Libby Keynote

Winter 2011-2012
Russell Libby. English photo.

By Russell Libby, MOFGA’s executive director

Russell Libby was a keynote speaker at the 2011 Common Ground Country Fair. Following is his speech.

Good morning. It’s an honor to be here. For 35 years, since the first Fair in Litchfield, it’s been a pleasure to be with so many of you at Common Ground. And I plan to be here next year, too!

There is so much that is good and powerful that is happening around us, right here, right now. Last month MOFGA celebrated 40 years of helping to make this possible. Without the hard work and dedication and commitment of many of you, we could not be here right now. But the challenges ahead of us are even greater than what we’ve already gone through.


We are all part of one interconnected web of life.

Robert P. T. Coffin, Harpswell, Pulitzer-prize wining poet, and somehow a distant relative: “We eat from the earth, the sky, the water.”

Barry Commoner, ecologist, great thinker about how the pieces fit together, and, by the way, 1980 Fair keynote speaker: “The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.”

John Muir, observer of the world, preserver of much that is beautiful: “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

Somehow these basic concepts have disappeared from the political debate, from the conversations we have with our neighbors. It’s up to us, up to all of us, to change the world so every time we look around, we recognize those basic principles of life, so the world looks like what Coffin and Commoner and Muir were talking about.

When I imagine the future for Maine, the place I am lucky to call home, it’s a mixture of all the best things I’ve seen – and what we also know to be possible:

Farmers in their fields, checking on newborn calves. Orchards in full bloom. Alewive runs up streams where they haven’t been seen in generations. Fishing fleets returning safely to harbors all along the coast. Foods of the season in every store and restaurant because it’s what’s available, and these are the foods wanted and expected by all.

This is the food system we can have.

I want to take each of Coffin’s three themes – earth, sky and water, and talk about them, and about our shared responsibility to leave this place better than we found it. Not better from a corporate, make-more-money mode, but a place of beauty, a place that gives us great pleasure throughout our days and throughout our lives. Because that sense of beauty, of pleasure in what we are doing each day, is what is going to carry us forward through the difficult times that we live in now, and the more difficult times that lie ahead.

We eat from the earth. From all that is solid. Not just from the few inches of topsoil, but the subsoil that feeds the plants and trees, the rocks that gradually erode and form the soil.

Paul Frederic, a UMaine soil scientist in the 1970s, wrote a short piece about soils that has had a powerful impact on me. When the first settlers reached Aroostook County in the 1850s, they cleared the rich hardwoods. On farm after farm, they found an incredibly deep layer of topsoil (the A profile) of a type that came to be known as Caribou silt loam. In many of the fields where it was first described, it was 18 inches deep. Now there are ledge outcroppings in some of those same fields. The entire A profile is gone, and much of the subsoil beneath it. Where is that soil? Somewhere in the Bay of Fundy, most likely. Wherever it went, it’s gone, and it’s going to take a long time to rebuild that immense fertility. The story could be true nearly anywhere else.

We have squandered so much of the wealth that has accumulated in the 10,000 years since the last glacier. But there are also farms – so many of your farms – where we can see the richness that accumulates with care and caution and the true conservatism that says we can’t forgo the future just for the sake of today.

Pesticides. It’s straightforward, isn’t it? Rachel was right. Rachel Carson was right. Rachel was right. Next year is 50 years since Silent Spring. How can we continue to poison the earth? Fifteen years ago the U.S. Geological Service announced that every spring rain contains measurable amounts of atrazine. Since, most farmers in the Midwest switched to Roundup-ready corn and soybeans, so what news came out last month? Every stream and air sample in Mississippi tested positive for Roundup, and most of those in Iowa. Rachel was right. There are little glimmers – most farmers don’t spray just because it’s Monday any more – but there’s been relatively little investment in biological systems, in understanding how to move forward without the use of toxic materials. We must make this happen.

I’m not going to waste much time talking about GMOs, other than to say that the incredible arrogance of that industry is seeming ill-placed with Roundup-resistant weeds showing up in crops across the country, and now reports of Bt-resistant corn rootworm in Iowa. MOFGA suggested that this would happen, and so did many others. But the rush for money, the greed, outweighed common sense. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild a robust public breeding system. But we are so lucky to have Johnny’s, FEDCO, Will Bonsall, and so many of you, who are keeping genetic diversity alive.

