By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
Any of you who are Finnish or who married a Finn know the term ‘sisu.’ According to Wikipedia, this Finnish word is roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, acting rationally in the face of adversity. It derives from sisus – something inner or interior – and it includes a long-term element, i.e., sustained determination. In my family (my husband is of Finnish descent), we call the trait ‘stubborn determination.’ It’s usually a good thing.
Occasionally people from other states will ask how MOFGA became so successful and enduring. Dick Wells, a former MOFGA president, provided some answers in a 1997 MOF&G editorial: “… the key factor was that from its very beginning MOFGA invited and assimilated the many elements having interest and stake in organic agriculture. These included full and part-time organic farmers, serious and hobby home gardeners, Mainers and outlanders, etc., cutting across ages and social, economic and educational lines, and including even those who have only consumer interest or mostly Common Ground Fair involvement … avoidance of hysterical tirades against wicked industry, and concentration on facts, education and example of the sounder way to go. It was sheer genius to initiate and couple the Common Ground Fair and theme, combining showmanship, camaraderie and enjoyment in the furtherance of the cause.”
As MOFGA celebrates its 35th anniversary and Common Ground its 30th, the terms sisu and synergy seem to apply. These, plus an intelligence borne of closeness to nature and a willingness to work with other institutions, seem to explain the success of MOFGA, with its membership now around 5200 and with the security of successful, perennial programs and a permanent site.
Consider, for example, that in 1974, MOFGA petitioned Maine Cooperative Extension to study organic vs. conventional cultivation. Extension said, emphatically, “No.” Two years later, thanks largely to the influence of Dr. Frank Eggert, who was on the UM faculty and the MOFGA board, the University had a five-year-long study comparing conventional and organic production. Results were reported in the July-Aug. 1983 MOF&G: “On the basis of this experiment we can recommend organic soil management methods for the production of dry beans and a mulched organic soil management system for tomatoes. Carrot cultural methods need further research, especially in regard to management of early blight.”
The determined, long-term outlook of MOFGA is also obvious from reading in-depth articles from the ’70s, many of which are appropriate (even necessary) today. For example, architect and MOFGA member Conrad Heeschen wrote many articles for The MOF&G about designing solar structures. Albie Barden wrote about efficient wood stoves; he still brings stoves to the Fair.
Raising melons in northern Maine takes sisu. Who but a Finn or a MOFGA member would consider such a cold-climate impossibility? In the May 1978 MOF&G, Adam Tomash wrote about raising melons in Bingham, Maine, 60 miles from the Canadian border. He started plants indoors, transplanted them to rich soil in covered coldframes outdoors, opened the sashes on warm days and removed them on July 10. “By September 8th we were harvesting all the watermelon (10-15 pounds each) and cantaloupe (2-3 pounds each) we could possibly eat – all from two coldframes.” This method also minimized cucumber beetle damage, which was extensive on cucumbers and squash that were not grown in coldframes. Tomash still grows melons (in Gardiner) and still helps MOFGA, as co-coordinator of the Exhibition Hall, among other contributions.
Practical information isn’t MOFGA’s only strength; our faith weighs in. For example, long-time MOFGA member Ron Poitras reviewed E.F. Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed in the Nov. 1977 issue of The MOF&G. “Life has no meaning without purpose according to Schumacher,” wrote Poitras. “‘Our ordinary mind always tries to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but that is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something much better; that we can become oak trees.’”
Connections are critical. In the March-April 1979 issue of The MOF&G, Paul Birdsall of Horsepower Farm in Penobscot wrote about farming with horses. “… there is nothing quite like the feeling involved in rubbing down and feeding a team after they have given a long day hauling logs or plowing a field. There is a kind of partnership here which is deeply satisfying. With draft animals and the low overhead they entail, there is not the pressure to produce in a way prejudicial to the long-term wellbeing of field or forest.”
Rob Johnston’s farewell to MOFGA’s first executive director, Chaitanya York, in the Nov./Dec. 1979 MOF&G, touches on a somewhat obsessive aspect of the sisu of many dedicated MOFGA people: “B.C. Forbes must have been speaking about Chaitanya when he wrote, ‘The person who advances is not the one who is afraid to do too much; it is the one whose conscience will not permit him to do too little, the one whose driving desire is to give the best that is in him, even though it may seem at times like casting bread upon unreturning waters.’”
Sharing is endemic among MOFGA members (witness the Common Kitchen at the Fair). Eliot Beveridge wrote a column from his North Haven farm for The MOF&G for years. In 1978 he noted his “claim to horticultural fame … about 45 years ago I had a successful early crop of strawberries, and when I rowed out with two baskets full of oversized specimens to F.D.R.’s yacht then anchored in Pulpit Harbor for the night (hoping to present them to the president) I was invited aboard – even down into the cabin – for a chatty visit with the Man himself and his entire entourage.”
Sisu and synergy helped MOFGA get through growing pains. In the mid-’80s, Dick Wells wrote about organizations’ natural cycles of growing and retreating, of the need to step back and examine MOFGA critically and even get an outside consultant’s view about how to proceed. After the move to Unity, MOFGA took on another self-evaluation through three years of organizational development. Cultivating MOFGA is much like growing an organic garden: We need to keep evaluating the fertility that is the basis for abundant and healthy growth.
In my first editorial for The MOF&G, in 1988, I noted Thoreau’s line that “the value of a thing is determined by the amount of life that goes into it.” The amount – and quality – of life, the sisu and synergy that created MOFGA, these keep the group going and growing.