October 2, 2013

Natural Foodie: New head of MOFGA moves to Maine, and he's impressed

By Avery Yale Kamila

Ted Quaday, the new executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, is settling into his second day on the job Wednesday.

He's filling a high-profile position in a state with a robust organic farming scene. He's also following in the footsteps of the late Russell Libby, who led the organization for more than 17 years and was widely known and respected in Maine and around the country for his work advancing organic farming.

Libby left big shoes to fill, yet Quaday seems uniquely qualified to take up MOFGA's reins. He knows the industry and he has a proven track record of communicating the importance of cultivating food systems that improve the health of the planet and its people.

Quaday spent the past 15 years working with family farmers and promoting sustainable agriculture. Most recently he worked as a strategic communications consultant for nonprofits in what he calls the "good food movement." Before that he worked for the Farm Aid music festival and the Organic Farming Research Foundation (which conducts research and gives away grant money).

Quaday, 60, grew up in North Dakota, where his family gardened using organic methods. He later lived in Massachusetts for 20 years and comes to Maine from Santa Cruz, Calif. His resume includes stints working as a broadcast journalist and as a political campaigner.

He is married with three children, and his family, which also includes a dog and a cat, is searching for a home in the Unity area. In his spare time, you'll find Quaday skiing, playing hockey, canoeing, hiking and swimming.

I recently had a chance to ask him about the organic farming movement. Here's what he had to say.

Q: You have years of experience working in the areas of sustainable agriculture and organic food and know many of the people and players involved in this movement. You even sought advice from the late Russell Libby. What about MOFGA stood out to you and made you want to be a part of it?

A: The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country that is dedicated to building the organic food movement. It is an organization supported by strong membership and a tremendous commitment to volunteerism that sustains its work in every way.

Its dedication to collaboration among all those associated with the organization has enabled it to become a highly innovative and influential national leader in the organic movement. These assets, combined with its on-going programs in support of organic farmers and gardeners, make it a gem in the movement to build a more healthful food system.

It is truly an honor to have the opportunity to join with so many wonderful people to continue advancing this important work.

Q: The number of people buying organic food continues to grow each year, despite studies such as the controversial one out of Stanford University last year finding little nutritional difference in organic versus conventionally grown fruits and vegetables (differences were detected in dairy and meats). Why is organic food so attractive to consumers?

A: Organic food consumers make their food choices for a wide variety of reasons. An increasing number of people every year are expressing interest in who, where and how their food is being grown. When possible, they want their food to be locally or regionally grown, and they prefer the food be grown by family farmers using organic methods.

These folks are concerned with the potential for environmental damage caused by industrialized food production systems that encourage heavy pesticide use and over-fertilization using synthetic fertilizers. They worry about the potential for personal exposure to toxins borne on foods produced in these same systems.

Organic methods substantially lessen these risks, and that is one of the main reasons many folks are gravitating toward organic food.

People are also choosing organic because they prefer foods that have not been produced using antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified organisms. These treatments are generally ruled out or banned in the organic production system, and folks who want to avoid the possibility of exposure to such substances in their food will choose organic.

Earlier this year, the Organic Trade Association reported that 81 percent of American families are buying organic foods at least some of the time. This is a phenomenal percentage and a signal that interest among consumers in organic foods is continuing to grow.

In addition, the industry's sustained growth at the nine to 10 percent level, even during the recession, paints a vivid picture of strong interest and support for organic food.

All of this support bodes well for organic farmers in Maine. It's interesting to note that Maine is one of the few states in the country where the number of farms is actually increasing.

MOFGA's research shows strong growth in the number of organic farmers in Maine. The latest verified numbers say there are 582 organic farms here.

This growth is due, in part, to expanding market opportunities. More farmers' markets, community supported agriculture operations and direct sales to local and regional retailers and restaurants are offering inviting new economic opportunities to farmers.

That is helping bring a new generation to the farm. Many of these new operations are producing organic crops.

MOFGA's latest research shows that, overall, organic producers in Maine generated nearly $37 million in sales on 41,000 certified acres and supported 1,600 jobs in the process. This is a solid economic performance and one that will continue to grow as more and more consumers bring organic foods home to their families.

Q: While the market for organic food is robust, organic farmers continue to face obstacles, such as the high cost of grain. What issues are organic farmers dealing with today?

A: As with any food production enterprise, organic farming comes with a wide range of challenges, many of them economic, others regulatory and still others on the marketing side. At a very basic level, organic farmers face the challenge of continuing to build consumer understanding around the organic label. What is its value? What does it really mean to be certified as an organic producer?

