Growing points: A new year, a new commitment to local and organic

By Jean English | Dec 28, 2012
Photo by: Jean English Russell Libby, MOFGA's executive director for 17 years, died in December. We can honor his decades of work by growing and buying local, organic foods.

The last time I heard Russell Libby speak — at the Farmer to Farmer Conference in Northport, put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Nov. — he talked about building our local, organic food system. A month later, this renowned leader in the organic movement, and MOFGA’s executive director, died.

It’s up to us to build that local, organic system, Libby said at Farmer to Farmer, “because nobody else is going to advocate” for tens of thousands of farms across New England. Now, without Russell, each of us has to do a little more, and those of us who worked with him are determined to do so.

Maine already produces more calories than its population consumes, said Russell in November. For New England to produce all the calories it needs, “we probably need another 4 million acres back in production in the region.” Two million of those potential farm acres are in Maine, he noted.

Growing the local, organic movement means training more farmers, growing more diverse crops, expanding markets, putting up new processing facilities and creating other infrastructure. It means being more outspoken about the need to have farms where the water leaving the farm is as clean as or cleaner than the water entering the farm, said Libby.

Russell calculated about four years ago that building the organic infrastructure in Maine would cost about $20 million. While U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan is a big supporter of organic agriculture and while “organic will always get some [government funding] – we’re politically that strong now,” said Libby, “if we want more, we’re going to have to be much more vocal and organized than we’ve been before, because the forces that think biotechnology is the answer are very strong…”

Local funding will also be important, he added. Slow Money Maine is an excellent resource, but we need more such efforts, he said. Credit unions focusing on farming, where depositors would be helping to fund farms, could also help significantly; a couple are under consideration.

“My rough number,” said Libby, “is if we could get everybody in Maine to do the equivalent of $10 a year into some investment pool…that’s enough to do the most critical projects each year — $13 to $15 million each year of money flowing.”

Meanwhile, the rest of us can keep building local and organic agriculture by shopping at farmers’ markets, farm stands, food co-ops and other places where locally grown, organic foods are sold. By knowing our farmers, we can preferentially buy from those who don’t use synthetic pesticides that may cause cancer or disrupt endocrine systems or those using genetically engineered crops or ingredients. We can cycle our money throughout our local economy, helping ensure food security, insulating our communities from recessions, building social networks and protecting farmland from development.

And we gardeners can keep on growing our own produce and herbs, along with about 37 percent of U.S. households. The United Nations says that 800 million people worldwide are engaged in urban agriculture, producing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food. That’s a good chunk of food security.

We can honor Russell’s vision, and simultaneously move toward that clean water, clean earth scenario by using and supporting the best organic practices and getting most of our food locally. Many of us try to do this already; trying harder, to honor Russell and the Earth, is a New Year’s resolution that I’ll find fairly easy and tasty to keep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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