

Elaine Harrington finished putting her three daughters through school years ago, but she still feels a responsibility to help young people receive an education.

“Elaine has been a steady, wise presence on our Kirkwood Board of Trustees for a decade,” wrote Lois Bartelme, chair of the board, in her nomination of Ms. Harrington. “Since 2003, she has been a strong voice for rural students and the wise use of college resources.”

Education is the bridge between her two other passions: farming and family, Ms.  Harrington said.

Kirkwood’s board of trustees is responsible for selecting the college’s president, setting tuition rates, reviewing budgets and attending college events and meetings, networking with the state’s other community colleges and making an annual trip to Washington D.C. to lobby for community colleges.

The nine members of the board are elected to three-year  terms. Ms. Harrington represents District 6, which includes Benton and Iowa counties.

Ms. Harrington grew up on a farm in Vinton, and married a fellow farmer. After working for a few years as a legal secretary, she dedicated her full attention to the family farms and raising her children.

Throughout different stages of her life, Kirkwood has had an impact on Ms. Harrington.

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, her husband, Terry, took a truck driving class at
Kirkwood and Ms. Harrington earned a certification that allowed her to open an upholstery business. These side jobs helped the young family keep control of their farming business.

“Kirkwood probably put food on the table,” she said of those years.

While her oldest daughter was in high school, she took an extra math class at Kirkwood, where the instructor encouraged her to consider a career in engineering. After that, all three daughters started their education at Kirkwood and went on to graduate with  engineering degrees from Iowa State University.

“It changed their lives,” Ms. Harrington said, noting that most of her family members that the girls looked up to are either farmers or teachers. “It got our girls started on a career path they never would have otherwise.”

After being highly involved with her daughters’ activities in high school, even co-founding the Benton Community School District’s annual show choir competition, Ms. Harrington wasn’t sure what to do with her time after they graduated. The position on Kirkwood’s board of trustees allowed her to find a new passion and spread her knowledge and love of farming to future generations.

“That is the reason we are on the board, the stories we hear from students,” she said. “The non-traditional ones are the tear-jerkers.”

Today, she worries not enough young people are choosing careers in agriculture and those that are go to work for companies like Cargill, ADM or ConAgra, instead of running family farms. Those who do show an interest in farming often cannot start from scratch if they  on’t have family ties to a farm or a strong financial backing, because of the high up-front costs of farm equipment.

If the trend continues, she believes the greater influence of corporate farms will lead to higher prices for consumers, less conservation for the land and degraded food safety because of the poor living conditions for livestock.

“It’s not good for the consumers, it’s not good for the farms, it’s not good for anybody,” Ms. Harrington said.

She also hopes to see the rural way of life preserved. Ms. Harrington said growing up in the country, where they didn’t worry about locking the doors, was the best possible scenario for her daughters.

“We believe that good, solid citizens like Elaine Harrington are the human glue that holds our communities, our state and our nation together,” wrote Ms. Bartelme in her  nomination. “She has served in all these ways and many other roles too numerous to mention, not for any recognition but simply because she knew that someone has to do them.”

For those Iowans who want to enter the agriculture field and especially women, advances
in technology have made the work physically easier.

“I can’t believe how far ag has come with technology just within the last five years, never mind the last 40 we’ve been farming,” Ms. Harrington said.

However, she said there is still room for improvement in encouraging women to enter agriculture and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Ms. Harrington cited a wind turbine class she visited as an example: the 15 students earning certifications were a variety of ages and all had different backgrounds, but all were men.

“When I graduated from high school, I thought my choices were pretty limited,” she said. “My daughters, I told them, there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Ms. Harrington’s farm has been in the family for more than 150 years, earning a heritage farm designation, and her husband’s farm has been in the family for more than 100 years, making it a century farm.

The couple’s second daughter, Nicole, and her husband Mike are slated to take over the farms.

“They’ve been in the family for four or five generations,” Ms. Harrington said. “I’m not dropping it.”

-Sarah Binder