Monday, December 10, 2012

In Memory of Russell Libby

Life long farmer advocate, Russell Libby, passed away on December 9th at his home in Mt. Vernon, Maine after a long struggle with cancer. Russell was a champion for small-scale organic farmers and his work influenced the local food movement throughout the country. He ran Three Sisters Farm and was the Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) for 17 years and a member of their Board for 29 years. I was fortunate to spend some time with Russell in September 2010, right before the annual Common Ground Country Fair. He spoke about the economic system he worked to create and the community that makes it possible. To commemorate Russell's life, below are his words.

“The piece that’s really jumped in the last decade is the resurgence of interest in growing food. In the past three years, there’s been a huge jump in interest in apprenticeships, people who want to have some connection to the land, want to get their hands dirty. People who are committing and saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do for a business.’ People look for something that makes them feel more certain about their own individual future.  So in that sense, growing food is countercyclical.  

 “When the economy is booming and everything is great, maybe people don’t think they want to work on a farm and not make a whole lot of money, but when there are no jobs and you’ve been out of college for two years and you still haven’t found anything, keeping busy on a farm and learning some skills doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. Food becomes an underpinning for a resilient economy, one that doesn’t get caught so badly in those downturns and can find its way out again. Or, the downturns don’t affect us so much because we all have these really deep connections within our community.

“For me, it’s about three things: face, place, taste.  Do you know who grew the food? Where they grew it? Is it something that’s distant and separate from what you would buy in the supermarket?  If you can find those elements, then you’ve got a lot of the important pieces of a good food system.  We’re also fortunate because we’re sitting right on the edge of the ocean, so we can have conversations about seafood. What we’ve been able to do at MOFGA is provide a lot of space for people to, in a sense, self-organize.

“In 1971 when MOFGA started, there was only one farmers market in Maine.  It was the old Portland Farmers market that’s been going since the 1790’s or earlier. Now, I think, there are 95 farmers markets in Maine.  Every town with 10,000 people or more has a farmers market.  Some of it has intensified and expanded and all of a sudden you hit critical mass. A lot of farmers, who never would have gone to a farmers market 25 years ago, because that was just for the three hippies in town, now see that these are really vibrant and viable businesses.  There are people making $5,000 to $10,000 a week at farmers markets and generating a real family income.  There are also a lot of small markets that don’t have critical mass and are still working their way up the ladder to viability. It’s tough if you’re in one of those markets and you don’t have enough customers and you’re trying to figure out how you get the next 50 people a week to come by.

“I was at an event the other day that was catered by Rosemont Market out of Portland.  They’re the old kind of community food market. It’s a little local store where you can drop in and get your produce and your cheese and your fresh bread and a few other items. It’s not trying to have every single item that was ever produced.  You know, the typical supermarket has something like 40,000 items now.  The last time I was in Rosemont Market on Munjoy Hill, I’d say they might have had 500 items but from 500 items you can prepare quite a variety of food.  The other 39,500 [items] are largely taking the preparation out of your hands and turning it into something that you just have to heat and eat.  That’s the cultural question in front of us - how much work do we want to do?  If the answer is not much, then it’s going to be really hard for small farms. It’s going to be really hard for small fishers. It’s going to be challenging because we don’t have the critical mass to compete with the lowest cost food. 

“The food buyer for one supermarket, one day, said [to me], ‘So, what’s local going to do for me? I can pick up the phone right now, call Guatemala, tell them I’d like a plane load of beans delivered tomorrow. They’ll go pick up the beans, they’ll be harvested, they’ll be at the right temperature, they’ll be flown up and they’ll be in my warehouse tomorrow morning and they’ll be in my stores tomorrow afternoon.  So what are you going to do that’s any simpler and easier for me?’

“He was asking a rhetorical question about the challenge for us building a local food system in changing the way the food retailers do their business.  I thought about it a lot and I realized I don’t want to compete with farmers in the mountains of Guatemala who are going to go out and harvest at $2.00 a day.  I’d like to support them in feeding themselves, but I’m not going to try to compete with them in a supermarket situation.  And that’s the challenge in front of all of us is how do we build these dense networks that let us unhook from what we’ve all relied on for the last 50 years, which is the supermarket system.

“It would help if we didn’t have to process everything, that we were able to keep the processing end as low tech of a level as possible. Let’s start with cooking.  Canning is just like a bonus.  If people were willing, and have the skills, to cook even three nights a week unprocessed foods, that would be transformative.  But once you’ve got both parties in the family working out and everybody comes home late, tired and exhausted from working too long at our American style jobs and then you go: ‘um, what’s for supper tonight?’  The repertoire shrinks really rapidly at that point.

“It’s also organizing in a way that lets us support each other because, for example, the new produce safety rules that FDA wants to put out next year could just swamp everybody or at least the 210,000 produce farmers in the country.  I read them. There’s 150 single-spaced pages just on tomatoes, lettuce, leafy greens, and melons. Mind numbing stuff like six to ten pages on gloves. Just gloves and how you clean and sanitize them, if you’re going to use them again.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to wear gloves when I’m out working in my garden and harvesting food.  We have to support one another or else we’re all going to get caught in this cookie cutter standardized world. 

“This weekend is the Common Ground Country Fair and we have a decent weather forecast. We’ll have 50,000 to 60,000 people here and they’re coming because they want to be part of this ongoing conversation where it’s about the people and the community. If there’s one thing that’s not going to be happening here at the Common Ground Fair this weekend is cookie cutter standardized world.”

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