We eat from the sky. The sky that reaches miles above where we stand, that envelops the earth. Coffin was an avid hunter, so he was actually talking about hunting gamebirds flying past. That abundance that he grew up with in Harpswell and around Merrymeeting Bay has been hugely depleted. But the sky is still part of what feeds us. The nitrogen cycle. The water cycle. And the bad parts, too. The mercury coming from coal-fired coal plants. The reality is that we live in a world filled with toxics, and that the air on this planet circulates continuously. Those toxics move from wherever they are produced into our bodies. I’ve been tested, and I know that. So do all of us, intuitively. The reality is also that we are all breathing some small amount of radioactive particles from Fukushima each day, and will for the rest of our lives.

We eat from the water. Remember, our bodies are about 70 percent water. Without clean, fresh drinking water, we are gone. Without healthy marine ecosystems, we have no seafood. In terms of the historic abundance that was present when my ancestors came to Maine, it’s gone, just like the topsoil in Aroostook County. A recent Pew report suggests we could substantially rebuild our coastal fisheries, but the target numbers they cite reflect the impact of our degraded coastal ecosystem. We’ve sent too much stuff downstream, and we can’t do that any longer. We shut off the flows from river to sea, and we need to fix that. The great work the Penobscot Nation and the Penobscot River Restoration Trust is doing is an example of what is possible.

If we get too much water, all at once, our systems are pressured also. Hurricane Irene showed the power of a big storm hitting a small area. Much of the Connecticut River Valley received over 20 inches of rain in a four-week stretch, most of it in two storms. When weather becomes unstable, as the world warms, our water systems become unstable as well.


What are we to do? Well, the fact that we are here suggests we might all have a few ideas, and I always welcome hearing from any of you about the possibilities. But I have a few that I’d like to put forward – nothing you haven’t thought about, just some practical steps that can build towards a real future for us, our children and beyond.

First, a short laundry list – the things we already do at some level, that we can all do as individuals, and more powerfully as groups.

Earth Day ethic, every day. Why do we only acknowledge this world we live on for one day in April? The first Earth Day was a brilliant organizing strategy. But we need to take that ethic forward, every moment, every day. Bend over and pick up the trash, yes. But also fight the companies and systems that produce the trash in the first place.

Organic AND local. Certified organic, yes. Independent, cantankerous organic. Yes, that too – but not in a way that undermines our neighbors. Instead, let’s work really hard at undermining the entire idea of corporate food. Michael Abelman, farmer and photographer, talked with a woman in an African village who was astounded by the U.S. food system. “You mean you eat food from people you don’t know?” Make sure we know who produced everything we eat. And how it was produced. That would be transformational. If you don’t know the farmer, you need to know and trust the person who makes the connections between you and the farm. That’s where strong labeling, and trust, come into play.

Maine, and organic. If New England is to feed itself, even in large part, Maine is where it’s going to happen. We have 3,500 miles of coastline. We have the big rivers with anadromous fish potential. And most importantly, we have millions of acres of land that is in agriculture, that could be in agriculture, that will be in agriculture. That needs to happen. And we, working together, are the ones who are going to do that.

A few of us have been part of conversations about how much more farmland would need to be in production to meet 80 percent of New England’s food needs – and one thing it would mean [is] about 2 million acres in production in Maine, up from about 800,000 acres now.

You’ll notice that I included that in the “easy things to do” list, since I’m convinced that we can make this happen, especially with the energy of the hundreds of new farmers emerging in Maine each year.

So what’s going to be hard to do?

Put the public health first. The Hippocratic Oath translates, roughly, to: “First, do no harm.” We need a new health system that isn’t about medical care, after the fact, but working towards making all of us healthy people, in every way.

I am deep in a journey through the medical system, and appreciative of all the skills that the many doctors, nurses and other technicians bring to the table. But there’s been almost no interest in my story, in how I ended up with two cancer diagnoses in the past year. (I’m doing amazingly well, considering, although I do miss my beard!) So I have to wonder, beyond whatever genetic possibilities I was born with: Where did the cancers come from? I was born in a paper company town, filled with the smell of sulfur. I raked blueberries in commercial fields at the end of the era of DDT. I worked on a golf course where diazinon was commonly used, and organophosphates and herbicides were applied. Some of you know that I was part of a Body Burden study, testing 15 Mainers for the presence of metals and a variety of industrial chemicals, and I tested high on many, despite a good diet and lifestyle through the years. One answer is that this issue of health is only partly a personal one. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease: These are systemic problems, and we need to talk about them that way.

