The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association turns 50 this year and is planning a full-blown celebration. That will magnify the thrill of just getting back to close to normal after a year of cancellations and shutdowns.

“We are really hoping that we can gather in person as a group as close as possible to the anniversary of that first meeting,” which was Aug. 12, 1971, MOFGA director Sarah Alexander said in a telephone interview.

The organization is still working out the details of the celebration.

MOFGA also plans to hold its Common Ground Fair in the fall; the dates are Sept. 24-26. The cancellation of last year’s fair was hard not only because fairgoers were disappointed, but also because the fair provides a lot of positive publicity for the organization as well as a large part of its operating money.

Sarah Alexander, executive director of MOFGA, says the organization is doing well, despite the pandemic. Photo by Audra Bayette/Maine Family Photography

Overall, despite the difficulties of 2020, MOFGA is doing well, Alexander said. More people are talking about (and doing) vegetable gardening, membership remains strong and the group’s 2020 workshops drew record attendance – although the programs were all held online.

The anniversary celebration will look both backward and forward.

Looking back, Alexander has reached out to Chaitanya York, MOFGA’s first executive director, and others who were involved early on to get an idea of what the founders were thinking.

The evidence shows that what they were thinking worked: Despite Maine’s relatively small population. MOFGA was among the first organizations to develop its own standards for organic food, Alexander said, and developed rules for enforcing those standards. A lot of MOFGA’s work has been adopted by other states. “We have punched above our weight, having had a consistent influence at the national level,” she said.

She drew comparisons between the world when MOFGA was founded and the world today. In 1971 the civil rights protests were in full swing, what is now the LGBTQ movement was in its early stages, the Vietnam War was still being fought and protested, and work was beginning to mend the environment. “We are still facing similar issues today on racial and social justice, as well as climate change,” she said.

At Alexander’s suggestion, I talked with Mort Mather of Wells about the organization’s start. Mather was not among the group at the initial 1971 meeting, but he did attend the first meeting to organize a York County chapter in 1972 – barely. He says he almost skipped it because he wanted to watch Monday Night Football. He finally decided to go because he was growing and selling organic vegetables on a one-acre plot, and he thought he could get some help.

Others attending that York County meeting, Mather recalls, were Tom and Kate Chappell, who founded Tom’s of Maine, and Marylyn Wentworth, a founder of The School Around Us in Arundel. A few years later, Mather, who was MOFGA’s first treasurer and third president, helped form the trust that runs Laudholm Trust in Wells, and he served as its director for 13 years.=

One of the people who was most helpful in MOFGA’s early years, Mather said, was Charlie Gould, an agent with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “At that time most of the Extension agents were into conventional agriculture and thought that we (organic farmers) were a bunch of hippie weirdos,” Mather recalled.

Gould not only provided agricultural expertise but, while Mather was treasurer and in charge of mailing out MOFGA’s newsletter, Gould let him mail them from his Extension office. Mather is still involved with MOFGA and still growing organic vegetables on his one-acre plot, now for his son’s restaurant, Joshua’s in Wells.

A little girl receives a “Sweet Annie Crown” at the Common Ground Fair in 2003. The annual fair, of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, is beloved by Mainers and others around the country. This year, MOFGA celebrates its 50th birthday. Photo by Jeff Pouland

How will MOFGA celebrate its 50th anniversary?

For starters, MOFGA will be publishing a book, in cooperation with Down East Books, featuring 25 articles on its founding and how the nonprofit continues to work to promote organic agriculture, human health and the environment.

Also, MOFGA may bring back some of the most popular Common Ground Country Fair T-shirts from past years, so it wants to hear about your favorites. Check mofga.org to list them.

Despite the success of the past half century, Alexander believes a lot remains to be done, including just getting the word out. “I am always surprised to find out there are people who have never heard of MOFGA,” she said.

With vegetable gardening more popular than ever this past year because of COVID-19 lockdowns, an opportunity to get more people involved exists, she believes, which would benefit individual growers, MOFGA itself – and the condition of the world overall.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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