Farming pioneer Libby 'left us with such a strong legacy'

By Jenna Lookner | Dec 26, 2012
Courtesy of: Maine Farmland Trust Russell Libby.

State of Maine flags flew at half-mast in the Kennebec County town of Mount Vernon on Dec. 15 as friends gathered to remember longtime Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Executive Director and renowned organic farming advocate Russell Libby. Libby died at his farm in Mt. Vernon Sunday, Dec. 9, he was 56.

According to a Dec. 9 news release from MOFGA, Libby had been battling cancer.

Libby was involved with MOFGA for nearly three decades, serving on the board of directors for 10 years before assuming the roll of executive director in 1995. He transitioned to the roll of senior policy advisor in early November and, despite his declining health, he actively continued his leadership of MOFGA in that capacity until his death, according to the news release.

“Russell Libby has been Maine’s small farm and organic farming champion. His vision has influenced virtually every aspect of our agricultural industry from farm to table,” said Gov. Paul LePage in a Dec. 12 news release. “All of us who enjoy Maine’s bountiful harvests will remember his contributions and leadership.”

Maine Farmland Trust Executive Director John Piotti's friendship with Libby began in 1995 when Libby took the position as executive director at MOFGA and Piotti was director of the Wiscasset-based Maine Farms Project. The two went on to collaborate on numerous projects including the launch of Eat Local Foods Coalition in 2000. Piotti and Libby served together on the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and Libby was a reliable presence in the committee room during Piotti's service on the Maine Legislature's Agriculture Committee, Piotti said in an email.

Libby served on the board of Maine Farmland Trust for 13 years, Piotti wrote.

Prior to his service with MOFGA, Libby served as an official with Maine Department of Agriculture. His dedication to the Mount Vernon community included service on the ordinance review board, the school board, and board of selectmen, according to a press release on behalf of LePage.

Heather Spalding assumed the role of interim executive director of MOFGA when Libby stepped down in November. Spalding had worked with Libby since 1997.

"He was a dear, dear friend and a wonderful leader and organizer," said Spalding.

She said prior to Libby's cancer diagnosis in 2010 he recognized the evolving growth of MOFGA and took steps to create infrastructure to support the organization's future.

"He really built a team of very capable people who can carry on with many of the different projects and threads," she said. "And not just staff members, he built a network of farmers and volunteers."

Spalding said Libby worked to facilitate inclusion and understanding about sustainable, organic food.

"Russ played a role in encouraging a diverse body of stake holders who are encouraged and inspired by their connection to MOFGA," she said.

She cited the annual Common Ground Fair, which is largely volunteer driven, as a prime example of the spirit of community and volunteerism fostered by Libby's leadership style.

Piotti also attested to Libby's inclusive leadership style and "big picture" perspective on the farming community as a whole.

"Russell had an amazing mind, he saw patterns and systems and could 'connect the dots' better than anyone I've ever met. He was incredibly smart, but also very humble. He could work with everyone. Despite his fervent belief in organic farming, he earnestly reached out to farmers of all stripes, always seeking common ground. He saw the big picture and took the long view," Piotti wrote.

Spalding said Libby was dedicated to nurturing young farmers and providing them with opportunities. He was profoundly dedicated to creating a sustainable food system for future generations.

"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," said Libby in his 2011 keynote address to attendees of the Common Ground Country Fair.

Ladleah Dunn owns and operates Sailor's Rest Farm in Lincolnville with her husband Shane Laprade. Dunn recently joined the policy committee at MOFGA. While she said she didn't have the opportunity to work directly with Libby, she expressed deep admiration for him.

"I have a peripheral appreciation for what he did, just as anyone who grows food or is affiliated with MOFGA has," she said.

Dunn said Libby's speech at the 2012 Farmer-to-Farmer conference Nov. 11 at Point Lookout Resort in Northport was especially profound. She said Libby commented on the number of working farms in Maine situated on less than 10 acre parcels, as Sailor's Rest Farm is.

"He had an amazing, gentle way of putting forth his ideas," she said. "He put great emphasis on small farmers and trying to create access and opportunities."