We need to get toxics out of the system. Out of the food system. Out of the consumer products system. Out of the environment in general. That will mean moving to the precautionary principle, with health as the standard. It will mean not just acknowledging that Rachel was Right! (Do you notice I keep returning to that?), but putting some serious research funding into alternative approaches.

But we also have to acknowledge that life itself is a mystery. Western medicine is great at fixing things that are broken, and maybe not so good at figuring out why they’re broken, and helping us to prevent problems. So I’m glad that we have so many healers here today of all kinds – Deb Soule and Avena [Botanicals], Gail Edwards, the other medicinal herb growers, and, especially, all the organic farmers!

And I have been fortunate to have at least bare bones insurance. How can we call this country a great one when choices between life and death are made on the basis of whether you can afford to go to the doctor? We can’t.

We need universal public medical insurance.

Energy, and climate. John Seymour had a great term for the era we’ve just passed through: The Age of Plunder. Our entire society is based on our ability to pull the accumulated energy of millions of years from deep in the earth, from deep under the water. But there’s a cost. We now live in a world that’s different from the one we were born in. It’s warmer. It’s wetter. It’s less stable. Or, if we live in Texas, it’s hotter. It’s dryer. It’s on fire. Or in Vermont, it’s wetter. And then your prime river-bottom farmland is gone.

A year ago, after the BP oil spill, I was, like many of you, discouraged. It seems beyond the capacity of any of us to resolve, and in a sense it is. We need stronger and more strictly enforced regulations on so many fronts. We need to figure out what we can do as groups, not just as individuals.

But I started puzzling about what I could do. And I thought one thing I could do is to impose a climate tax on myself. If Congress won’t do it, maybe we just have to do it ourselves. I set mine at $1 for every gallon of gasoline I purchased. And over a year later – I just added it up last week – I’ve put away almost $800, $800 which is going to be invested in a few solar panels that might help us decentralize the energy system just a fraction more. Those of you who came in by way of the red barn might have seen the 54 panels that MOFGA has there – which are going to help offset our electric bill. We are going to have to find ways to leverage that self-tax – that putting money today into things that help us tomorrow – into larger and larger forms, into support at the community level.

But it’s not completely about new forms of energy. We’re going to have to find ways to use less. To walk more. To share with one another. To support our neighbors, our friends, our communities.

And we have to realize that it’s late, it’s very late, and that Irene and all the changes we’ve already experienced in our lives are just the tip of the iceberg. There aren’t any climate deniers in the midst of the Texas fires. Or the Vermont floods. It’s a cynical attempt to protect the status quo for a few powerful people – who have power only because we let them.

Jobs for all. Everywhere I go, all I can see are the possibilities. John Bunker had five apprentices this year, and one project they worked on is a searchable database to help people identify apple varieties more easily. If we’re going to feed ourselves, and our neighbors, we need more feet on the ground, more people with mechanical skills. We need foresters, timber-framers, stonemasons and more. If we’re not going to rely on the oil from the Gulf of Mexico, or natural gas from fracking, we’re going to have to be really smart about energy conservation and solar systems and innovative wind technology. So many people need work – and so much work needs to be done. How can we have a decent society when so many people are out of work?

Stop the wars. If we spend a billion dollars a day supporting our continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to ensure the flow of oil and resources to the U.S., that’s a billion dollars that’s being sucked out of our economy, and millions of young people who risk their lives needlessly. It’s long past time to end the charade and bring the troops home.

If this all sounds somewhat political, it is. I jumped in, reluctantly, to the food safety debate a few years ago and was able to make some small difference just by telling our story, by telling your story, by making it personal. Let’s make it personal. And be political. How many of you have served in town government? State? Beyond? Let’s not leave our farms at the wrong time – but at the right time, our voices need to be heard. Voting Yes on One on Election Day, and maintaining Maine’s tradition of open access to polls, would be one example.

Today is a day for us to celebrate, to eat and drink the earth, air and sky. We are all sharing in this beauty today, and each day, and need to pause to acknowledge its presence.

But we also need to think about what it is we have to contribute to this bigger conversation, to making the changes that are needed for the larger whole, for us to tie all the parts together like Coffin and Commoner and Muir, and yes, Carson.

And then we need to get out there and plant and tend and shape the future, because all those kids in the garden parade just a few minutes ago need us to just not put up with anything but a whole systems approach to agriculture, the fisheries, the food system, the energy system, and the way we live our lives. That’s what MOFGA’s been about for 40 years, and that’s what we all need to live and do right to our last breaths.

We can make it happen. We will make it happen.

Thank you for all being a part!

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