O Pioneers!Long before Whole Foods and Wild Oats brought organic food to the masses, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was championing the concept of pesticide-free, locally grown foods.
From its beginnings as a small group of homesteaders to its current status as the oldest and largest statewide organic growers organization in the country, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has worked for more than thirty-five years on behalf of small farms and the environment. Many of the ideals MOFGA first espoused and promoted are now mainstream trends, and it continues to lead the way in areas as diverse as small woodlot management, farmland preservation, and alternative energy. For these and many other accomplishments, the editors of Down East magazine are proud to name the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association as the recipient of the 2007 Down East Environmental Award.
It's good that Russell Libby has a well-developed sense of irony. As the longtime executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association — MOFGA — he has seen the group grow from a scattered collection of hippie homesteaders espousing such far-out ideas as organic agriculture, pesticide awareness, local foods, alternative energy, and support for small-scale farming into a highly credible agricultural organization with an international reputation on the cutting edge of agricultural and food marketing trends. And all without moving a foot.
In other words, the counterculture is now the culture, and hasn't it been a long, strange trip. After decades in the wilderness, organic food is suddenly mainstream, and MOFGA can claim a leading role in its public acceptance. At the same time, organic's popularity has attracted government and big-business attention that worries longtime adherents.
"We're still the same outfit, with the same beliefs," Libby muses. "But MOFGA has a legitimacy that it didn't have thirty years ago. And organic farming is now a real option for farmers to consider, not some off-the-wall idea."
Since its founding in 1971 MOFGA has led Maine in a variety of fields, from tighter pesticide controls to farmland protection. It's no exaggeration to say that MOFGA has played a key role in maintaining thousands of acres as productive farmland and open space. Nineteen percent of Maine's dairy farms — many of them on the verge of bankruptcy as conventional farms — are now successful organic operations. Maine's sixty-five farmers' markets and more than eighty community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations are testament to the group's effectiveness in promoting local food production and sales.
All of those accomplishments are in a sense invisible. There's no sign boasting that a farm vista of fields and woodlots exists because MOFGA's in-house extension agent helped its owner convert to organic methods. The 320 certified organic farms in Maine — and probably twice that many uncertified but still operating organically — eliminate tons of pesticide and fertilizer contamination from the state's land and waters every year, though that fact slips beneath the radar for most people.
But no one can ignore the fair.
Conceived on a compost pile in Union and first organized in Litchfield in 1977, the Common Ground Country Fair has become MOFGA's most visible aspect. Each year more than fifty thousand people descend on its Unity headquarters for three days of animal shows, energy exhibits, music, lectures, and general consciousness raising — without the horse pulls, midway, cotton candy, and coffee found in other county fairs. Its success has made MOFGA the largest and oldest statewide organic agriculture group in the country.
That's a long way from its beginnings in the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, when disillusioned baby boomers fresh out of college and burned out on social activism flooded into Maine to live the simple life espoused by Scott and Helen Nearing of Forest Farm, on Cape Rosier. Central to their lifestyle of living close to the earth and protecting the environment was organic gardening, growing food and raising animals without using artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.
Organic growers began meeting in living rooms across Maine in 1970. In 1971, they organized as the Maine Organic Foods Association, and the first sixteen farms were certified the next year. That was also the year the group undertook its first public policy initiatives — a "no spray" label for organically produced foods and a campaign that focused on the hazards of pesticide drift. The MOFGA name was adopted in 1974.
Members who remember those days almost universally downplay the initial friction between the organization and traditional agriculture interests. "In the early days we were treated with guarded courtesy," Chaitanya York, MOFGA's first executive director and the fair's originator, says carefully.
He is being polite. Many homesteaders were widely considered "those damned long-haired hippies," as one former MOFGA member recalls.Org
anic gardening was a radical concept linked to radical politics.
But the organization's reputation grew along with its membership throughout the 1970s and 1980s. One of York's priorities in the mid-1970s was to organize meetings with University of Maine professors and state Agriculture Department officials, efforts that his successors continued.
The organization also involved itself in a series of high profile causes, especially stricter controls on the use of pesticides in the environment. "MOFGA was out there putting out its message long before it became mainstream," says C.R. Lawn, executive director of Fedco Seeds in Waterville and a MOFGA member since the mid-1970s.
"When MOFGA first got started, not many people were asking basic questions about pesticide use," Libby explains. "The turning point was the spraying of people in Dennysville in 1979 [by a plane spreading pesticides during the spruce budworm infestation]. Many of those people were homesteaders and MOFGA members, and we stepped in. Our presence pushed larger environmental groups to take it seriously."
The result was a much stronger Board of Pesticides Control, new regulations, and eventually a new attitude among both regulators and applicators. "I was just in a legislative hearing about aerial spraying," Libby notes, "and every interest group in the room stood up and said they were trying to do better because they know what's at stake. That was not happening ten years ago."
No one can say for sure how much farmland is still in production because of MOFGA, but today almost thirty thousand acres of land are organically certified, including sixty-five dairy farms that have benefited from the rising demand for organically produced milk. "I've heard my father say many times that if not for the opportunity to sell organic milk, he wouldn't be farming," explains Amanda Beal, chair of the MOFGA board of directors.
In 1986 MOFGA took the ambitious step of hiring its own extension agent, Eric Sideman, to guide organic growers and answer their questions. "We weren't getting what we needed from the official organizations," Russell Libby explains. "To hire somebody with scientific credentials to help organic farmers was really important."
The son of a Maine state trooper who grew up in Hancock, Libby discovered the organization not as a gardener but as a student researcher for Bowdoin College economist David Vail, who was doing work on small farm economics. "He did some of the first studies in the United States on what was happening with the organic gardening movement," Libby explains. "He sent me to the first Common Ground Fair. I was hooked."
He continued his involvement with MOFGA after graduation in 1978. "I was attending all the meetings and had become an organic gardener myself, so in 1983 they asked me to join the board," Libby says. In 1995 he left the board to become executive director.
Libby has presided over a time of remarkable growth. The 320 certified organic farms in 2006 compare to only 15 in 1986 and 278 just in 2004. After years of operating out of dismal offices in downtown Augusta and renting the Windsor Fairgrounds, in 1998 MOFGA moved itself and the Common Ground Fair to a new home on 250 acres in Unity. With its demonstration gardens, heirloom apple orchard, and sustainably managed woodlot, the property has allowed MOFGA to put on dozens of events each year, from horse-powered farming classes to celebrity chef dinners.
Libby also witnessed the phenomenal growth in public demand for organic and locally grown foods. Nationally, organic food is the fastest growing segment of the food industry, increasing by 15 to 20 percent annually for the last eight years. Studies have shown that sales of organic foods reached $18.3 billion last year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. "Even Wal-Mart carries organic food these days," Libby says.
He and others in MOFGA worry about the large firms, such as Kraft and Coca-Cola, that have moved into the industry since the federal government adopted nationwide organic regulations in 2002 — rules that substantially echoed MOFGA's own standards. The rise of "industrial organics" has led to almost constant efforts to weaken national organic certification rules, "and mass-market organics continue the separation of consumers from the farmers that produce their food," Libby argues.
As for the irony surrounding society's apparent adoption of many of MOFGA's principles, from farmland preservation to organic lettuce, Libby can only hope it follows with his campaign to recruit more farmers for the future. Those baby boomer homesteaders are looking at retirement, and Maine agriculture in general needs two hundred new farmers every year just to stay at its current 7,200. "We need more people who like to get their hands dirty," Libby says. "That's what we've always been, a group of people with dirt under our fingernails."