January may be a slow time for growing, but it’s the high season for farm meetings. It’s when the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) holds its annual meeting during the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, where farmers come together to learn from agricultural experts and each other
This January’s meeting celebrated the work of Russell Libby, MOFGA’s longtime executive director, who died of cancer a month earlier. His wife Mary Anne Libby accepted a lifetime achievement award on his behalf from Maine Agricultural Commissioner Walt Whitcomb.
Under Libby’s 17-year leadership, the number of certified organic operations in Maine swelled from 85 to 420, and MOFGA membership more than doubled to some 7,000 members. According to the most recent United States Department of Agriculture census, organic agriculture in Maine accounted for more than $36.6 million in economic activity and was responsible for 1,596 jobs annually; the newest census figures, which will be released this year, are expected to show even more robust growth.
Under Libby’s watch, organic farming has gained a seat at the mainstream agricultural table, says Mark Lapping, executive director at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.
“No longer is organic seen as exotic,” Lapping says. “Here in Maine, as in many other places, organic farming and gardening has become both commonplace and a core part of modern agriculture.”
MOFGA has not only been accepted by Maine’s agricultural community; it also has become a respected brand nationally, says Hank Will, editor of Grit, a farming magazine based in Kansas.
“MOFGA is the premiere organic organization and certification organization, in my mind,” Will says. “They were the first group to really get organized and to take it to the next level.”
From the Fringe
MOFGA has come a long way since being founded by a handful of back-to-the-land homesteaders. Charlie Gould, a former University of Maine Cooperative Extension agent in Lewiston, was there at the beginning. He had heard of a handful of farmers who wanted to grow without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and he allowed them to meet in his office in 1971.
“They wanted to try something different,” Gould recalls. “I helped them talk to each other.”
Maine had a head start in growing an organic community. Though the state was once considered the breadbasket of the Northeast, many of its farms were abandoned by the mid-20th century. The state was rural, and land was cheap. Helen and Scott Nearing, who had written about their homesteading experience in Vermont, moved to Harborside, Maine, and attracted like-minded young people interested in a new way of growing.
Two of those bright-eyed farmers were Ken and Roberta Horn, who had the first certified-organic farm in Plymouth. The couple now gardens in Hermon. Even though the state’s early organic farmers knew little about organic practices, they learned by doing. And most agriculture experts didn’t understand enough about the movement to help.
“We found ourselves becoming a source of information,” Ken Horn says.
What this new breed of homesteaders lacked in numbers they made up for in determination and belief. They formed MOFGA and moved into a decrepit office space in downtown Augusta.
Finding Common Ground
That the organization now occupies a 400-acre headquarters in Unity, Maine is a testament to the strength of MOFGA’s ability to organize and the ingenious ideas behind its annual Common Ground Country Fair, says Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who was an early MOFGA staffer and still maintains a farm on North Haven.
“I think it’s had some great leaders, and Russell was certainly one,” Pingree says. “But I think it was also the early vision of the Common Ground Fair. That’s a great funding tool and also a big drawing card.”
Since the annual fair was first held in 1977, fair organizers have strived to provide a balance between entertainment and education, says Paul Chartrand, one of the fair’s early organizers. Gaudy rides are absent at the fair, but there are plenty of fun activities, like horse-drawn wagon rides, concerts, and a children’s play area. And from the beginning, the fair has been a great opportunity for farmers and gardeners to learn from each other.
“It was really important to us to make it fun, not just educational,” Chatrand says. “It really took off because everyone could feel comfortable.”
Over the years, the fair has grown to be an important part of Maine’s harvest season, especially after it moved to its permanent home in Unity in 1998. Between 2008 and 2012, the fair has averaged between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors over the course of three days. During the most popular day on record, the Saturday fair day in September 2010, 27,000 people walked through the gates, says Jim Ahearne, MOFGA’s current fair coordinator. Planning for such a crowd is like planning for a small city to spring up overnight, and Ahearne and others must constantly wrestle with logistical challenges, from traffic jams to broken pipes. People often assume that the coordinating job is short-term, but Ahearne has been looking at vendor applications since January.
