By Tim Nason
Russell Libby wrote editorials for The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener during 1993 and 1994, when he served as MOFGA board president, and from 1996 to 2012 as MOFGA’s executive director.
Most of the editorials targeted a specific topic, such as the use of persistent pesticides; the increase in toxins in our environment and in our bodies; the use of bovine growth hormone in dairy cows to increase milk production; trade agreements such as GATT and NAFTA; genetic engineered products (including seeds) and the lack of adequate food labeling; the cheap food policy that rewards larger farms through economies of scale while failing to account for the costs of environmental degradation; climate change; food safety; and economic recession – the list goes on.
Libby identified these as issues emerging from our world-wide industrial economy, of which agriculture is a very large and complex part. Maine farms have had difficulty meshing their needs with the demands of the industrial economy; a vast number of farmers have given up.
Situated between the global economic juggernaut and individual Maine farmers and consumers are legislative bodies, federal and state agencies and regulators, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, in Maine, the state department of agriculture. Libby often addressed the wrong-headedness of federal and state policies, and the hazards of allowing government agencies to make decisions for us. In addition, he pointed out places where government cedes its oversight and regulatory responsibilities to the companies that power the industrial economy.
Libby confronted these matters in an estimated 70-plus editorials over a period of 19 years.
To the end of his days, Libby remained mostly optimistic despite the ongoing challenges. I always admired his wide-angle and long-term perspective, his patience and the calm wisdom of his comments, which tended to emphasize and reiterate a few key themes:
- MOFGA’s role in improving Maine’s food system and economy.
- The importance of producing organically and buying locally.
- Taking individual responsibility.
- The benefits of working together and the re-establishment of community.
What made the editorials most meaningful, to me, were his specific recommendations and proposals. He moved quickly beyond problems to focus on ideas pertaining to me and you, to what MOFGA can achieve and to how Maine can establish a uniquely vibrant agricultural economy.
Here is a greatly condensed and edited composite of excerpts from some of his editorials.
“Reaching Out with MOFGA”
“Like most of us, my first exposure to MOFGA was through the Common Ground Fair. I drove my scooter from college to Litchfield, heard some talks, visited the booths and enjoyed the food. After a few fairs, I began going to MOFGA events at the Agricultural Trades Show. MOFGA was always presenting talks on interesting topics, ranging far beyond narrow definitions of agriculture. That breadth of vision was a major reason I joined MOFGA.”
“Traditionally, almost all of the work that took place on a farm was part of a social system that helped to make sure that necessary work got done. Now, with so few farms, and especially so few with neighbors who farm, we need to [explore] work circles, apprentices, cooperation, sharing equipment, marketing or other work. Remember that ‘many hands make light work.’”
“Two recent trends are exciting: the growth of ‘community-supported’ agriculture in Maine, and the growth of Maine’s natural food stores. What’s exciting is that they rebuild connections between the farmer and the consumer, between the local business and the community.”
“What Happens When … ?”
“How are we [in Maine] going to find ways to work together to solve our common problems in an era when ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ are the buzz words? The answers lie in talking with everyone who is sensitive to the same issues we are, using language that builds on our similarities.”
“What Kind of Farms Do We Want?”
“[At a recent meeting of the Agricultural Council of Maine] Dennis King of King Hill Farm talked about the importance of closing ecological loops and how that contributes to solving economic problems. In Maine, [that means] grass-based livestock operations, farms that use Maine barley instead of Midwestern corn and soybeans, and farms that are developing on-farm fertility through crop rotations rather than purchasing nutrients in a bag.”
“Food with a Face, a Place, a Taste”
“A first step towards a sustainable [Maine] cuisine is to acknowledge that we don’t have one now. Most people eat food every day that comes from a system that works directly against local connections. When we can attach a face, a place, and a taste to our daily meals, and our institutions have evolved to encourage local interactions, then we will achieve a truly sustainable cuisine.”
“Food with a Face, a Place, a Taste”
“A few years ago I calculated the potential impact on the very local economy of Mount Vernon[, Maine,] if every household spent a small part of its food bill each week on products from the farms here: milk, meat, eggs, raspberries, vegetables and sweet corn. Now I tell people that if each family in Maine spent $10 per week on local foods, it would create an additional $100 million in business and require three times as much fruit and vegetable production.”
“The WIC Program & Better Health”
“I know the Women-Infants-Children program staff are doing the best job they can within their budgets and regulations. But we really need to change the way we think about these food and nutrition issues. Fresh, local, organic foods, grown on soils that are alive, is the solution for all of us. Let’s turn the program on its head, emphasize these foods, and see how the next generation turns out.”
