Time Traveling to the Roots of NOFA…
The original “Natural Organic Farmers Association” created in 1971 was a direct countercultural response to those times by an assorted group of Back to the Land, anti-war and social justice activists concerned with the industrialized food system. This handful of radicalized evolutionaries who came from diverse urban and rural backgrounds were
not only learning how to farm by digging into the longtime organic knowledge stream but were also creating an effective grassroots peer education organization to teach each other along with the rapidly growing number of new farmers, gardeners, homesteaders and eaters who were drawn to this NOFA upstart.
Those pioneers created many models and lasting attainments that are still an important part of NOFA today, including the creation of a publication called “The Natural Farmer”, the latest issue of which you now hold in your hands. To help inform our next
50 years it’s important to get a sense of the tribulations present at the time of our founding, as many of society’s intractable issues they were facing then are ones we are still dealing with today.
“From the social and political ferment of the 1960s bubbled up a desire for connection to the land as the basis for a saner society”
A Trip in the Time Machine
To get a feel for the motivations behind NOFA’s beginnings, I invite you to strap into the Time Machine and set the dial to 1971 for a brief ride to the roots of those formative times for activists coming of age in the ’50s, 60s and ’70s. However, you are reminded to leave your digital devices at home as they were not yet in existence. Although seemingly ever-present, the internet only handled 1% of twoway telecommunications traffic in 1993; 51% by 2000 and 97% by 2007.
On the radio, you might catch John Lennon’s “Imagine”, from his first solo recording after the breakup of the Beatles the year before – along with “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who“ Going to California” by Led Zeppelin, The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination”, “Levon” from Elton John and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”. You might settle into the new albums “Blue” from Joni Mitchell and “Tapestry” from Carole King on the stereo. Featured at the local cinema was “A Clockwork Orange”, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes”, “The Andromeda Strain” or the latest James Bond thriller, “Diamonds are Forever.” New books on the shelf might include Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Lorax by Dr Seuss, and Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé.
Then there’s what’s on TV, an entertainment medium launched in the 1950s that brought about huge lifestyle changes and cultural socialization to American society. Popular programs in 1971 were Sesame Street, Laugh-In, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Johnny Carson and American Bandstand.
Meanwhile, the Nightly News was bringing grisly scenes of the Vietnam War – along with the accelerating antiwar protests – into living rooms across the country. TV was also a well-developed advertising medium for political campaigns. In 1971, when President Richard Nixon was running for his second term, he used it to play on fears of the accelerating civil rights and antiwar protests by announcing a governmental “War on Drugs” to target, disrupt and imprison large numbers of Blacks, Latinos and antiwar activists.
Overall the 60s and ’70s were a time of intense civil unrest punctuated by a series of political assassinations: John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy both in 1968. The country was polarized into extremes of leftist hippies and right-wing construction worker “hardhats”. During this time many activists and students caught up in the counterculture movement were arrested.
War and Anti-war
U.S. involvement in Vietnam greatly accelerated in the 1960s. In 1965 President Johnson called for 50,000 more ground troops and increased the draft to 35,000 each month. By 1967, U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam increased to 500,000 leading to huge protests all over the country. In 1968, facing voter backlash, President Johnson announced he would not seek reelection. As opposition grew, anti-war protests disrupted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Richard Nixon won the presidency on the campaign promise of restoring “law and order”.
The opposition continued to accelerate. In 1970, four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on protestors at Kent State University. In 1971, the May Day protest drew the greatest number to date of demonstrators to Washington, DC, and a record 12,000 activists were thrown in jail. In June the publication of the Pentagon Papers revealed how government officials had repeatedly and secretly increased U.S. involvement in the war.
Thanks to years of massive public protests, public opinion finally turned against the war. The government response was to reduce ground troops, end the use of Agent Orange and expand and equip the South Vietnamese Army – all backed up by an accelerated bombing campaign. Direct U.S. involvement didn’t actually end until 1973 when President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords. Facing impeachment over the Watergate break-in and coverup, Nixon was forced to resign in 1974.
Growing up in the ’50s
For the generations brought up under the ultraconservative family values of the Postwar 1950s, this was a very intense period. As schoolkids living under the Cold War nuclear armament policies of mutually assured destruction, there were weekly “duck and cover” drills – hiding under their desks and covering their heads. Community-wide Air Raid sirens periodically warned citizens to stay indoors or head to fallout shelters.
The anti-communist precepts of the 1950s also furthered the rise of the right-wing in Congress. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others fueled the nation’s fears with smear tactics about communists, Soviet spies and sympathizers, an infiltrated state department. In 1953, President Eisenhower formally banned gay and lesbian people from serving in the federal government or working with any private contractors doing government work – a ban that wouldn’t be officially lifted until 1995 by President Clinton.
In the 1950s, women were marginalized as secondclass citizens. Displaced from their critical role in the WW II workforce by returning soldiers, they were chafing under the socially enforced expectations to conform to assigned norms and gender roles as full-time housewives, relegated to taking care of their husbands and children while living in a sterilized version of domestic bliss in the rapidly expanding suburbs.
By the mid-1960s, however, the Women’s Liberation movement seeking equal rights, fair opportunities and greater personal freedom was rapidly accelerating. Coalitions of mainstream women’s organizations and radical feminist groups gained legalized equal access to jobs, liberalized divorce laws, protections from being fired while pregnant and the creation of women’s studies programs at colleges and universities. Still under threat today, the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision narrowly legalized abortion in 1973. Discrimination via higher health insurance rates wasn’t barred until 2010 and the Equal Rights Amendment still remains un-ratified by the necessary majority of state legislatures.
