Mort Mather, involved in MOFGA since it began 40 years ago, talked about the history of the organization during his keynote speech at the Common Ground Fair. English photo.
By Mort Mather
Mort Mather was MOFGA’s third president and soon after served as president for two more years. He was among the first certified organic farmers in Maine and was the first to sell organic vegetables to the first natural food co-op in Portland. He now grows an acre of organic vegetables, supplying most of the veggies for his son’s restaurant, Joshua’s, in Wells.
Mather also served as executive director of Friends of Intelligent Land-use (FOIL), which opposed building an oil refinery in Sanford, and as founding president of Laudholm Trust, with the mission of saving a 250-acre farm on the coast – now the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. He founded the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation and saved the playhouse from development; developed the Farms for the Future program for Coastal Enterprises Inc., to help farmers improve their viability; and in 2004, with his wife, Barbara, and their son, Joshua, opened Joshua’s, a restaurant and bar.
40 years ago … Back-to-the-Land Movement
In the early ‘70s a bunch of people left conventional jobs and lifestyles for life in Maine living close to the land, cutting our own fuel, growing our own food and living a simpler life. Some built their own houses and turned forest into fields much as the colonists had. Scott and Helen Nearing were credited with the back-to-the-land movement, and certainly Scott’s book Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World was a contributing factor; but I believe the movement was as inexplicable as swarming bees, because I don’t think I was the only one who had come back to the land before I had heard of the Nearings.
I bought the farm in York County in 1969 as an investment. I was a theatrical stage manager living in New York City who had come to Maine to stage manage the Ogunquit Playhouse. Some land speculators befriended me and told me if I had any money I should buy land in the area. I didn’t have much but I looked around and…I’ll shorten the story…I bought 100 acres with a 150-year-old house for $16,000 in June, I fell in love with Barbara in July and we were married in November. A year later I found I was unhappy with my goal of fame and fortune and decided I should pursue happiness. I didn’t know how to do that, just that I should try something different.
When I told a friend, “If I could figure out a way to make a living outside of New York, I’d leave tomorrow,” he asked if I wanted to manage his nightclub in Puerto Rico. Barbara and I left a week later and celebrated our first anniversary in San Juan. During that week we came to our house in Maine to rent it and, although we didn’t express it to each other until months later, we both felt that Maine was where we were supposed to be. A year and a half later I had paid off the mortgage and we moved onto the farm with the goal of meeting our needs as directly as possible.
Step one was to plant a garden. I grew up on organic vegetables. My father subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine, so obviously our garden would be organic. When I bought seed potatoes from Fall’s Agway, Earl Fall asked if I didn’t want some fertilizer with that. “Nope, not going to use fertilizer,” I flippantly replied. Earl, salesman that he was, said, “You better eat those potatoes then.” I bought some fertilizer but I only put it on half the planting, and when I harvested I couldn’t see any difference. That was the last conventional fertilizer I have used. I think the potatoes did well without Earl’s fertilizer because the spot I chose for a garden might have been a chicken yard previously. Plants do need fertile soil.
First York County Meeting
In September Barbara read about a meeting of people forming an organic organization. Unfortunately it was on a Monday night when I watched Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith. Barbara dragged me to the meeting. [We met] a good group of people, most of whom are still close friends. You might know some of them. Stacy and Marylyn Wentworth who founded The School Around Us; Bill and Jean Noon who are cooking lamb right now in the food area; and Tom and Kate Chappell who founded Tom’s of Maine. Mostly we talked about whether or not to form a chapter of the Maine Organic Foods Association (MOFA). We met the following month and talked about how to get more people to come; met again the next month with the same topic. Joseph Joseph, the man who headed up the meetings, had purchased a farm in Kennebunk and planned to make a lot of money selling organic vegetables. He was nearly 40 years ahead of his time. At the December meeting I suggested that we not worry about getting more people and that we have meetings about things that interested us. Everyone agreed, and I suddenly found myself to be chapter chair. As such one of my duties would be to represent the chapter at the annual meeting of MOFA to be held at the Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in a month.
Annual Meeting at Agricultural Trades Show
There were about 50 people at that meeting in January 1973. I don’t recall anything I said, but it must have been pithy as I was nominated to be the second president of MOFA. I declined, saying that I’d like to see if I could make a chapter work first, but I agreed to take on the role of treasurer. I was given a box of about 100 index cards with names and addresses. I think dues were $5. A newsletter was being duplicated and mailed from the Androscoggin office of the Cooperative Extension through the wonderful support of Charlie Gould, who deserves a lion’s share of the credit for getting the organization started.
Somewhere along the line, Tim Nason came into my life and said he would like to edit the newsletter. The newsletter operation shifted to York County. Tim added graphics and did a great job building it into a publication we could sell. He is still involved. Jean English has been doing a marvelous job of editing the paper for nearly 25 years.
