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MOF&G Cover Summer 1997


  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerSummer 1997Editorials   
 Editorials – Summer 1997 Minimize

Russell Libby: Changing the Equation
Jean English: Consider Nursery Crops
Dick Wells: The Organic Movement Must Pull In the Public

Changing the Equation

By Russell Libby

Spring has been slow coming to our neighborhood. This morning when I took the sheep out to pasture, I stopped to spend a few minutes watching the lambs bounce across the field while their mothers concentrated on the business at hand – fresh grass. It brings to mind one of my favorite articles on farm management ever – “What’s Time to a Sheep?” The basic message was that lambs are going to grow up to be sheep anyway; the farmer’s choice is how much to push the process.

In some ways, MOFGA is at that same point. We have a lot of exciting work happening. We’ve passed the “two percent of Maine farms” threshold, with 150 farmer applications for certification in hand and more expected. The apprentice program has been working hard through the winter, developing first outlines for an advanced journey person program, where people can learn the skills needed to farm on their own. The Board took first steps towards an education program at a recent retreat. This is all happening in the traditional MOFGA way – lots of volunteer energy keeping things moving.

Several incidents over the last few months point out the growing potential for organic food. Consumers are beginning to eat genetically engineered foods without any knowledge that it’s happening. We’ve had some lively discussions at the Legislature on the subject with many saying they’d like to know, but no clear sense of how to make that happen. An active, informed, watchful group of Maine citizens, including MOFGA members and others interested in good food, could make a big difference in the attitudes of retailers. As it was, the lobbyist for Monsanto was arguing that the word “natural” should include genetically engineered foods. Even worse, the lobbyists for the National Food Processors Association, the grocery retailers, and the feed grain dealers said they have no way to segregate genetically engineered foods, no interest in labeling, and no desire to let consumers even know what they were getting. Their goal seems to be a combination of uniformity and anonymity.

Closer to home, the debate about MOFGA’s pesticide reduction bill pointed out how sensitive the discussion was. Many farmers presented careful explanations of their past efforts to reduce pesticide use, but were scared of the idea of mandated further reductions. It’s clear that progress will come when we have better solutions for some of the problems facing traditional farms – including late blight, Colorado potato beetle, and apple scab.

MOFGA needs to be in the middle of these debates and discussions. We also need to bring the retailers who are interested in these issues along with us. It’s two sides of an equation: more organic farmers + more consumers interested in local, organic food = support from retailers. More markets = more interest from conventional farmers. We have to work on both sides at once. The more we talk about how these issues all fit together, the faster we’ll be moving towards our goals – more farmers, more organic farmers, more people buying local food. But patience (like the lamb who doesn’t care how fast he grows) is part of the solution, too.


Consider Nursery Crops

By Jean English

Two articles about raising and selling nursery crops appear in this issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, and I hope they will stimulate your curiosity about growing these plants. One article covers a talk by John and Roberta Bunker [now Bailey] about selling woody plants through Fedco Trees. The other, by Heather McCargo, tells how to grow these crops.

I used to think (and I may have gotten this thought from reading Gene Logsdon; I don’t remember) that if you could do some farm-related activity that would bring in $1,000 a month, you’d be able to live comfortably and fulfilled “down on the farm.” That figure would probably have to be increased to $2,000 a month today, but the idea remains the same. You could, for example, sell nursery crops to Fedco and bring in some good money in April; sell produce during the summer months; sell wreaths and Christmas trees in November and December; and so on. I never worked out the full calendar year, but you get the idea.

How profitable are nursery crops? Considering the small amount of space required by many, they can be quite lucrative. In a 4' x 10' plot, for example, you can grow between 200 and 400 small shrubs and sell each for $1 or $2 each, sometimes more, after a couple of years of growth; and that comes out to over $200,000 per acre! I like to think about these figures, but of course the reality of tending an acre of small shrubs is daunting; weeds are the major problem. Still, when I hear people get all worked up about the prospects making lots of money growing ginseng, I wonder… I’ve managed to kill ginseng in three states and find it very difficult to grow, while many nursery crops are simple and relatively pest free.

I have grown nursery crops for Fedco for several years, and most springs I’ve earned a few hundred to a thousand dollars. When both kids are in school full time, I hope to increase that figure. Having the flexibility to grow a small amount of stock when the kids were small and to increase that stock as they grew – and to hold plants that didn’t sell one year and be able to sell them the next year – is a very anxiety-free way to earn money.

Many people at John and Roberta’s talk wanted to know what they should grow, and John told them a couple of times to grow what they loved to grow. I couldn’t agree more, but for someone who doesn’t know much about woody plants, that advice may leave them a bit lost. I suggest getting a copy of Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (Stipes Publishing Co. – an old copy is in the MOFGA library), a seed catalog from F.W. Schumacher Co., Inc. (Sandwich, MA 02563-1023) and heading for a good arboretum, such as the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Find some plants that appeal to you, see if Schumacher offers the seeds, check Dirr to see if the plants can be readily propagated from seed, what their propagation requirements are and if they’re relatively pest free, ask Fedco if they’re interested – and then get to work. Maybe your crops will soon be among the 40,000 trees, shrubs, vines and canes that Fedco sells to over 1,000 customers.


The Organic Movement Must Pull In the Public

By Dick Wells

MOFGA’s 25-year celebration prompted some thoughts about its history and role in a somewhat larger perspective of time and context. Since my initiation as a Maine Organic Gardener goes back nearly 80 years when drafted as a weeder and de-bugger in the WW I family Victory Garden, with continuation ever since as circumstances allowed, I feel qualified to comment.