Righting some Civil Wrongs
The booming postwar economy of the ’50s was fueled by easy credit and low-cost bank loans brought about by the governmental programs that funded moves out of cities and towns into newly built houses in the suburbs. At the same time, racial minorities were barred from those neighborhoods as redlining practices took hold and other racist policies excluded African Americans from the economic gains and social privileges afforded to white middleclass families. These groups were and continue to be disproportionately poorer than white Americans, resulting in a racial wealth gap that continues to grow bigger today.
Industrial agriculture was clearly the wrong way; back-to-the-landers turned elsewhere to find the right way.
The returning African American combat veterans who served in segregated units during the war, fighting for democracy, liberty, justice and equality in other parts of the world were also generally excluded from GI housing and education benefits because of nationwide racism and “Jim Crow” discrimination policies that mandated that Blacks and whites could not use the same public facilities, ride the same buses, or attend the same schools.
All this added new impetus to the modern-day Civil Rights Movement when racial violence and lynchings were still a fact of life in the Deep South. Although the 14th Amendment guaranteed “equal protection” under the law to all people, a legalized “separate but equal” doctrine prevailed in southern states affirming racial segregation in services, housing, education, employment and transportation that was far from equal. In 1954 a Supreme Court ruling ordered the nation’s schools to desegregate in Brown v. Board of Education. Mississippi and other southern states refused to comply – leading to a Court reaffirmation in 1958 and a desegregation process that would take decades of struggle to bring about.
Utilizing upgraded tactics of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience that included boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides and marches, Martin LutherKing emerged as a primary leader in 1955. This was spearheaded by the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott set off by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white person and ended with a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.
After King’s massive “I Have a Dream” March on Washington in 1963, the greatly expanded Civil Rights protests encountered even more segregationist violence: police assaults on Blacks in Birmingham; murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi and vicious attacks on peaceful protesters during the “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery. Exacerbated by the antiwar protests, and again by the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, riots erupted in Watts, Detroit, Newark and many other major cities throughout the mid-1960s.
With a long history of preventing Black Americans from voting through poll taxes and highly subjective literacy tests, voting rights became a primary Civil Rights focus. In 1964, the massive Mississippi voter registration “Freedom Summer” drive increased Black registered voters from 7% to 67%. Continued pressure led to Congress passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Also in 1965, Mexican American civil rights activist César Chávez led California grape-pickers in a five-year strike to demand higher wages, bringing national attention to the exploitation of migrant workers. In the early 1970s, the United Farm Workers organized strikes for higher wages for grape and lettuce growers along with a boycott in the 1980s to protest toxic pesticide use. The result was signed bargaining agreements that gave some protections though not enough to farmworkers.
These protracted struggles combined with intense social unrest in pursuit of justice, fairness and equality were a major part of the overall countercultural movement during the time of NOFA’s founding in the 70s – and are still a major part of society’s increasingly more polarized political dynamics today.
Hard-won voting rights are under fire today. In response to the record voter turnout in the 2020 election, 18 states have passed 30 new racially motivated laws that make it harder for People of Color to vote. At the same time, Republican-dominated state legislatures are creating laws giving themselves the power to override legitimate voter outcomes.
The nation’s food system was also an ongoing corporate takeover target. In 1971, President Nixon appointed Agribusiness-friendly Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture, who worked to dismantle New Deal supply management policies – exhorting farmers to “Get Big or Get Out” and “plant fencepost to fencepost” instead. Farmers took on huge debt to buy more land, machinery, fertilizer and pesticides to produce as much as they could – leading directly to the farm overproduction bubble bursting in the
1980s that caused incomes to plunge and the worst farmer bankruptcies and rural crisis since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the surviving farmers ended up growing even bigger and the Butz policies persist to this day.
In this time of increasing corporate hegemony and acute social unrest, a spontaneous Back to the Land Movement emerged as an affirmative response
to the calamitous times. It prompted millions of people, urban and rural, to seek a connection with nature, longing for a meaningful and self-sufficient life on the land through growing their own food and building community.
Back-to-the-landers drew inspiration and practical knowledge from multiple sources, especially Rodale’s “Organic Gardening” magazine, first published in the 1940s, which contained a wealth of information from such organic leaders as Gene Logsdon and Ruth Stout; and classic works like An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howardand Farmers of Forty Centuries by FH King, all of which showed that growing food without exploitation was not only possible, but better than the alternative. Also, as a primary ‘how-to’ source, the Whole Earth Catalog “access to tools” publications were the Google of its time. Essays and articles packed with ecological and holistic awareness were side-by-side with a wide range of updated product reviews and listings of useful books, garden implements, carpentry tools, etc.
A handful of northeast rural and urban Back to the Land activists began to connect and organize in Vermont and New Hampshire with a prescient vision of working with Nature, protecting the Earth, learning how to grow healthy organic food and creating an alternative food system. Organizing was done knocking on doors person to person, with many miles of travel in between.
After establishing initial contacts, the fledgling growers distributed flyers widely through VT and NH announcing a gathering on a Vermont hillside on June 7, 1971, with the purpose of organizing a new Natural Organic Farmers Association based on teaching themselves and others how to farm. Such peer education is one of early NOFA’s great legacies that remains a hallmark today. Also handed down were templates for bulk orders; creating Farmers Markets; Summer and Winter Conferences, The Natural Farmer newspaper, volunteerism and consumer education along with grassroots policy advocacy and a spiritual connection to the earth.
This 50th Anniversary Celebration is an opportunity to revisit and learn from the vision, spark and spirit of the early NOFA founders. Many of the issues they were facing then are ones we are still dealing with today and can and should serve to inform the success of the organic movement into the future. Those formative times can also inspire and invigorate today’s members that are working diligently to take NOFA’s educational and advocacy mission forward.