Book review: Honoring Maine’s organic farming past and embracing the future


At a food conference in California in 1990, Portland chef and Fore Street co-owner Sam Hayward was on a panel led by culinary demigoddess Julia Child. “So tell us,” she asked, turning to Hayward, “what is this farming revolution brewing down in Maine?”

Child had rightly identified the transformative changes taking place in the Maine food scene over the previous 20 years, which included close working relationships among farmers, sea harvesters and chefs; the revitalization of small farms; and the expansion of organic farming practices. These changes had been happening at such granular levels within Maine that they didn’t seem revolutionary at all: They’d become integral to the way farming was done in Maine.

Although the farming revolution had slowly blossomed in Maine beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, the formation of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in 1971 demonstrated a certain critical mass and level of maturity and ferment. Better known as MOFGA, the non-profit group celebrated its 50th anniversary one year ago.

To celebrate that milestone, it published “The Organic Farming Revolution: Past, Present, Future,” which contains a collection of essays and poetry by 34 writers and is graced with gorgeous photographs on every other page. The authors make up an A-list of writers — local and national figures — on organic farming and gardening: John Bunker, CR Lawn, Michael Pollan, Eliot Coleman, Chellie Pingree and Anna Lappe, to name just a few. The substantive essays on the history and trajectory of organic farming in Maine, combined with the poems and photos, serve as an elegant commemorative to MOFGA’s five decades.

Each of the book’s four parts addresses a different theme in the organic farming revolution. The first part, Roots of the Organic Movement, reviews the history of the organic farming movement, recognizing the foundational role played by African farming practices. These include crop rotation, composting, raised bed gardening and community supported agriculture — all of which are fundamental to organic farming.

The book traces the pre-history of the MOFGA in the 1950s-1970s when many “back-to-the-landers” moved to Maine. Inspired by seminal environmental/homesteading books such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life,” the newcomers developed innovative approaches to farming that would eventually add up to an organic farming revolution.

Many of these new arrivals to Maine were neophytes who needed a forum for support and information-sharing. MOFGA, with an inclusive approach that welcomed “farmers, gardeners, homesteaders, cooks, crafters and consumers,” provided that. Critically important to the organic food movement were the standards MOFGA published in 1972 to certify organic produce — part of a larger national movement that ultimately led to federal standards for organic agriculture.

One of the organization’s best-known activities, early on and now, is the Common Ground Country Fair, first held in 1977 and scheduled this year for Sept. 23 – 25. The idea of ​​an autumn gathering had been a tradition of the Wabanaki people and their indigenous neighbors for generations, and the fair built upon that tradition. But there were practical considerations as well: In the early years, MOFGA was in financial difficulty and needed revenues from the fair to sustain its fledgling operations.

The second theme of the book is the Organic Small-Farm Revolution, which gathered momentum in Maine thanks to sharing and mutual support. The late, beloved former leader of MOFGA, Russell Libby, captures this spirit in his poem “Sharing,” which concludes: “Our hearts call us together/across the miles, across the years,/call us to reach out and share/this beautiful world/ with one another.”

The essays in this section of “The Organic Farming Revolution” describe how experienced farmers generously shared knowledge with new farmers as well as how farmers and chefs connected to create the farm-to-table movement that thrives in Maine today.

In the third part of the book, Fostering Common Ground, former Penobscot Nation chief Barry Dana advocates for the return of Native lands to Native people – not necessarily a formal relinquishment of land, but a co-governance arrangement to respect and employ “traditional ecological knowledge” that he argues could reverse the downward spiral in our relationship with the country.

An essay by Muhidin Libah, with the staff of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine, describes Liberation Farms, a community gardening initiative that empowers members of Maine’s refugee community and supports “cultural identity, food security and economic well-being….”

A key element of common ground in agriculture is the protection of farmworkers, many of whom are migrants. Excluded from many protective state and federal laws, farmworkers face excessive exposure to pesticides and other hazards: They are a workforce that is vital, yet hidden and unprotected, the book argues.

The final part of the book, the Future of Organic Farming, argues that organic farming is crucial to mitigating climate change and advocates for the expansion of MOFGA’s mission to include marine and ocean-based food systems. Other essays cite the importance of re-establishing local grain economies and recommend the inclusion of organic food in various government food programs.

In no small part, as a result of MOFGA’s work, Maine farmers are, on average, more diverse than in the past, and their average age is declining (in other parts of the country, the population of farmers is aging). “The Organic Farming Revolution” honors MOFGA’s past and shows that it is thoughtfully and inclusively embracing the future.

Dave Canarie is an attorney and adjunct faculty member at USM who lives in South Portland.


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