Twenty Years Later

Spring 2006

By Eric Sideman, Ph.D.

I have worked for MOFGA for a long time, but I usually let each anniversary of my starting date pass without celebration – because of mixed feelings. I really love the job of being the organic “extension” guy, and I have a great time working with all the MOFGA folks day in and day out. The mixed feelings occur only because I feel so young, and marking my anniversary with MOFGA exposes my true age.

So, as my 20-year anniversary of working with MOFGA was approaching, I planned to let it slip by unnoticed … until MOFGA’s annual meeting this winter, where my good friend Russell Libby extinguished that plan with an early recognition of my long employment. Unexpectedly, I was really touched by his words and by the recognition. The last two decades have been great for me, and I owe thanks to Paul Volckhausen, Frank Eggert, Dick Wells, Don Lipfert and others who were on the search committee and gave me the opportunity 20 years ago to meld my training and experiences in agriculture and ecology together in order to teach the principles of organic farming.

I was asked to use my column in this issue of The MOF&G to discuss highlights of the past 20 years. I have to start with the farm tour I was given in my first few weeks with MOFGA by its executive director then, Jay Adams. From those visits and until today, farmers have been the highlight of my tenure, and I suppose that at this late date I will lose nothing by admitting that I think I learn more than I teach when I work with these people.

When I first came to MOFGA, the organization already had ties with the University of Maine Plant and Soil Sciences Department and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and I was warmly welcomed by many of the faculty. Over the years I got to know university faculty and Extension folks around New England, and we have worked as colleagues on research projects and educational events since then.

One of the early projects may still be my favorite, because it went a long way in making the kingpin of organic farming – care of the soil – recognized as such. The project involved testing and demonstrating the use of hairy vetch in mixtures with rye and oats as fall cover crops. In this single project, we in Maine worked with the New Alchemy Institute and the University of Massachusetts to demonstrate and have mainstream farmers reaccept many organic practices, including using crop rotation with legumes for the major portion of the cash crop’s nitrogen needs; the use of fall cover crops to keep nutrients from escaping and polluting ground and surface water; and the use of green manures to build soil.

Another central piece of organic farming is composting to conserve and recycle nutrients on the farm and in the community. Over 20 years, I have seen composting grow from a few back yards to a well-accepted practice on farms and at a community and commercial scale. I believe that projects that I was part of with Woods End Research Lab in Mount Vernon, Maine; the Maine Department of Agriculture; the Maine DEP; and Cooperative Extension, such as a demonstration 20 years ago of composting fish waste, or the Master Composting Program and the Compost School, are part of the reason compost is now near every garden, on almost every farm and in almost every farm and garden supply store, and why Maine has about 100 commercial composters now.

I have done my best to teach people that not using synthetic chemical pesticides is not the premise of organic agriculture but just one of many farm or garden practices that helps produce healthful crops in a way that improves the soil while protecting the environment. Pest control is also very important in producing crops, and I have worked on many projects that teach and demonstrate organic methods of pest control. One early research project proved very valuable for a while but has become irrelevant now, unfortunately: I took part in a national test of a naturally occurring strain of Bt that was active against the Colorado potato beetle (CPB), and it became a great tool for organic farmers across the country and remained so for years. Today, though, no formulations of this strain of Bt meet organic standards, either because they are genetically engineered or because the natural Bt is mixed with prohibited inert ingredients. Luckily, a new material made with a natural microbial metabolite, spinosad, is now available for CPB control. However, we still hope that companies producing the Bt strain for CPB will develop a permitted formulation. This is important for organic producers, because CPB will likely develop resistance to spinosad if it is used too much.

The new Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management that I coauthored last year gave me a chance to work with colleagues across the Northeast. This unique book is an important tool for educators and growers, because it stresses that cultural controls are the first line of defense against pests, and it gives efficacy data for materials that help growers make choices.

I cannot talk about organic highlights of the last 20 years without mentioning the USDA Rule regulating what is and is not organic. I have been in the middle of the change from having grassroots organizations lead the way in certifying organic farms, to having the federal government regulate the process in ways mandated by the law of the land. From the late ’80s, when I tried to convince people that the idea of a national organic law would not help farmers in the Northeast, to the late ’90s, when, with gracious support of the MOFGA board, I served on the National Organic Standards Board for five years, to the present, when I go around saying the Rule is not as bad as it could be, I was in the middle. I was one of hundreds of people working to protect organic farmers and their principles. These years were the highlight for me, because I got to learn how our government works (it could be much worse than it is), I got to protect the New England type of agriculture by influencing what got into the Rule, and I got to meet people from the grassroots organizations around the country who started the organic movement. I hope to put in at least a few more years with those people here in Maine.

Eric is MOFGA’s director of technical services. You can contact him with your questions about growing crops and gardens organically at 568-4142 or [email protected].

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