Tuesday September 17, 2013 | 10:25 AM

Eliot Coleman at the 1989 Common Ground Country Fair

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) held its first Common Ground Country Fair, a harvest celebration, at the Litchfield Fairgrounds in Litchfield, Maine in 1977. Four years later, having outgrown the Litchfield Fairgrounds, the fair moved to Windsor Fairgrounds in Windsor, Maine. In 1998, MOFGA opened its permanent site in Unity, Maine to the public.

For those of us who want a glimpse into the development of MOFGA and its growth and the Common Ground Country Fair and its expansion, there is the MOFGA Oral History Project at the University of Maine’s Folklife Center in Orono, Maine.  The collection consists of fifty interviews, conducted between 2000 – 2004, with individuals associated with the beginnings of MOFGA and the fair.

Chaitanya York
According to MOFGA’s timeline, it was Chaitanya York (later MOFGA’s first executive director) of Leeds, Maine, who in 1975 threw out the idea of a fair. In his interview, he talked about growing up on his grandfather’s organic farm in the 1950s, organizing the Lincoln and Knox County chapters of MOFGA in the early 1970s, and about the first fair. He talked about the challenge of finding money to maintain the office and staff for the first fair, and the ‘Goldilocks’ like experience of finding the location for the first fair. York sent out self-addressed stamped postcards and letters to a number of fairgrounds and received responses back from three locations. One was deemed too big, one too small, and one…Littlefield…was just right.

One of York’s memories of the first fair: I was doing something on the fairgrounds in Litchfield, and I could hear somebody, you know, speaking French. And I turned around, and there was this wonderful, older, Franco-American woman and just did my heart good, because, you know, Common Ground was more than a word, I mean it was an intention, that this could be a common ground for everybody.

Mort Mather
Mort Mather was MOFGA’s third president and was among the first certified organic farmers in Maine. He now grows an acre of organic vegetables, supplying most of the veggies for his son’s restaurant, Joshua’s, in Wells. In 2011, he gave a keynote speech at the fair. 

Mather conceived the idea for the Harry S. Truman Manure Pitching Contest for the second fair and ran it for several years after. The contest is named after Harry S. Truman, for his down-to-earth style and is still a part of the fair.

His response when asked what the fair means to him in his 2000 interview with Pamela Dean: I can’t begin to tell you what this fair does for me, you know, I don’t know if you can see my eyes tearing up right now, but they do, they do just walking around here. I was walking down there by the volunteer food area, there are always round bales out there. Now first of all, that’s great, that’s the kind of barrier there ought to be, but then there are kids jumping along on top of them, and one of them is this little peanut who is wearing a volunteer tee shirt that is down to her ankles, and she’s jumping along there and its, oh, I wish I had my camera, you know, but smiling faces, happy people, so many involved in helping themselves and helping others, I mean, doing good things, I just love the energy here, it’s such a, it recharges my battery for another year really.

Since opening Joshua’s in Wells, it has been hard for Mather and his family to get away and he has only been to the fair three times in the past ten years. This year, he told me they are going to close Sunday of the fair so they and their staff can enjoy it.

When asked recently about his present day feelings on the fair, and what he thinks were the turning points, Mather revealed the following: Helen Nearing admonished Chitanya York not to let success spoil the fair. I think that was the first or second year in Windsor. There was really no way to stifle success, which was going to bring more people. Perhaps few would agree with me but I think the fair is much the same as it was that first year. Lots bigger fairground, lots more people, lots more to see and do to be sure but what I think is most wonderful about the fair has always been there; wonderful people with a positive attitude, volunteers, good vibes, good food, good thoughts. That, to me. is the fair. It is what attracted me that first year and what attracts me today. I don't buy things other than food and at 75 there isn't a lot of new information available. I wander around, I catch a talk or two, listen to some lovely music, watch people enjoying themselves, marvel at the good things people, especially young people, are into, eat, sit and soak up the energy. It is for me a great place to recharge.

He described the two difficult years; the first year at Windsor and the first year in Unity. Windsor was difficult because the Litchfield layout was moved to Windsor, where there were more people and Mather said it felt crowded. In Unity the first year, he said the sheriff's team did not heed warnings of large crowds and was unprepared. Their mishandling of the situation caused people to sit in traffic for hours and for fair organizers to use volunteers to handle parking in the future.

Manure Toss 1978

Tom Roberts
Tom Roberts of Snake Root Farm in Pittsfield, Maine was interviewed by James Moreira in 2000. He was involved with MOFGA when it first started in the early 1970s when there was talk about it becoming a statewide organization. It was called MOFA until the “G” was added in the mid-70s, he said because of the large number of gardeners who wanted to be involved. Roberts also told me it was U. Maine Cooperative Extension agent Charlie Gould who was one of the few in Extension at that time who was not telling farmers they could not farm organically, and who helped MOFA (MOFGA) enormously with perspective, credibility and advice in the early years.

Roberts got involved with MOFGA after attending an early organizational meeting at Gene Coombs farm in Troy, Maine. He and others in attendance were all impressed that Coombs was growing a half-acre of carrots organically and selling them. One of the topics of discussion was whether Maine should have its own certification program or rely on that of the Rodale Institute. He felt having 3rd party certification was a good idea, because farmers being able to say something is organic and have people believe them would increase their ability to sell a product to the general public.

When asked recently what he thinks has been required of MOFGA to turn the fair into something fiscally sustainable, he responded with the following thoughts: Charging fees, both for food vendors and the gate fee, and being realistic about the value that is being offered. The fact that there is no carnival midway helps maintain everyone's focus on agriculture and rural living. Since most of MOFGA's membership is at the gardener stage, having a focus on rural living beyond just agricultural production as a livelihood has increased the public interest level beyond what agriculture alone could do. The Fair helps integrate agriculture back into rural living for many folks who have recently moved to the country from the suburbs.

Roberts feels because MOFGA imposed its values on food and other vendors at the fair, a level of trust has been generated with fairgoers that their expenditures really are helping Maine agriculture and Maine's rural economy.

Of how the growth of the local food movement and interest in local food systems has affected MOFGA and the fair, he offered the following: In Maine the local food movement and the Fair have reinforced one another for decades. The Fair is like a pump for the movement as well as a peak-of-season release of energy and point of display (and income!) for producers of local organic foods and fiber. Many folks first become aware of MOFGA thru the fair, then realize that for the other 360 days of the year there are other things going on at Common Ground aside from the Fair, things far less spectacular but no less important and interesting.

Pulling Team pre - 1985

Stilt Woman pre - 1985

All images sourced from Fertile Ground: Celebrating 40 Years of MOFGA (2011, $19.71 at the online MOFGA Store)

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Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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