Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Russell Libby: Executive Director, MOFGAJohn Bunker: President, MOFGAJean English: Editor, MOF&GDiana George Chapin: Heirloom Garden of Maine

Russell LibbyMake a Difference

A basic rule of advertising is that it takes a lot of repetition before your message gets through to the general public. Lately it feels like we’re right on the verge of success—but that we still have a couple of big steps to go.

In April, Bill McKibben, speaking at Bowdoin College, spent a lot of time emphasizing the need for people to eat local foods. Around the country people have begun taking a “hundred mile challenge,” trying to eat most of their meals from food produced within a hundred-mile circle. In Maine, over 2,500 families are getting their food from 75 CSA farms this year. A group of Aroostook farmers is considering organic dairy production.

At the same time, the ideas that we think are important—such as eating locally produced, organic food—are still outside the major policy debates in Augusta and in Washington.

The Maine Legislature’s Taxation Committee retained the sales tax on vegetable seeds for home gardeners this session, largely because the committee doesn’t think the tax matters to the people who are buying the seeds. Senator Ethan Strimling of Portland, who co-chaired the Legislature’s Task Force on Homeland Security, didn’t seem to think that growing food is as important to Maine’s security as an improved radio communication system and having public health nurses scattered around the state.

None of the discussions about Dirigo Health and other medical insurance programs talk about the importance of eating fresh, local foods as a key ingredient in keeping Maine people healthy. Diet and health are linked, though, as insurers in some parts of the country are recognizing as they start to offer discounts to CSAs as a way to encourage better eating habits among their customers; and several large hospitals have started serving organic food to their patients.

The push toward a National Animal Identification System is driven by the idea that better tracking will make it easier to find animals that have been in contact with animals that have Mad Cow and other diseases. The push involves no understanding that many people in Maine, and elsewhere, still raise food for themselves and for their neighbors with very little participation in the national food marketing system. In Mount Vernon, Maine, two commercial dairies and one poultry operation represent the traditional commercial sector that would be recognized by any Animal ID program. However, at least 50 families in town have animals that would need to be registered under the proposed Animal ID programs. So far the USDA, in particular, has given no indication that it understands how unworkable its proposed program is. Instead of investing in improved livestock health, the USDA is setting up a tracking system that will divert farmers’ (and vets’) attention from the important piece—the health of the animals.

Food labeling fits the same model. Congressman Mike Michaud, who has been very good on trade issues, supported the National Food Uniformity Act, even though it would overrule a number of existing Maine laws that provide a higher level of food labeling than the FDA has established. The national Act promotes the interests of large processors, including some of the large users of Maine potatoes, not the interests of food consumers and small farmers.

All the values that MOFGA has been promoting since our beginning in 1971—a local, organic food system; less reliance on energy imported to the farm; a system where consumers and farmers share the same interest—are slowly becoming widely shared values. This is where you can make a difference. Keep speaking up. Let your state and federal legislators know that you value local farmers. Support farmers who are producing the foods you want, the way you want the foods to be grown. Grow a garden. Share food with a neighbor. Have fun!