“It’s one of those endeavors that many people will ask, ‘what else do you do?’” Ahearne says. “It’s a year-long undertaking.”
It’s an undertaking largely driven by volunteer labor. One hundred eighty-five volunteer coordinators organize hundreds of intrepid volunteers to ensure that everything runs smoothly. What relying on volunteers lacks in continuity it makes up for new ideas, says Ahearne. Volunteers are the backbone of MOFGA, and their new ideas and energy keep the organization moving forward, he says.
In exchange for their efforts, many receive free admission, a T-shirt, and a couple of good meals at the volunteers-only Common Kitchen during fair-time, but there’s also an important feeling of camaraderie. Nowhere is that spirit more evident than after-hours on Saturday nights at the fair, when a group of volunteers gather for an informal fiddling and guitar jam session surrounded by prize-winning vegetables. It’s that spirit of collaboration that attracts John Bradstreet, a longtime fair volunteer from Palermo.
“There are a lot of friendly people and a friendly exchange of ideas of what works and doesn’t work,” Bradstreet says.
Seeds of the Future
In 2012, the fair offered about 700 different educational opportunities for growers, but MOFGA’s educational programs operate year-round. Last year, there were 55 different educational events for farmers and gardeners, says Andrew Marshall, MOFGA’s educational program director. The programs are geared toward facilitating peer-to-peer interaction among growers instead of a top-down approach, he says.
“The concept of organic was developed by farmers on farms, and the idea is to honor that,” Marshall says.
MOFGA’s greatest success may be its ability to attract and train new farmers each year. The two most recent USDA censuses have shown that the number of Maine farmers has grown in the last decade, while the average age of the state’s farmers has decreased. Those stats buck the national trend, and many believe they are the result of MOFGA’s apprenticeship and journeyperson programs, which give young people a chance to start farming with little capital or experience.
Paul Birdsall and his late wife Molly were among the first farmers to welcome apprentices. He remembers the day in 1975 when the first one showed up, a College of the Atlantic student who hitchhiked to Horsepower Farm in Penobscot and announced that he was their apprentice.
“I turned to Molly and said, ‘What’s an apprentice?’” Birdsall says and laughs.
Since then, Birdsall has welcomed dozens of apprentices. Some have gone on to farm on their own; many still exchange Christmas cards. The program has gotten just a bit more codified since then. MOFGA’s apprenticeship now tracks some 175 apprentices each growing season, says Marshall.
Mark Guzzi got his start through MOFGA’s apprenticeship program, after studying agriculture in college. From the beginning, Guzzi was hooked.
“Obviously, it was inspiring enough that I ended up pursuing it as a lifelong thing,” Guzzi says.
After several years working on various farms, Guzzi and friends answered an ad in a MOFGA publication offering farmland in Dixmont. He has been at Peacemeal Farm ever since and has hosted many apprentices of his own. Some have gone on to start their own farms in the neighborhood. He credits MOFGA for helping farmers grow the next generation of growers.
“MOFGA has helped to cultivate this environment that allows it to happen,” Guzzi says.
MOFGA also has added a journeyperson program for former apprentices starting out on their own farms. The program is designed to give new farmers additional opportunities for training and peer-to-peer interaction. Most importantly, Marshall says, the program offers tutorials for business planning.
“It’s a big transition from hewing to another farm’s system to basically being an entrepreneur,” Marshall says.
Brittany Hopkins is currently enrolled in MOFGA’s journeyperson program, as she begins to farm on her own in Kenduskeag. She worked on Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont through the apprenticeship program in 2009, during what was a terrible growing season, weather-wise. Hopkins was impressed with how well Guzzi’s farm did anyway. She also was surprised how much she loved growing.
“Once I got there, I just really enjoyed the work,” Hopkins says. “I didn’t realize that was going to be as fun as it is.”
Hopkins, along with her life-partner Joy Trueworthy, founded Wise Acres Farm a few years later, but she realizes she still has a lot to learn about growing a business. Through the journeyperson program, she travels to other farms alongside other young farmers to get tips from veteran farmers. She is also taking a course over the winter on good business practices. She says it’s great to have a community of growers to provide support.
