When the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association announced that Sarah Alexander would be its new executive director, we wanted to know more. Who was this highly qualified (relative) newcomer to Maine, how did she get here and what are her plans for MOFGA?

START DATE: Alexander starts at MOFGA on Aug. 13. Until then, the Portland resident is working at the small office she’s been renting at the State Theater. The gig she’ll be leaving? She’s a consultant with M+R, a national public relations and communications firm that works with nonprofits on policy and advocacy issues (“one of the best firms in the do-gooder business,” according to M+R’s website). “I’m the only staff person here. They have offices in D.C., Oakland, Boston, New York, Los Angeles.” Since late 2016, she has been traveling the country, primarily working on health care, “advocating primarily to keep the Affordable Health Care Act in place. And getting people engaged in the political process as well.”

OFFICE SPACE: How did she get to be a one-woman office in a state like Maine? Love. She met her partner about 10 years ago when both were working in Washington, D.C. Her job was for an organization called Food & Water Watch. “He grew up in Lewiston so we wanted to be close to his family.” When they relocated to Maine in 2015, she kept her position at Food & Water Watch and worked remotely from Portland, along with one other organizer, until late 2016. She’d been at Food & Water Watch for nearly a decade and had risen through the ranks to be the national deputy organizing director, focusing heavily on food issues. “We grew by a tremendous amount by that time period. I was like staff person number 21, and by the time I left, we had a staff of a little more than 100.”

BERRY GOOD: Alexander is a native of Ohio. “Rural, western Ohio. I grew up hunting and fishing and living fairly close to the land.” She went to college at Northwestern and while there, got involved with the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a group working to recover the land base of the White Earth Reservation, originally a massive, over 800,000-acre reservation that had been whittled down over the years, including by illegal tax forfeiture. Alexander met Native American activist Winona LaDuke through that project. “She was working to buy back land,” Alexander explained. One way she did so was to raise money by growing and producing foods, from strawberries and making jam to maple sugaring and making syrup. “I actually worked on the first paperwork for the organic certification for their berry farm.”

GREEN CORPS: After college, Alexander stepped into a yearlong program with Green Corps (think Peace Corps, with an environmental and grassroots bent). During that year, she worked on a campaign to stop the privatization of the water system in New Orleans, fought the use of endangered forests for paper production in Minnesota and worked on wilderness issues in California. She fought for tighter adherence to EPA standards in Illinois power plants. Then LaDuke, who had remained a mentor, asked her to come back to work with the White Earth Land Recovery Project. “After I finished the yearlong program, she called me up and said, ‘I want you to come work on this campaign because the University of Minnesota is trying to genetically engineer our wild rice.’ ”

WILD RICE: Even still quite fresh out of college, it was Alexander’s interest in advocacy, combined with her rural life skills that made her an appealing candidate for this job. “I could help process a deer, and I could write a grant. I was a jack-of-all-trades with different skills sets, which was needed.” Got it, but how does one genetically engineer wild rice? Isn’t it, by definition, wild? “In Minnesota and California, the seed has been adapted from wild rice over the last 30 years. They (university researchers) were looking to modify it for traits so that it would ripen all at the same time.” But this sacred grain had involved harvest methods that combined practicality with cultural traditions. Two people would move through the plants, one bending the plants over a canoe with a pole, brushing the ripened grain into the canoe and leaving the rest to propagate. The idea was to work with the rice’s natural cycle of ripening in stages. Also, the paddy-grown rice was close enough to the natural stands of wild rice that contamination by the genetically modified crop would be impossible to avoid, she said. It was a hard but successful battle that lasted almost three and a half years. “We were able to pass legislation at a state level.”

FIELD OF DREAMS: After this victory, she returned to Ohio, to work on a farm and ecology center run by Dominican Sisters of Peace. “I was feeling like, I am not Native American. I am an ally, but I was feeling like I wanted to find my community.” Being a farmer had its satisfactions, but she was restless. “I saw the impact we were having on a really local level. But I would be out in the field weeding, sort of dreaming of how to fix the food system.” From the farm, she moved on to work for the American Community Gardening Association, which has a mission not unlike MOFGA’s.

CAPITAL CAPITOL: Then she met someone from Food & Water Watch at a farming conference and was intrigued about going to work for the group, despite her antipathy toward Washington. “I kind of had this view of it as where all the politics happen.” But she figured, how could, say, three years there, hurt? She stayed nearly 10. “I ended up really loving the work.” She left Food & Water Watch after the 2016 election. “There were a lot of things under attack that I had taken for granted. Like environmental protections (and the EPA), our access to health care, women’s reproductive health care, our ability to allow asylum seekers into the country.” Her list goes on. Another element was also at play, to do with a key belief she has about organizing.

FRIENDLY TAKEOVER: “One of my organizing philosophies is that you should organize yourself out of a job, primarily by building leadership behind you, so that there is someone who can step up.” She realized that this had happened at Food & Water Watch. “I had built this incredible team who was really ready to take over.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Speaking of taking over, how familiar is she with MOFGA, the organization she’s taking over? “They are definitely hard to miss in the state. I did get an opportunity to work with MOFGA through my work with Food & Water Watch.” We can probably guess this one; on Maine’s 2014 law to label genetically modified foods? Affirmative. “I was providing national support for that bill as well as several other statewide bills and ballot initiatives in Oregon, California and Colorado.” She also lobbied Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King when the federal bill that overrides the state bills passed. When she saw that MOFGA was looking for a new executive director to replace retiring Ted Quaday, she jumped at the chance. “I have always admired MOFGA. It is just such an amazing presence here. I just though, ‘Oh, what an incredible opportunity, to help continue to build a state organization.’ ”

BOOTS ON THE GROUND: She’ll keep her place in Portland and look for an apartment near MOFGA’s headquarters in Unity. “I want to have a foot in both places.” That’s because there is such a robust food scene in Portland (she’s on the board of the Portland Food Co-op). But she is looking forward to driving all over the state meeting farmers and gardeners. “Because MOFGA really is everywhere.” And she believes, so are opportunities to connect, organize, and grow the organization. Her interest in indigenous peoples and their food systems may well come into play with Maine’s Native American communities. “I would really like to build those bridges.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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