Matt Liebman & Laura Merrick Leave University of Maine
By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
The emerging CSA movement is one encouraging aspect of a local agriculture. Community Supported Agriculture farms make direct connections between consumers and farmers. In the most developed model, the community works with the farmer to meet a budget that gives the farmer a decent wage for growing the food the community wants. The CSA idea goes back to the biodynamic movement in Europe, and to work done in Japan building connections among organized groups of housewives and farmers in rural areas. The Japanese term is seikatsu, and means, literally, “food with a face.”
For a few years, I thought that this connection – knowing who grew the food – was and could be a powerful countervailing force to the conventional food system. Then, in February, Parade magazine had an ad from Proctor and Gamble for their Olestra fat substitute. In it, they put a face on their product, using a farmer from the Midwest who is proud of his role in producing the soybeans that make Olestra. Among its many attributes, Olestra can cause severe gastrointestinal upset and appears to leach vitamins as it makes its way rapidly through the digestive system. Clearly, the large food companies can put a face on their food (or food substitutes) and are using that strategy already. What can we do to go beyond that first step?
I believe that the next step is to link the face with a place. Best, of course, is when both the face and place are closely associated with your community, or the area where you live. But we can all think of foods we like to eat that aren’t widely available in Maine, and when we buy them, it would be helpful to know who grew them and where. This works at all levels to increase connections within the food system: it allows farmers to build a market identity; it lets consumers feel better about what they’re buying. One example, working in Maine’s favor, is the work done by organic potato farmers in Aroostook County to build loyalty for special varieties in suburban Boston, using packaging that identifies the original farm and tells a story about both the farmer and the potato variety.
Understanding that mutual identity allows us all to make connections that we want to make face to face, but sometimes have to rely on others to make happen. It lets chefs identify where the food was grown on their menus; it lets independent natural food stores build long-term partnerships with both suppliers and customers.
These connections can go deeper yet when we develop tastes and preferences that can’t be matched by the standardized food available in the supermarkets and fast food chains. This is the real hope for building an alternative to the increasingly global food system. This combination of a face, a place and a taste can build a base for hundreds and thousands of Maine farmers.
We must remember two things: First, this is the food system we had in Maine and in much of the United States all the way up to World War II; Second, we’re only talking about building on what many of us are already doing.
This summer, highest on my family’s food processing list is to try some of the pickling recipes we got this fall from my great-uncle Arthur, via my uncle Bob. One recipe has roots deep in northern Penobscot County. Arthur got it from a man whose name he couldn’t remember, so he calls it “Wytopitlock Man Salt Pickles.” We want to attach Uncle Arthur’s name, which will make it about as personal as it can get.
Here’s hoping you find in the months ahead, whether from your garden or from your local farmer, that great taste you can’t get anywhere else.
Matt Liebman & Laura Merrick Leave University of Maine for Iowa State
Two long-time allies and friends of MOFGA, Matt Liebman and Laura Merrick, have recently left the University of Maine faculty for new positions at Iowa State University. Laura served for two years on the MOFGA board. She’s a fan of alternative protein crops, and did some trials of lupines for livestock feed in her early years at Orono. She plans to continue her research on biodiversity in the cucurbita, focusing on the Mexican uplands, from their new base in Ames, Iowa. Laura also served as MOFGA’s representative on the board of Maine Agriculture in the Classroom.
Matt was the sparkplug behind the University of Maine’s Sustainable Agriculture program over the past decade and was the principal contact for students for many years. On the research front, he helped start the “Potato Ecosystem” research at the University’s farm in Presque Isle. The first round of results has shown that an ecological approach to potato production (the sustainable system) is quality- and cost-competitive with conventional production systems. This research has helped spark a lot of discussion in Aroostook County about ways to increase soil organic matter cost effectively. Matt’s research interest is in weed ecology, and he’s done a lot of work at Rogers Farm in Old Town on cover crops and intercropping. He’s responsible for revitalizing the idea of the oats-peas-vetch cover crop mix, out of favor for several decades, and working with farmers on ideas to intercrop both dry beans and grains with clover to increase weed control and soil fertility.
Matt has been absolutely committed to involving farmers in the research process, and he takes that mission with him to Iowa State. He’ll be responsible for integrating the on-farm research plots of groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa into the larger research mission of the University.
Good luck to Matt and Laura! Iowa State’s gain is Maine’s loss.
– Russ Libby