This is not a desperate situation by any means. The USDA's certified organic label has only been with us a little over 10 years. It is still in its infancy and has lots of room to grow. However, numerous marketing studies have shown that consumers remain uncertain about distinctions among words like "organic," "natural," "free-range," "local," and lots of other such labels.

While it's clear to those working in the field that "organic" is a production method that is actually verified by outside certifiers, consumers sometimes have a hard time sorting that out.

The entire organic industry from farmers to processors and retailers face the challenge of helping consumers better understand the value they receive when buying certified organic foods and other goods.

Beyond this basic challenge, there are issues like access to affordable farmland, soaring energy costs, development of scale-sensitive food regulations (particularly those associated with the Food Safety Modernization Act), and the need for a more robust infrastructure to support the processing and distribution of organic produce and meat. Each of these represents a major challenge for organic producers and for those who seek organic food. Going forward, I think we'll continue to see farmers, consumers and others in the organic industry working together to lower or eliminate some of these barriers.

Environmental changes are also creating challenges for organic producers. Shifting weather patterns, emergence of new pests, storm situations that seem to be intensifying, and the die-off of pollinators are among the concerns in this category. New regulatory regimens seem to be called for to address many of these problems, and that will mean a continued need for vigilance and activism among good-food advocates like those involved with MOFGA.

Q: Alongside the growing popularity of organic food, shoppers continue to show increasing support for local food. This is particularly true in Maine, where Sustainable America ranked the state #2 on its 2013 Locavore Index. Some people worry that shoppers think local food and organic food are roughly the same. What are your thoughts on the relationship between local and organic food?

A: As I noted, some consumers have a real challenge distinguishing among all the labels we've attached to food these days. Obviously, there is strong and growing interest in local food, just as there is in organic food. This is, perhaps, as it should be. Buying local provides direct economic support to family farmers, strengthens the local economy and likely helps reduce our energy consumption as well. Buying organic helps reduce the overall environmental impact of food production and helps ensure that we're bringing healthful food home to our families.

Buying local AND organic go hand in hand. To me, the obvious best choice whenever possible is to make it local and organic.

Q: I understand you helped found the Farmer-to-Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture and served on the steering committee for the Genetic Engineering Action Network. MOFGA was very active in Maine's recent passage of a GMO labeling law. Do you feel labeling is the best way to address the GMO issue? Do other areas of concern, such as genetic pollution or patenting of seeds, still need attention?

A: People have a right to know what is in their food. That's just common sense, and recent polls show that some 95 percent of the people in the state of Maine agree with that assessment. Personally, I don't want to have anything to do with corn and soybean products that contain GMO ingredients. Labeling foods that contain GMOs is one way to give folks like me the information we need to make well-informed choices at the supermarket.

MOFGA's efforts to gain approval of the GMO labeling law were crucial in achieving victory in the state Legislature and for that the policy team and all others who worked on the issue must be commended. It is encouraging that Gov. LePage has pledged to sign Maine's GMO labeling bill into law in January.

Maine, once again, is developing sound policy that other New England states can, and will, embrace.

Regarding other concerns related to GMOs, the organic standards prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms, and MOFGA has a clearly stated position on the subject. Concern over other factors related to GMOs, like seed patenting and organic farmer protection against cross-pollination and contamination of organic crops, are well-placed and ongoing areas of interest.

I would simply encourage anyone with concerns about the matter to continue to stay informed on developments and remain active in pressing for responsible rules and regulations at the state and federal levels.

Q: The FDA's new food safety regulations didn't get a warm reception in Maine. During a recent hearing, they were criticized for being too burdensome on small family farmers. What do people need to know about this issue?

A: We all want to ensure a safe food supply, but we also want to ensure that the FDA's final rules are not so burdensome as to drive family farmers out of production. One size does not fit all. Regulations must be scale-appropriate to be effective.

The rules as proposed now not only threaten to put small farms and processors out of business, they also have the potential to undermine other public health goals, such as increased production, availability and access to healthy foods.

Dave Colson, MOFGA's agricultural services director, has written a short briefing paper on the proposed rules, which I recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about MOFGA's view of the FDA draft plan. I also urge those with an interest in commenting directly to the FDA to follow the links contained in Dave's paper for information on how to do so.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share about the current state of food in America or your move to Maine?

A: Maine is a great state that has, through MOFGA's leadership, been way ahead of the curve in building the organic food movement. I'm looking forward to my move to a region that places access to good, organic food so high on the list of priorities, and to working with a group of people so clearly dedicated to ensuring the long-term success of organic farmers and gardeners.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she buys from Maine's organic farmers and writes about health food. She can be reached at:

avery.kamila@gmail.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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