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Russell Libby Remembered as Visionary Champion of Maine's Organic Farming Movement
12/10/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Friends and colleagues are remembering Russell Libby today as a visonary champion of organic farming and local agriculture in Maine and beyond. Libby, the longtime head of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardners Association - or MOFGA - died Sunday at the age of 56 from cancer. Under his leadership, MOFGA grew into what many say is the most influential organic group in the nation, and Libby became a key voice in the ongoing debates over agriculture policy in Augusta and Washington D.C. But even as he became a more public figure, friends say Libby remained the same generous, authentic person - equally comfortable chatting up lawmakers on Capitol Hill, visiting farms across Maine or spending an afternoon shingling a friend's house. Jay Field has this rememberance.

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Around 20 years ago, John Bunker says he got a note from an especially enthusiastic customer. Bunker writes the tree catalogue at FEDCO, the Waterville-based seed company. The customer was Russell Libby.

"He wanted me to offer more unusual apple varieties," Bunker recalls. "He really liked it when I sort of picked out the rare historic ones."

Bunker says it was the first time he realized that someone actually cared about the work he did. "That, all of a sudden, inspired me to want to do more with what I call my own fruit exploration."

The two men began comparing notes on the mysterious fruit trees they found on their travels around Maine. A friendship developed. It deepened later, as two began crisscrossing the state together to attend fundraisers for MOFGA - Bunker in his role as president of the group's board and Libby as its executive director.

Back in June, Libby reflected on the increasing availability of locally-grown, organic food during an appearance on MPBN's Maine Calling.

"In 1971, there was only one farmers' market in Maine," he said. "There was one natural food store. Most people, if you wanted whole wheat flour, drove to Boston. Obviously, the food system has transformed greatly in the last 40 years."

The system Libby envisoned for Maine and New England has its roots in his home town of Mt. Vernon. While working for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Libby calculated what would happen to the local economy if Mt. Vernon residents committed to spending at least $10 a week on locally-produced food and goods. "Ten Dollars a Week" became a rally cry for Libby, one he continued to push when he took over as MOFGA's executive director in 1995.

"He really was the right person, for the right job, at the right moment," says Heather Spalding, MOFGA's interim leader. Spaulding says the organization was at a crossroads when Libby took the reigns. It had a solid core of supporters. But it needed a leader with real vision, someone who could take the organization to the next level.

Spalding says Libby stepped in and "launched a really extensive search for farmland that could be used to host the Common Ground Country Fair each year, but also to have a year round education center and a permanent home."

Libby and MOFGA found this new home in Unity, and built the Common Ground Education Center. Barbara Damrosch, the current head of the group's board, says the move unleased a wave of new growth at MOFGA under Libby's watch. Education programs expanded. So did the organization's farm apprenticeship program.

"We have the largest membership of any state level argriculture organization in the country, which is pretty amazing in a state with not much over a million people in it," Damrosch says.

As MOFGA grew, policymakers sought out Libby's vast store of knowledge about agriculture, economics and food systems.

"He had a great sense of humor. Self-effacing. Just incredibly likeable, kind and smart," says Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. Pingree says she came to depend on Libby's advice in negotiations over the most recent farm bill in Congress,

"He made several trips to Washington throughout periods of being ill," Pingree says. "He sent us morning clips of important agricultural food and economic news we should be reading almost until his last day. So I feel like we've been in touch and had him advising us till the last moment that he could."

A memorial service in Russell Libby's honor will be held at the Mt. Vernon Elementary School this coming Saturday at 11 a.m.


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