By Russell Libby
MOFGA just celebrated a real milestone in January – 25 years of growing an organic food movement in Maine. I was really excited to hear Dick Wells, 84, talking about his eight decades of organic gardening, starting with his grandfather during World War I. Helen Parsons of Mechanic Falls, now 89, wasn’t to be outdone. In the Lewiston Sunday newspaper, she talked about the quality difference between food raised conventionally and organically. Just the staying power of these two folks, with MOFGA from near the beginning, is an inspiration.
Now we have a chance, in Maine and elsewhere, to reach the next stage of the organic movement – a chance to reach out in two directions: one, to help those who want to raise more food for themselves and their neighbors; and two, to work with the growing number of people who have been “skeptical” about organics in the past but see that their current systems aren’t working.
The time is right: Half of the farms in Maine are owned by farmers who are 60 years old or older; this represents nearly half the farmland and cropland in the state. Without a major effort to bring along another generation of farmers, we’ll lose that land from agriculture for a long time.
There’s lots of interest. We receive phone calls every day from people who are looking for markets, information and education. Forty dairy farmers attended various organic milk meetings over the last three months. Conservation Reserve Program acreage in Aroostook County, coming out of 10 years of idleness, has real potential as certified land to grow grain for livestock farmers in Maine and Vermont. Just this week we’ve had contacts from people in Sebec, Somerville, Kennebunk and more. Farmers from other states are looking at Maine as a place to settle.
MOFGA, like Vermont-NOFA, has a chance to have more than 2% of the farms in the state certified this year. A target of 5% within five years is possible, as is 10% within ten. We have hundreds of farmers in Maine already farming largely along organic lines. If we can grow the markets for these farms, we have a chance to send a message to the rest of the country.
Where will those markets come from? I continue to think that the most important market for any farmer is right at home, starting with the household economy (feed yourself first) and moving out to friends and neighbors. I listened to Governor King’s State of the State speech, emphasizing the need for rapid transitions to a global economy. If that’s the economy we want to be joining, then I’m in the wrong place. Every dollar we keep in Maine is just as important as the dollars that we bring in through exports. Maine citizens spend almost $50 million a week on food, most of that food coming from somewhere else. MOFGA needs to be a leader in helping to shift the perspective. I’m a lot more interested in working with my neighbors on a daily basis than I am in spending my time with a computer trying to move product around the world as cheaply as possible. MOFGA embodies the “good neighbor” view of the world, and such neighborly connections will help us to thrive for another 25 years – but it will take your energy and your commitment.
Our Permanent Home in Unity is meant to be a place where farmers from across the state can gather to learn how to be organic farmers, where they can get the technical information they need, and then go back to their farms and put it into practice. The Apprenticeship Program has been working hard this winter to develop the next stage of education, a “journeyperson” farmer status for committed people who show that they want to learn the skills to be farmers themselves.
Every time I meet with Mort Mather we come up with more ideas about how to make Unity a reality. Think about the commitment that people like Dick Wells and Helen Parsons represent. We’re looking for your ideas and energy!