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 agricultural revolution brewing in Maine?”

Child had rightly identified the transformative changes that have taken place in Maine’s food scene over the past 20 years, which included close working relationships between farmers, sea anglers and chefs; the revitalization of small farms; and the expansion of organic farming practices. These changes had occurred at such granular levels in Maine that they didn’t seem revolutionary at all: they had become part of the way farming was done in Maine.

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

To celebrate this milestone, he released “The Organic Farming Revolution: Past, Present, Future,” which contains a collection of essays and poetry by 34 writers and is adorned with beautiful photography on every other page. The authors compile 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 a few . The background essays on the history and trajectory of organic farming in Maine, combined with the poems and photos, serve as an elegant commemoration of MOFGA’s five decades.

Each of the four parts of the book addresses a different theme of the organic farming revolution. The first part, Roots of the Organic Movement, reviews the history of the organic agriculture movement, recognizing the fundamental role played by African agricultural 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 prehistory of MOFGA in the 1950s-1970s, when many “back to the lands” moved to Maine. Inspired by seminal books on the environment and homesteading such as “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing, the newcomers developed innovative approaches to farming that would end by leading to a revolution in organic farming.

Many of these newcomers to Maine were newbies who needed a forum for support and information sharing. MOFGA, with an inclusive approach that welcomed “farmers, gardeners, farmers, cooks, artisans and consumers,” provided that. Standards published by MOFGA in 1972 to certify organic products were critically important to the organic food movement – ​​part of a larger national movement that eventually resulted in federal standards for agriculture. organic.

One of the organization’s best-known activities, both in its early days and today, is the Common Ground Country Fair, first held in 1977 and scheduled for September 23-25 ​​this year. The idea of ​​a fall gathering was a tradition of the Wabanaki people. and their native neighbors for generations, and the fair has built on that tradition. But there were also practical considerations: In the early years, MOFGA was in financial difficulty and needed the revenue from the fair to support its fledgling operations.

The second theme of the book is the small organic farm revolution, which has gained momentum in Maine through sharing and mutual support. The late and beloved former MOFGA leader, Russell Libby, captures this spirit in his poem “Sharing”, which concludes: “Our hearts are calling us together/through the miles, through the years,/calling us to reach out hand and to share / this beautiful world / with each other.

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

In Part Three of the book, Fostering Common Ground, former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana argues for the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples – not necessarily a formal land relinquishment, but a co-governance agreement to respect and use “traditional ecology”. knowledge” which he believes could reverse the downward spiral of our relationship with the earth.

An essay by Muhidin Libah, with staff from 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 agricultural workers, many of whom are migrants. Excluded from many protective state and federal laws, agricultural workers face excessive exposure to pesticides and other hazards: they are a vital but hidden and unprotected workforce, the book argues.

The final part of the book, The Future of Organic Agriculture, argues that organic agriculture is essential to mitigating climate change and argues for expanding MOFGA’s mission to include marine and ocean food systems. Other essays cite the importance of restoring local grain economies and recommend the inclusion of organic foods in various government food programs.

In large part, thanks to MOFGA’s work, Maine farmers are, on average, more diverse than in the past, and their average age is falling (in other parts of the country, the farmer population is aging). “The Organic Agriculture Revolution” honors MOFGA’s past and shows that it is thinking about the future in a thoughtful and inclusive way.

Dave Canarie is a lawyer and adjunct faculty member at USM who lives in South Portland.

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