By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
It seems to me that elections are as good a time as any to step back and look at what’s ahead – or at least to try to set some clear goals for the future. Since I’m writing without the advantages of knowing who won, these goals for Maine agriculture and for organic agriculture within Maine don’t have anything to do with a particular candidate. Indeed, much of what is accomplished day to day happens outside the governmental sphere. However, it is easier to make progress when the general directions we’re headed match government priorities, both federal and state – and that’s our job, to shape those directions.
From a personal perspective, next year will mark 20 years since I first joined the MOFGA board, and 25 since I went to my first meetings of the Maine Consortium for Food Self-Reliance, a coalition MOFGA helped organize in the late 1970s. If we can make good progress on some of the ideas below over the same time period, we will have done a great job!
Five, 10, 50!
Five percent of our farms organic in 2005; 10% in 2010; at least 20% in 2020. We’re already well on our way, with nearly 250 certified this year, and hundreds more using organic practices and not certifying. I write “50!” seriously. In Denmark, once the dynamic shifted toward organic, consumers began expecting organic and discussing the broader aspects of food – health, community and ecology – as well.
Food is Health
An article in the October issue of The Ecologist indicates that 10% of medical costs in the United Kingdom are related to digestive problems, most related to stress and bad diet. There’s no way that the “Fast Food Nation” is going to be any better. Shouldn’t we start turning the whole debate about “health care” into a discussion about the root causes of illness? Sir Albert Howard led the way: healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people.
Farms as Ecosystems
If we don’t farm in ways that mimic natural systems as much as possible, we’re working against Mother Nature. Robert Frost had it nailed: Building soil is our fundamental job. Using technologies that counter natural systems – rBGH for cows, GMOs for crops – is not a real solution. It’s the industrial mindset applied to a biological system.
Who’s Your Farmer?
There are two prime directions for U.S. agriculture. One involves turning all farm production into commodities to be further processed: Food can be from anywhere at any time. Today I saw an apple juice label where the options for the ingredients included: Brazil, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, China and the United States. The same store had no local cider. We need to be able to build relationships between farmers and consumers if Maine agriculture is to survive, and that involves taking a different path: one where a key element of our food system is farmer-to-consumer connections. We can choose every step of the way, including supporting those products from away that make a clear connection back to the farms and the communities where they are grown. This is not: “No tropical fruit ever again”; this is: “When I have mangoes as a treat, I want them to be from the El Salvador farmers’ cooperatives that MOFGA farmers work with each winter.”
Farmers’ markets and CSAs have to be key elements, tying city dwellers to the surrounding countryside and enabling the farmers in the countryside to survive. We need municipal involvement and support, and the support and participation of all the small business owners around the state who are trying to figure out how to stay alive in a world of big box stores. Community gardens provide places for people who want to grow some of their own food.
Farmland, & New Farmers
A huge swath of Maine farmland, stretching roughly from Lewiston to Belfast, north to Bangor, constitutes the dairy belt of Maine. The remaining 400 dairy farmers in the state are under tremendous financial pressure. For the long term future of agriculture in Maine, we need to work with those farmers, and with other landholders in those communities, to establish a base for the next generation, and the ones after that. That will involve farmland protection programs, and easements, but it will also take a lot of people making decisions because they’re the right ones, not necessarily the most profitable ones right now. And the land itself isn’t enough without farmers. We need to bring a new generation of people into agriculture, a new generation that understands that farming is really about growing food for people.
Institutions Buy In
Here in Maine we’re lucky enough to have some great chefs who support local farmers to extraordinary lengths. We need to take that to the next level. Everyone who prepares food in Maine needs to understand the importance of supporting their communities by supporting their local farmers. We have some first glimmers of hope here, with the College of the Atlantic, Bates and Bowdoin all showing commitments to local foods (and winning national recognition for good college food in the process).
At a certain point, institutions become so large that they slip away from the people who originally created them. We always need to be looking at models that allow the good ideas to continue while allowing change and creativity. The community trust aspects of Hershey’s ownership structure just kept it from being sold to Nestle’s or another corporation. Can we use that model on a smaller scale? This also implies that we’re going to go out of our way to support our locally-owned businesses, and that they in turn will go out of their way for us. We can’t forget the fishermen and the people who work in the woods, either. We’re all in this together.
MOFGA has been involved in the discussions that shape these ideas for the past 30 years, and we’re making great progress. Let’s keep the pressure on all levels of the political system while we work to create and shape a food system that will work for all of us.