Fifty years ago this week, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was founded by an eclectic bunch who wanted to grow food differently from most commercial farmers at the time, with techniques that were gentler on the earth. In the organization’s early years, its members were sometimes labeled hippies and zealots, and they were told that the agricultural revolution they were looking for was impossible. But within a few years, MOFGA had garnered the respect of national observers, and the group eventually became the largest organization of its kind in the country. Today, it addresses a wide range of issues, from climate change to the health of the rural economy, but it remains faithful to its mission to promote local, organic food; to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides; and to educate the next generation of organic farmers and gardeners. Here is a brief timeline of its history.
1970 – Abbie Page (now Abbie McMillen) starts organizing organic growers to form a statewide organization called the Maine Organic Foods Association (MOFA). She also publishes its first monthly newsletter, which four years later becomes The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.
1971 – In the early 1970s, Charlie Gould, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension agent for Sagadahoc and Androscoggin counties, is the go-to guy for information and advice about organic farming and gardening. Inundated with requests for help, he hosts a meeting on Aug. 12 in Brunswick for people interested in the topic, including members of MOFA. Scott and Helen Nearing, leaders of the back-to-the-land movement, are the guest speakers. Thus is born the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Gould died in 2013 at the age of 90. His obituary notes that he often said of the farmers and gardeners he worked with: “They taught me much more than I taught them.”
1972 – The 140-acre Ken-Ro Farm in Plymouth, owned by Ken and Roberta Horn, becomes the first Maine farm to obtain organic certification, followed by 26 others by the end of the year.
1974 – MOFGA launches its farm apprentice program for young adults who are interested in farming but need more field experience. The very first apprentice is Chellie Pingree, who later runs her own organic farm on North Haven and even later becomes Maine’s congresswoman, serving on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. To date, the farm apprentice program has trained 2,280 people.
1976 – Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine calls MOFGA “the most effective group of its kind in the country.” The same year, MOFGA gets its first office and hires paid staff.
1976 – A survey asks MOFGA members “What are the three most important attitudes to have for a successful homestead?” The No. 1 answer is: “Enjoy hard work.”
1977 – The first personal computer makes its debut at a consumer electronics show in Chicago, thrusting the world into a hard-to-imagine future. Later in the year, the first Common Ground Country Fair in Litchfield re-connects 10,000 attendees with their agricultural roots. Portland Press Herald reporter Lloyd Ferris writes that the fair (which he calls “good pagan fun”) showcases “the revival of the American country spirit.” The first fair nets about $11,000, enough to keep the organization going for about four months. Today the fair, now held in Unity, draws 60,000 visitors, requires 2,000 volunteers to execute, and has valet parking for fairgoers who arrive on their bikes. Among fair classics: Pie cones, tofu fries, sheep dog demonstrations, and organic vegetables on display.
1980 – The fair adds a manure-pitching contest, at the suggestion of Mort Mather, an original MOFGA member who later becomes president of the organization. According to MOFGA, Mather (also president of the Manure Spreading Society of Maine) makes up the contest’s rules, including one that “politicians cannot enter because they might have an unfair advantage in a manure slinging contest.”
1981 – MOFGA forms a legislative committee to try to influence public policy.
1983 – Artists enter the first poster contest for the Common Ground Country Fair. M. Cormier and D. Thompson win for a poster of a sheep lying in a pasture, with pumpkins in the foreground. Today, more than 100 artists enter the contest each year, vying for a $2,500 prize. The fair posters have become collectibles, their images reproduced on T-shirts and tote bags, aprons and onesies. Among the most popular posters over the years are 2015’s “Joyful Goat” by Arika von Edler, and the 2009 poster by Maine apple expert John Bunker, which features an heirloom apple from every county in Maine. This year, artist Kathryn Russell won for her tree modeled after the MOFGA logo in honor of the organization’s 50th anniversary. The tree has a carrot trunk, potato roots, and branches and leaves of peppers, eggplant, blueberries and corn.
1986 – Eric Sideman is hired to act as the organization’s own “extension agent,” charged with taking an ecological approach to agriculture.
1995: Russell Libby becomes executive director and launches a campaign encouraging shoppers to spend $10 per week on food that’s grown in Maine.
1999 – MOFGA takes the next step in farmer training, launching the Journeyperson program for beginning farmers with an established farm business and at least two years of farming experience. Since 1999, the program has trained 306 farmers, offering them mentorship, stipends, free technical advice and business planning, and even discounts on seeds.
2012 – Russell Libby dies of cancer at age 56. Barbara Damrosch, then-president of the MOFGA board of directors, tells the 200 people who attend his memorial service that he “steered the ship like a sailor who knew every tide.” Under Libby’s leadership, MOFGA became the largest state-level organic association in the country.
2013 – MOFGA reaches a milestone, crossing the 10,000 mark for individual memberships.
2014 – The first trees are planted in the new, 10-acre Maine Heritage Orchard, created from an old gravel pit on MOFGA’s property in Unity. The orchard grows more than 300 varieties of apples. Laura Sieger, orchard coordinator, has her favorites, including Nutting Bumpus, which originated in Aroostook County and she describes as “a good, all-around apple, especially for pies. They’re very pleasant looking. They’re round and they have very distinct stripes – a really bright, crimsony red over a green fading to yellow.”
2016 – In August, MOFGA reaches another milestone: more than 500 organic certifications, including 464 farms and 46 processors, meaning that nearly 6 percent of Maine farms are certified organic. (Since then, the numbers have continued to climb.)
2017 – Individual memberships hit a record high, with more than 13,400 individual members and 6,200 member households.
2020 – Despite a global pandemic, the Common Ground Country Fair soldiers on via the internet, with 32,000 people attending a virtual fair.
2020 – MOFGA opens the Maine Organic Country Store in Freeport as a pop-up. It returns the following year as a permanent store, selling fair merchandise and products from fair vendors and MOFGA-certified organic producers.
2021 – MOFGA celebrates its 50th anniversary with a membership drive, setting a goal of $50,000 in new and renewing memberships — a goal it is already approaching by the end of July. To make the organization more accessible, MOFGA is offering memberships with donations of as little as $5 — about the same as the original membership fee in 1971.
Correction: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Monday Aug. 9, 2021 to delete an incorrect statement on certification.