The Victory Gardens, though stepped up in numbers and size as wartime measures, were otherwise typical of the times. These organic gardens were serious sources of provender and common features of homesteads in towns and even city residential areas. Houses then were usually close to the streets, leaving deep back yards, in contrast to later practices that made extensive front lawns take up much available space. In addition to back-lot gardens, providing both fresh and winter-storage vegetables, yards often held fruit trees and chicken coops, the latter sometimes merely holding pens for purchased live fowl awaiting father’s Saturday ritual of preparation for Sunday dinner. Even in factory and mill towns with crowded tenement housing, farm-born native and immigrant workers’ families commonly gardened in vacant lots within walking distance, and later in hired space available by car or trolley.

The point of these observations is that while many statists highlight the rapid reduction of farm populations over recent generations, little has been noted of the once very important but also diminishing home gardening scale of agriculture in provisioning the country. While it lasted, however, it was sort of a holdover of organic systems, of recycling, of diverse crops, low energy use, local resource management, et cetera. Unfortunately, home gardening suffered not only the neglect due to “modern” living patterns, but also because of zoning and codes, and social pressures in the big-front-lawn suburbs. This added greatly to the big demand or vacuum to be filled by agribusiness, supermarkets, and all the paraphernalia of refrigeration, processing, trucking, advertising, etc., involved in modern feeding systems. So, while organic systems had been generally understood and accepted by the general population as “the only way to go” for countless generations, few in the most recent generations have any knowledge, interest, or experience of such matters. As trends of history go, this change was one of the most rapid, drastic and significant this country (and much of the “western” world) has ever experienced.

Here and there pockets of resistance existed, and both philosophic and technical gurus had begun to draw attention to the drawbacks of the new systems. Uneasiness grew about chemical and high-energy dependence in general. An unusual bulge occurred in the population of young people in their rebellious stages of development who were challenging common precepts and practices and looking for causes to rally to and ways to withdraw from it all in the back-to-the-land movement, in sort of a weird combination. This was a mixed blessing for the organic cause, for though it provided a cadre of intelligent and abstractly educated activists, it also caused many to link the organic movement with “the hippie freaks” who knew little of practical affairs and perhaps least of all of agriculture. Such characterization was hard to dispel, and success in doing so is one of MOFGA’s accomplishments.

Such were the circumstances and background in which MOFGA was conceived, born and nurtured. It was not the only or first organization of similar purpose, even in Maine. (I note here the Androscoggin group, though a recognized MOFGA chapter, had origins in the older Promised Land group and included a number of non-MOFGA members.) However, it has survived, grown, matured and succeeded in outstanding fashion. At this anniversary time, I want to examine why and how some of those successes occurred.

Several particularly favorable circumstances helped, one being the matter of timing. The ripples had started. It was time to begin making waves. Another was Maine’s own ethos, and its size (not counting The County), which allowed much face-to-face communication. Because of tourists and rusticators, natives and those from away were at least on speaking terms. Also, a few individuals in the agricultural establishment, one way or another, provided encouragement. Such factors were a help, one might say organically, in providing fertile soil. However, at least as it appears from my vantage point, 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. (A cross-analysis of MOFGA membership and subscribers might prove surprising to many folks.) While growing pains became acute at times, the underlying determination to resolve difficulties while carrying on prevailed.

Another factor was the 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.

All in all, MOFGA presented a great and timely play, with super leads and a supporting cast appealing to a diverse audience. The 25th year of “celebration” is well deserved. But now, what of the future? One thing is certain. There will be change, as well as continuance of existing programs. Some changes will be the results of circumstances, some of emphasis, and some of mission. To fulfill its potential and promise, MOFGA will need further maturing in imaginative concepts, strategy and orchestration management. This maturing will be more demanding, but also more fun and satisfying! Again, the Fair can take an even greater role than in the past, for one of the big challenges is in public relations and influence.

As I view it, a major thrust for future years should be in building consumer demand. Much has been accomplished by producer “push,” but any real breakthrough will come from “pull.” The public is now so beset by counter-propaganda that choices seldom result from rational judgment and sense of values. Even the best intended proponents of social, health and environmental progress have had to resort to the tricks of the trade just to gain attention. While MOFGA may remain a band of the pure-in-heart, the challenge of further expansion of organic agriculture calls for real strategy. “Pure” tricks, if innovative and clever, can be just as effective as those of the competition.

As an example, from my own experience, our firm had developed a treated cloth that needed little if any ironing. Observing the failure by a competitor to launch a similar material by conventional promotion through the “trades,” we chose the “pull” technique, skipping the clothing manufacturers, distributors and stores, and going directly to the consumer. One big success was a rather inexpensive film, with quite a bit of colorfully presented education in textile lore and technology, with catchy music, a touch of humor, and a hint of salesmanship. Shortly, we had to build an inventory of over 200 copies to keep up with the “demand” from schools, clubs and Girl Scouts, and to serve as educational “filler” in TV programs. We were told that over a million kids in greater New York had seen it, many of them more than once. Our mills were hard put to keep up with orders of this fabric. The “pull” technique had worked all the way back through the middle-men who had originally balked at paying the moderately higher cost.

The above may not apply directly to a MOFGA campaign, but is cited as an example of the value of imagination and strategy. In MOFGA’s case, such efforts might require collaboration with other groups, contracts, a legally for-profit subsidiary, or other means. I urge thoughts along such lines, as MOFGA enters its next quarter century, not only in applying the “pull technique” for consumer demand, but in other aspects of its programs.

Dick Wells of Sabattus was a long-term board member of MOFGA and served as president of the board during a tumultuous period in MOFGA’s history.



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