We decided to change the name to Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association as it seemed to better identify us. That we are a farmers’ and gardeners’ organization has always been one of our strengths. The second state organic organization was formed in California by organic farmers for the purpose of certification. By not including gardeners and others with an interest in organic agriculture, they have fewer people to help them spread information, influence legislation or provide financial support. Maine wasn’t the only state to attract back-to-the-landers. Sam Kayman moved to New Hampshire from Brooklyn and started the Natural Organic Farming Association, NOFA. NOFA’s first meeting was about the same time as MOFA’s first meeting in 1971. In 1993 NOFA changed the name to Northeast Organic Farming Association and has state chapters in New York and all New England states except Maine.
At the 1974 annual meeting, I accepted the nomination for president. Chaitanya York was vice president and became the fourth president. Chaitanya had a more progressive vision than I did. He got a grant from the Kendall Foundation to pay staff and take us to a new level. I remember board meetings where I opposed the idea because the grant would run out and then we would be struggling with the need to raise money. We got the grant and we hired Chaitanya as executive director. I was right; we did struggle to raise money. There have been a lot of struggling years. But necessity, at least in this case, was the mother of invention. One night, sitting in our first office in Hallowell brooding over the problem, Common Ground Fair was hatched in Chaitanya’s mind.
I was not on the MOFGA board at the time, so my first fair experience was as a fairgoer. It was held at the Litchfield fairgrounds, and I think everyone must have gone away from that fair with the same feeling of good will that I felt. It was wonderful. It charged my battery with positive energy. I went back to our chapter and urged participation.
Someone knew about a rope ladder that was fastened with a pivot to the ground and the top of a pole, and the idea was to try to climb the ladder without falling off. The Tipsy Ladder made its debut at the second fair – 25 cents a try.
I was so charged up [that] my mind hatched the Harry S. Truman Manure Pitch as a way to promote the fair. The idea came to me while, what else, pitching manure from the back of my truck. While so engaged I would often provide commentary à la Howard Cosell and Dandy Don.
“Whoa! That was a good spread!”
“Yes, Howard, he had a good fork full of fairly loose manure and was able to get it to fan out beautifully.”
“What’s he doing now, Dan?”
“I think he is looking for a more solid forkful that will hold together so he can hit that far corner.”
You get the idea. I also thought it would be a good idea to have qualifying pitches, one of which would be on my farm. You may think this was just a plan to get someone else to spread my manure and you would be right; however, organizing that event was a lot more work than spreading the manure myself, but it was a lot of fun. There was another qualifying event at the Smith farm and I’m sorry but I can’t remember where that was.
There were four events: the basket pitch where a bushel basket of manure is put in a wheelbarrow and the contestant tries to get as much back in the basket as possible from about 15 feet away. Distance and accuracy is self-explanatory. Those two events have been carried on and are available to fairgoers tomorrow and Sunday. There were two other events that first year: the gardener’s spread and the farmer’s spread. For the gardener’s spread, the contestant is given a wheelbarrow full of manure and a 15- by 20-foot rectangle. They are judged for evenness of spread, neatness and style.
The farmer’s spread remains as one of the highlights of my life. Contestants had to have a pickup truck, which was loaded with three tractor buckets of manure. They drove to a nearby gravel pit that was being reclaimed and onto 50- by 60-foot rectangles that had been lined out on the field. The size was calculated to require moving the truck at least once, so placement of the truck on the rectangle was important. Picture this: Twenty trucks in position, contestants poised in the back of each truck waiting for the starter’s gun, a photographer from Organic Gardening magazine among spectators looking down from the sides of the pit, five judges, one wearing a top hat and tails, the suspense, and then the gun sounds and manure flies in every direction! It was glorious!
I should tell you why it is named for President Truman. The story goes that a society lady in Washington urged the president’s wife to get the president to stop using the word manure, and Bess replied, “You don’t know how long it took me to get him to start using that word.”
The farmer’s pitch was a one-time event, but I did the other three for several more years. When Common Ground moved to Windsor, having outgrown Litchfield in its second year, there was no place we could spread manure and leave it, so I had to put down sheets of plastic for the gardener’s spread and scoop it all up afterward. Kinda took the fun out of it.
How many Windsor fairgrounds would fit here – Ten? Twenty? How many Litchfield fairgrounds – Thirty? Forty? We’ve come a long way.
My first year as president, a student from College of the Atlantic accepted the job on the executive committee as secretary. Chellie Johnson wanted to apprentice on a farm, so she found a willing farmer, Tony Bok, apprenticed that summer and then organized the apprentice program. She is now Congresswoman Chellie Pingree in the United States Congress. That’s good for us but I’m not sure it is good for her.
The apprenticeship program has been functioning ever since under the guidance of a volunteer apprenticeship committee. It has grown and improved every year. Several years ago it grew into a journeyperson program, essentially a graduate program for apprentices who have shown the commitment and passion to become farmers. [MOFGA had] about 150 apprentices and 50 journeypersons last year. [Ed. note: Andrew Marshall now manages MOFGA's educational programs with the help of a volunteer education committee.]
[MOFGA has gone from certifying] 27 to nearly 400 farms.