Dunn said Libby was excellent at "building a bridge" between veteran farmers and those newly interested in farming. His approach helped nourish aspiring farmers and ensure access to mentoring for them through the passage of skills learned and honed through generations of farming.

"He helped create access to that knowledge so that it is not lost forever," she said.

During Libby's tenure as executive director MOFGA evolved from a small organization in a "little, ramshackle office in Augusta," to a thriving and nationally recognized organic farming organization, said Barbara Damrosch, President of MOFGA's Board of Directors and operator of Four Season Farm with her husband Eliot Coleman.

Now headquartered on the Common Ground Education Center, comprised of more than 400-acres in Unity, MOFGA's annual budget has grown from $500,000 to more than $2.6 million, according to information provided by Spalding. Additionally, MOFGA memberships have increased from about 3,000 to nearly 7,000 during Libby's time at the helm of the organization.

Regarded as the oldest organic farming association in the country, MOFGA now boasts 420 certified organic farms throughout the state, the MOFGA journeyperson program generates about 25 new organic farmers in Maine each year.

Educational offerings and a variety of year-round programs offered at the Common Ground Education Center are also among partially to Libby's credit, said Spalding.

"I can't think of anyone who has done more for farming in Maine," said Damrosch, speaking of Libby. "[With Libby's leadership] MOFGA grew enormously, from a vibrant state organization to a nationally-recognized organization."

Damrosch said MOFGA is the largest state-level organic farming organization in the nation. She noted the board of directors is diverse, spanning ages and vocations. Libby, too, was an individual with diverse passions.

"He was really unique in being both an economist and a published poet," she said, noting Libby had a degree in economics.

Kimberlee Michel, 29, operates Blue Cloud Farm in South Bristol. Though Michel is not a Maine native, she said she was attracted to the state by the opportunities available to aspiring farmers through MOFGA.

"I moved to Maine because of MOFGA, to be an apprentice on a farm," she said, adding MOFGA's website is user friendly and makes it easy to explore and connect with various farms.

In 2006 she moved to Maine to participate in MOFGA's Journeyperson program, having never visited the state before. In 2008, she was invited to join the organization's board and Michel was struck by Libby's commitment.

"He was very involved in the big picture, both in Maine and in regional agriculture," she said. "He saw real numbers and had a big picture mentality to make his vision start to become a reality."

She said Libby was generous with his time and spirit.

"He was always able to make connections for people," she said, explaining during one encounter, Libby recommended a number of flower-specific resources to her, all off the top of his head.

A resounding sentiment from those who knew Libby, including MOGFA Associate Director Chris Hamilton, was his desire to cultivate a culture of young, responsible and resourceful farmers in Maine.

"It was amazing the way he inspired young farmers," said Hamilton. "[Libby] never gave up on his hope."

Libby assisted in developing programs that nurtured future farmers through mentoring and educational opportunities. Libby was also a strong legislative voice for sustainable agriculture, according to previously published reports. Hamilton said the staff at MOFGA — which grew from six people to 32 under Libby's leadership — is one of the aspects of MOFGA that sets it apart.

"We're not just working at a policy level, we're practitioners that actually [farm], we can relate when we go out into the field," he said.

He explained Libby took a significant roll in hiring people who could reflect a certain ethos.

"MOFGA looms large on the landscape here," Damrosch said.

She noted that the swell in attendance at the Common Ground Country Fair — more than 50,000 people pass through the gates during the course of the three-day event— is demonstrative of the growth in visibility and interest in MOFGA and sustainable living. Both are reflective of Libby's vision, she said.

"There was something incredibly strong about Russell," she said. "He was easy to talk to, engaging, wise and had a wonderful sense of humor."

Damrosch noted that Libby was realistic in preparing for the future of MOFGA, even as his health declined.

Damrosch and Spalding said the search for a permanent successor to Libby will begin in early 2013.

"Even during his illness he foresaw everything," Michel said. "He left us with such a strong legacy."

A gathering to celebrate Libby's life will commence Sunday, Jan. 6, at the Common Ground Education Center in Unity at 2 p.m.

Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at jlookner@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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