Thursday, April 17, 2014
A portrait of Russell Libby from 1996.
Russell Libby was arguably one of the most influential voices in conversations about sustainable food in Northern New England in recent years. He served on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) Board of Directors for a decade before becoming its Executive Director in 1995, a position he held until November, 2012. He passed away at the age of 56 in December, 2012.
This will be the first Common Ground Country Fair without Russell Libby.
According to MOFGA’s Associate Director Chris Hamilton, the organization will honor Russell Libby with a memorial area being created in the woods by the children’s area. “Russell’s Poetry Grove” will consist of a large round podium like structure with Libby’s poem “Sharing” he wrote for MOFGA engraved in it. The podium and 14 benches, two of which have curves to help frame a small performance space, are all built out of Maine granite. The area is set against white pine trees for an added effect. Hamilton believes there will be a poem read in Libby’s honor to "open" the area on Friday, after the morning keynote. Maine Stone Masons Guild members Dan Ucci of Pittston, Maine and Wayne King of Corinna, Maine are the primary builders, with most of the granite donated by J.C. Stone, Inc. of Jefferson, Maine. Donations to cover associated costs of the memorial can be made to the MOFGA Russell Libby Memorial Fund.
When he was interviewed by Ann Dudley in 2001 for the University of Maine’s MOFGA Oral History Project, Libby spoke about the growth of MOFGA from 15 farms to 3,300 members, attending the first fair (he rode his motor scooter), getting involved with MOFGA, serving on the board, and the purchase of 250 acres in Unity where the current fairgrounds were built.
What stood out for Libby at the first fair, was listening to Scott and Helen Nearing, riding Paul Birdsall’s wagon from the parking lot to the fair, and the overall energy and activity level.
Six years later, Libby described going into the MOFGA office, while in graduate school at U. Maine in Orono, to volunteer and being asked if he was interested in being on the board. His first responsibility was to mediate a disagreement between the fair steering committee and the board, who had authority over the fair director. By the next year, in 1985 or ’86, he said the tension between people who wanted to focus on the fair and people who wanted to focus on the larger picture led the organization to rewrite the by-laws and redo all the job descriptions.
When asked about his interest in policy, he responded that his interest was actually not policy so much as how to get people to understand the role of agriculture in their local communities. He said, “I had a talk the other day, here at the fair, with somebody who was talking about national level policy, and I asked him “when did you ever rely on national politics to decide what you were doing anyway?” As MOFGA grew in density, he became more interested in putting together consumers and farmers in a way that created an alternative to the idea of Mainers buying food from away. “Sometimes that turns into a policy question, but it’s not policy at its heart, its building connections that I’m really interested in,” said Libby.
On his vision of local economic development strategies: I grew up poor, you know, a poor section of eastern Maine. I’ve never though that the solution was to rely on somebody from away to come in with a big factory, or in our case, for tourism to be the engine that was going to drive everything. That, if we did a better job of meeting each other’s needs, that we would be stable, even if our cash income might not be all that high.
On his very favorite agricultural experiences: Well, the first ones have to be really personal, because it’s getting the first, going out with my girls and picking, and having my oldest, whose now 15, go out with me when she was 3 and pick a lot of apples and just set up in the yard with, just this huge variety of apples that we’d found on old apple trees. The first time you make a pie from apples from your own tree, and, you know there’s all these firsts, the first lamb. Those are all, just, very personal. Everybody has their own set of experiences, and they all work together.
Of working with MOFGA he enjoyed the rituals and the sharing experience of the potlucks at board meetings: We’re about food, and if we can’t have food at the center of what we’re doing, then it’s a difficult thing.
On his favorite experiences at the fair: I think having people come through the gates here in ’98 was just very exciting. Even though some of them were frustrated about traffic, once they got in they said, “Wow, you’ve done a lot.” I’m going to have another this afternoon because my thirteen-year-old, my middle daughter Macy’s going to play the fiddle contest for the first time.
Russell Libby with his daughter Rosa and Bob Sewall in 1998.
All images sourced from Fertile Ground: Celebrating 40 Years of MOFGA (2011 $19.71 at the online MOFGA store).Tweet
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.