Russell Libby, who for more than 17 years was executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, died Sunday. He was 56.
Libby, of Mount Vernon, resigned his post Nov. 2. He had been battling cancer for quite some time, according to Barbara Damrosch, president of MOFGA’s board of directors.
The organization hosts the annual Common Ground Country Fair, which draws around 60,000 visitors to Unity each fall.
“He was an incredible man,” Damrosch said Sunday from her home in Harborside. “I’ve known very few people as exemplary in leadership as Russell. He was a very strong leader, very wise. He had a lot of acumen about what do to at any given moment.”
Under Libby’s leadership, MOFGA became the country’s largest state-level organic association, with more than 6,500 members, 418 certified organic farms and processing operations, and a 400-acre year-round education center.
Libby became MOFGA’s executive director in 1995 after more than 10 years on the organization’s board of directors. In October, he announced that he would step down and that Heather Spalding, the deputy director, would become interim executive director.
Libby directed the development of MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center. He also supervised the expansion and growth of all program areas of the organization, including agricultural services; educational events and farmer training; the annual fair in Unity; organic certification; publications such as MOFGA’s quarterly newspaper, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener; websites; social media outlets; and public policy initiatives.
Damrosch said Libby was involved in MOFGA just about until the end of his life — advising the staff, sometimes from home and sometimes at the office. He had been quite open about his illness, but he died sooner than many expected, she said.
The last time Damrosch saw Libby was Nov. 11, when he gave the keynote address and then led a three-hour workshop at the Farmer to Farmer Conference at Point Lookout, in Northport.
He discussed the future of farming in Maine, policy issues and advancing the cause of organic farming and small farms, Damrosch said.
“He was wonderful. He was absolutely wonderful,” she said.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree called Libby’s passing a terrible loss for the state.
“I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with Russell for many years — first at MOFGA and more recently as Congress has worked on the latest reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Throughout, I have always looked up to Russell and relied on his wisdom and knowledge on everything from the operations of our farm to changing national policy,” Pingree said.
“Maine’s thriving farming community wouldn’t be where it is today without Russell and his work at MOFGA.”
John Bunker, a member of MOFGA’s board of directors and a former board president, said Sunday that Libby was a close personal friend and colleague who will be missed.
He described Libby as a public person who also was capable of having deep, close and wonderful friendships. Libby never thought of himself as having an outgoing, gregarious personality, but hundreds who met him at conferences, MOFGA fundraisers and workshops said they had made a close connection with him, Bunker said.
On Sunday, a young woman told Bunker that through her relationship with Libby, she had gained the confidence to do things she never imagined she could do, he said.
“He was very inspiring, very, very humble but a very engaging person, in the best sense of the word,” Bunker said. “He was very funny, too. We had really good times together. He loved to make fun of himself. He was somebody who could hobnob with the elite in Washington and hang out with pretty regular, everyday people in Maine, and I think he taught himself how to feel comfortable in all those different environments.”
Damrosch said that during Libby’s years with MOFGA, the membership grew to the point that it is the largest state organic organization in the country.
“There are more members in MOFGA than in all of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Associations combined,” she said.
Damrosch said Libby ensured that the transition to new leadership would go smoothly. He left the organization on a good path, in strong financial health and with a great staff and an army of volunteers, she said.
“You’re never prepared for the incredible sadness when you lose somebody who is this beloved,” she said.
According to his obituary, Libby is survived by his wife, Mary Anne; his three daughters, Anna Libby of Orono, Margaret Libby of Mount Vernon, and Rosa Libby of Portland; and his parents, Ronald and Sandra Libby, of Sorrento.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Mount Vernon Elementary School, with a potluck lunch to follow.
Correction: This story was revised at 9:55 a.m., Dec. 10, 2012, to state that Point Lookout is in Northport.