Public Policy – Legislative Influence
I’m not sure about this, but my fuzzy recollection is that when we pursued incorporation, incorporated organizations were not allowed to use the state’s name in their name. I think Abbie Page lobbied to have that changed. MOFGA lobbying efforts go back to our very beginning.
In 1981 our legislative efforts were formalized with the formation of our legislative committee. [Mather cited the public policy milestones below.]
1990: MOFGA receives the National Environmental Achievement Award in Food Safety for its work on Maine produce labeling laws (work done by Nancy Ross, Beedy Parker, Jeanne Hollingsworth and others) and the Maine Nutrition Council’s Public Service Award “in recognition of [MOFGA’s] contribution in nutrition and health to Maine people.”
1992: Maine becomes the only state with a moratorium on recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) after MOFGA members and others speak against the genetically engineered hormone before a legislative committee. The hormone is later approved for use in the state.
1994: The Maine Legislature defeats An Act to Require Labeling on Genetically Engineered Foods, despite a noble fight by Representative Conrad Heeschen, a MOFGA member. Representative Bob Tardy counters, “You feel a lot better about your food if you are not reading a lot while you are eating it.” The Legislature calls for a Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. Rob Johnston and MOFGA board member Sharon Tisher are appointed to the Commission. To this date (2011), after repeated attempts at labeling legislation, consumers are not told what is in their non-organic food.
1997: In response to a proposal by MOFGA, the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) considers revising its mission statement to target pesticide use reduction as a goal. Jo D. Saffeir of the BPC calls MOFGA’s proposal the “most extensive” and “concrete” proposal received after the board asked for input on addressing citizens’ concerns regarding aerial spraying. Eventually the board rejects the proposal and decides to have a public information campaign to reduce cosmetic use of pesticides on lawns. On MOFGA’s behalf, Senators Marge Kilkelly and John Nutting then propose “An Act to Reduce Reliance on Pesticides” to the Maine Legislature, which passes it. So Maine now has a policy requiring that reliance on pesticides be minimized in the state, but the BPC has had difficulty collecting and synthesizing pesticide sales data that would make the policy a reality.
1998: Maine’s Board of Pesticides Control stuns big seed and chemical companies by denying an application to market a genetically engineered Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn variety here. MOFGA testifies that organic growers – the fastest growing segment of Maine agriculture – would be the first to suffer if insects develop resistance to Bt from the engineered corn. Bt corn is later approved for use here.
2001: Maine passes legislation requiring manufacturers and dealers of genetically engineered (GE) plants or seeds to deliver written instructions to all Maine growers of GE crops sufficient to minimize potential cross-contamination – a weakened version of MOFGA’s original proposed legislation. An act to require labeling of GE foods is voted down, but an act providing for voluntary labeling of GE foods passes. MOFGA opposes the latter, calling it inadequate.
2009: Our Public Policy Committee pushes through a three-year moratorium on open-air production of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops in Maine, the first such law in the nation.
2010: Russell Libby spends considerable time working on federal food safety legislation. Congress passes an imperfect bill – but, thanks largely to Libby, one with amendments giving organic growers more negotiating room regarding regulations.
We were the first to hire our own “Extension Agent,” Eric Sideman…25 years ago! Animal scientist Diane Schivera joined the staff in 1998 and is now MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist.
I remember a conversation with Dr. Eggert in which he was skeptical that organic methods produced better results than conventional, but, being a scientist, he wasn’t satisfied with any information he could find, so he established research plots at the University of Maine to study organic versus conventional. He later became president of MOFGA. He did more than anything to overcome the hippy-weirdo-freak image.
I remember responding to a question from someone in Massachusetts about starting an organic organization, that they should get help from the Cooperative Extension. It turned out Extension in that state was not cooperating.
Hippy-weirdo-freaks was how conventional agriculture folks tried to stereotype us, and I guess it worked through some USDA offices like Extension in some states. I suspect that nonsense was passed around through distribution networks of agricultural chemicals, feed and seed [suppliers], out of concern that if organic caught on it would cut into their businesses.
The vegetable specialist for the state of Maine [Willie Erhardt] taught a class on vegetable production at the University in Orono and invited me to speak to his class about organic agriculture, an offer I gladly accepted. He apologized for the small number of students in the lecture room due to the class being held the last day before Christmas break. There were a couple of dozen students and I had fun telling them about my favorite topic. When I was through the professor added some information of his own which turned out to be the high point for me. He gave some figures about how many people would have to die if chemicals were outlawed because there wouldn’t be enough fertile soil to support our population. I pointed out that our own bodies produce fertilizer and while it is currently unpopular to think of using it to fertilize our crops, it would probably be preferable to starvation. And then I asked him a question: “Where did you get your information?” His answer and my response got the biggest laugh of the day from the class. He said, “The American Potash Association.” I just looked at the class and smiled.
Scott Nearing’s Keynote Talk on Economics
[Mather finished his talk by reenacting Scott Nearing’s Keynote at a MOFGA gathering. Scott approached the podium with a stack of papers in hand, set the papers on the podium, looked at the audience, and gave his four-word speech: “Pay as you go.”]