Editor’s note: On Sept. 1, MOFGA announced that this year’s Common Ground Fair has been canceled due to concern about COVID-19. In addition, this story has been corrected to say organic products must be grown without synthetic pesticides. An earlier version said that products must be grown without pesticides.

UNITY — The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, better known as MOFGA, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — and Executive Director Sarah Alexander is “looking forward to the next 50 years” of inspiring organic farmers to keep going and growing.

On Aug. 12, 1971, the very first MOFGA meeting took place. Alexander described that meeting as “a group of folks interested in growing organic food.” No good resources existed for organically minded people at the time, so the founders of MOFGA simply created their own. Alexander said back then, organic farming was a niche. One of MOFGA’s original purposes was to help farmers along the journey of growing organically, and that started in 1972 when its organic certification program began.

A scene from the Common Ground Fair in the early ’80s. Courtesy of Ellen Randall.

To become certified, a farm must complete eight steps, starting with the application forms on MOFGA’s website and a reading of MOFGA Certification Services’ Practice Manual. Organic products must be grown without synthetic pesticides, and only Maine-produced products can be MOFGA certified.

The Common Ground Fair started in 1977, as MOFGA’s popularity grew. The very first fair was held in Litchfield and attracted 10,000 people — five times the projected crowd of 2,000. In 1981, the fair moved to Windsor to accommodate the 50,000 attendees, and then in 1988 moved to its permanent home Unity. MOFGA grew “larger and larger every year,” according to Alexander, and is still on the same trajectory.

The group made big strides in the ’80s, with the rise of the farm-to-table movement fueling its popularity. Eric Sideman, Ph.D., joined MOFGA in 1986. While his official title was organic crop specialist, he is known as the first extension agent for MOFGA because of his work providing aid to farmers all over Maine. Alexander said he is still providing “wisdom and guidance” to this day — after retiring. Now, according to Deputy Director Heather Spalding, MOFGA has an agent living in Aroostook county to provide insight for northern Maine’s agricultural needs.

Another important thing the ’80s brought for MOFGA was the inception of its Public Policy Committee. The committee was described by its chair, Jo Ann Myers, as a way for organic farmers to have more of a say in the Legislature on issues that affect them. The committee has worked with the state Board of Pesticide Control to ban harmful pesticides in accordance with MOFGA’s organic certification program.

Aunt Rhodie’s yarn wagon, a 1930s French fry trailer converted into a stand selling yarns and fleeces, at the Common Ground Fair. Owner Helen York said this was taken during the fair’s first year in Unity, 1998. Courtesy of Helen York

The Public Policy Committee “builds infrastructure” for MOFGA members and partners, Myers said, and discussions always include consideration of conflicts of interest for unbiased, nonpartisan decisions. The committee’s most recent achievement was working with the Maine Legislature to pass the Maine Healthy Soils Program bill, a program to educate farmers about soil health and climate change resilience.

It may be the most famous, but the Common Ground Fair isn’t MOFGA’s only community outreach program. The Journeyperson program, started in 1999, offers help for Maine farmers who are just starting out in their farming careers. The criteria for being part of the program include at least two years’ farming experience and a demonstrated commitment to farming organically and sustainably.

MOFGA also offers a Beginning Farmers apprenticeship program for young adults interested in organic farming. Its first apprentice was a student from the College of the Atlantic, Chellie Pingree, who is now U.S. representative for Maine’s 1st Congressional District. Alexander said one of the things MOFGA cares about most is the “nurturing and learning of young people,” which is exemplified in these educational programs. Over 300 students have graduated from the Beginning Farmers program, and 90% of them are still farming.

Chellie Pingree, center, then Chellie Johnson, talks to visitors at the Agricultural Trades Show as a MOFGA apprentice in the ’70s. Courtesy of Katy Greene

As part of its commitment to “biodiversity and diversity” in all its forms, MOFGA also provides a space for female farmers to be recognized. “Maine has one of the largest (numbers) of women farmers,” Alexander said, and that was true in the ’70s as well. Women have “absolutely” been a big part of MOFGA’s journey. Historically, there were many female farmers, but they were also presidents and directors on MOFGA’s leadership team. Right now, Alexander is proud that half of the board members are female, and over half of the volunteer staff is made up of women.

One more cornerstone of organic living that MOFGA is committed to is preserving the integrity of natural nourishment. The Maine Heritage Orchard, for example, was established in Unity in 2013 and built according to the vision of the Common Ground Education Center. Both stand for education on and protection of rare varieties of plants and fruits. Alexander said the purpose of the Heritage Orchard is “preserving and protecting over 300 varieties (of apples and pears) for future generations.” She expects to see the organization’s mission grow hand in hand with the organic practices it promotes and protects.

MOFGA member and historic fruit expert John Bunker plants one of the first trees in the Heritage Orchard. Courtesy of MOFGA

Heather Spalding works closely with Alexander as deputy director of MOFGA. She worked with nonprofit environmental organization Greenpeace before joining MOFGA in the ’90s, when she started working with the Common Ground Fair and doing an apprenticeship in Durham. She described her work with the nonprofit as “so exciting,” and added that the organization allows her to offer “useful practices that effect change in the world.”

Some members of MOFGA’s current team pose for a picture. Executive Director Sarah Alexander is in the middle of the second row. Courtesy of MOFGA