“We’re in This Together”
“I recently visited one of our organic dairy farmers who was proud that moving to the organic milk market had given him financial stability, allowing him to farm the way he knew he should. Shouldn’t that be the goal of all our farm policy? The current framework for agriculture at the federal level works exactly backwards – keep prices as low as possible without bankrupting farmers, provide payments to make sure some farmers can keep going, and then make additional payments so that we encourage good conservation practices. Every time you buy food from an organic farmer, or pay extra money for organic seeds or planting stock, you are helping that farmer to do what’s right.”
“If the abstract economic system fills us with distrust and dis-ease, then the only real solution is to build the alternative. You can take the first step by finding someone to trust. That someone is probably right next to you at the farmers’ market, the co-op, or the next community event you attend.”
“Chaos or Hope?”
“Twenty years ago, Mary Anne and I bought a run-down farm in Mount Vernon. It’s still not as green as we would like, but the orchard now produces some fruit; the gardens grow well, even if they’re smaller than they used to be; we eat our own eggs, poultry and lamb. This year I finally got the south field back to the stone wall. As we go, we learn, and we share. Ultimately our solutions have to be based on community, on sharing, on a long-term perspective. This is what organic agriculture is all about. This is what we have to offer as an alternative to the Age of Chaos that might otherwise engulf us.”
“Ways of Seeing”
“I’m always intrigued by the ‘glass half-full, glass half-empty’ analogy. It seems to me to be a static way of seeing the world. Those of you who know me understand that I’m a ‘glass half-full-and-filling’ person.
“What Do We Want?”
“We rely on shorthand – labels – to answer our questions. Fair Trade. Organic. Product of XYZ. But relying on labels, even when they are accurate and the products reflect our personal values, keeps us locked within the existing global food production and marketing system. The Common Ground Country Fair gives us a glimpse of what an alternative might look like – a place where you can build a relationship with a farmer, potter or musician, and take that connection deeper year after year.”
“A Time to Be Bolder”
December 2005-February 2006
“Maine could carve out a strategic place in the market by setting a goal of being the first state with at least 50% organic farms, in 10 years. If Maine is to distinguish itself from the rest of the country, we need to stand for something different. The public sector is still reluctant to take a stand for a particular direction, wanting the market or national forces to make the decisions, leaving Maine in a reactive mode. For me, that reluctance spells a death sentence for most of Maine’s agriculture. Will we take the lead, or just wait to see what happens?”
“Are We Ready?”
December 2006 – February 2007
“I recently proposed that we think about Maine as a national leader and innovator in the science, research, development and practice of environmentally appropriate land use, technologies and businesses. We can use that goal to shape our investments in the future.”
“Our Bodies – and Beyond”
“’The first step … is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world.’ – Gary Snyder
I am one of 13 Maine citizens whose bodies were tested last year for the presence of a wide range of toxic materials: lead, mercury, flame retardants, various plastics and more. When the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine released the results in the Body Burden report in June, I started getting reactions everywhere I went. Many comments were along these lines: ‘If you’re that bad, I don’t want to know what my levels would be.’ I’ve struggled a little with what comes next, because I know that addressing these issues simultaneously, especially as an individual, is difficult. As I’ve thought more and more about the study and its ramifications, I’ve focused on three ideas. One relates to what MOFGA is already doing. The second is that we need to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world. Policies that permit this contamination are wrong, and need to be changed. Finally, I think a lot about the Gary Snyder quote. I can be angry about the contamination of my body, and yours, and the widespread contamination of the world around us, and I am. But this afternoon my daughter Rosa and I went out to the orchard and picked enough cherries to make a pie, and later we all had dinner under the maple tree, seated at a rough table made of wood from this farm, while a hummingbird flew buzzing parabolas over the bee balm we planted. I hope you can all find that place that you love and protect it, while we work together to change the policies that threaten it.”
December 2012 – February 2013
“My connections with MOFGA now go back 35 years, to the first Fair, and I had the honor of serving on the board for over a decade, and as executive director for 17-plus years. I’ve been able to visit hundreds of your farms and gardens, to share meals with you, and to work beside you as we built the Common Ground Education Center. These experiences changed my life. I think we underestimate the power that we all have when we work together to make big changes happen. It’s not always fast, it’s not easy, but year by year we can see the results.”
Russell Libby passed away on December 9, 2012. This loving and gracious man was 56 years old.
About the author: Tim Nason of Dresden, Maine, was the designer of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener until 2020, also serving as editor from 1974 to 1981. He met Russell Libby in the late 1970s when they worked with the Maine Consortium for Food Self-Reliance and later worked as a graphic designer on most of MOFGA’s programs during the time Russell served as executive director.