“MOFGA’s doing a great job pulling together the multiple generations of farmers and making sure that knowledge gets passed on,” Hopkins says.
MOFGA’s success has been built by hundreds of volunteers and staff members over more than four decades, but the organization has taken a leap forward under Libby’s 17-year stewardship, says Congresswoman Pingree.
“Russell had the big vision of returning Maine to an agriculture state,” she says.
Libby’s admirers say he brought a potent combination of vision, political savvy, and approachability to his post at MOFGA. He was a great lobbyist, organizer, and fundraiser. Under his leadership, MOFGA has gained a seat on the Maine Board of Agriculture and is now part of several important non-profit coalitions. Those at MOFGA remember him as an invaluable part of the team.
“Russell and I had a really strong partnership for a long, long time,” says Heather Spalding, MOFGA’s interim executive director. “We always were able to bounce things off each other all the time.”
His acumen for leadership and community-building was on full display during a crisis in Maine’s organic milk industry in 2008. As the economic recession hit, the organic milk industry contracted, and the milk company HP Hood sent out notices to its organic dairy farmers in Aroostook and Washington counties, warning of a termination of contract.
“They basically said you guys are toast in six months,” says Bill Eldridge, an agricultural consultant in Bar Harbor and CEO of Maine’s Own Organic Milk Company (MOOMilk).
The dairies couldn’t find another organic milk company to pick up their milk, and they feared they were going to lose their investment on switching to organic. Just a few years earlier, Libby had gone to those same farms with a Hood representative to convince the farmers to convert from conventional dairy farming to organic. Eldridge, MOFGA, state agricultural officials, and the Farm Bureau hatched a desperate plan to start a new Maine organic milk company, MOOMilk Co., for the displaced farmers. The scheme called for the spontaneous creation of a new business, and Eldridge describes Libby as instrumental in trouble-shooting during those rocky first months of creation.
“It was a continuous feedback loop where when we came to a problem, Russ would more often than not have the solution,” he says.
Libby also was instrumental in boosting morale among the panicky dairy farmers, who were asked to invest in this new venture, says Laura Chase of Chase Organic Dairy in Mapleton. She says she and her husband would sometimes watch the new company’s milk tanker pull out with their milk in those early days and wonder if they would see a penny from it. Libby provided hands-on guidance and a kind word, and helped hold the coalition of farmers together. MOOMilk Co. is now an agriculture success story.
“There were a few times when things were looking bleak for MOOMilk, and Russell rallied the troops and pulled some strings,” Chase says.
It was this leadership and vision, which compelled the artist Robert Shetterly to paint a portrait of Libby for his Americans Who Tell the Truth series. Shetterly says Libby has done so much to reinvigorate local food systems in Maine and show a different way forward. He fittingly unveiled Libby’s portrait at MOFGA’s headquarters in Unity in November 2012, a month before Libby’s passing.
“Russell is really as much as anybody in this country an example of how to organize a community,” Shetterly says. “I’ve painted a lot of pretty well-known people, but the reaction to the portrait and what it meant to so many people who loved him so much was just extraordinary.”
A New Season
In January, MOFGA formally began its search for a new executive director. While Libby’s leadership will be missed, no one who knows MOFGA well is worried that the organization will be rudderless without him. He and countless others have helped to build an organization that is too resilient for that to happen.
“You really need to think of MOFGA as being much bigger than any one person. It’s much bigger than the sum of its parts,” Mark Guzzi says.
Spalding says MOFGA is charting a course that will allow it to mature as a professional organization and maintain its farmer-to-farmer ethos. It’s doing so with the help of a new endowment fund in Libby’s honor.
She says the search for a new leader will be methodical, as the group works to find someone who brings the right mix of policy knowledge and organizational skills to help Maine’s organic movement continue to thrive. But there is no talk of filling Libby’s shoes.
“We’re not going to try and replace Russell,” Spalding says.