A Partial History of Early NOFA and Our Alliances

photo courtesy Samuel Kaymen The founding meeting of NOFA, held on June 7, 1971 in Westminster, VT, was organized by Samuel Kaymen. He proposed that the organization would teach 9 principles.

by Jack Kittredge based on work and contributions by Grace Gershuny, Liz Henderson, oral histories of various early NOFA leaders compiled by Robert S. Cox at the University of Massachusetts, and personal Emails and records.


NOFA has left a dappled history, as have many small and modest organizations. Some individuals, often the ones who speak or write, leave something of a trace. Some activities, again tending to be the ones written about in minutes or newsletters or personal diaries, leave a record. Most people’s memories, however — the excitement, the discoveries, the relationships, the songs and laughter – are too ephemeral and subjective to live on their own.

So this will be an attempt to acquaint our newer members with the beginnings of NOFA, and the alliances that helped it get started and grow. You will learn of a few individuals, put together a rough timeline, and hear of some of those early, wishful efforts to live untarnished. But it will be inherently flawed and leave out many important people and events. We still need our Herodotus.

NOFA, along with a dozen other organic farming groups, grew out of the unrest among 1960s American youth. Idealistic movements for racial equality, peace and economic justice had encountered strong opposition, with some faltering and turning upon themselves. An unpopular war was proving unwinnable, but our national leaders kept sending new recruits into its maw. Young people, striving to retain their ideals in a society they saw as reeking with cynicism and greed, sought ways to support themselves without compromising.

For some, the idea of a rural life, raising food in harmony with the earth, was very attractive. The beginnings of an environmental movement, writings on ‘The Good Life’ by the Nearings, Rachel Carson’s dire warning in ‘Silent Spring’, even the hip advice to ‘drop out’ all encouraged that direction for these decidedly urban and suburban young people — who had no experience of the realities of farming.

Some early NOFA leaders are still active, and others have left strong memories. I mention a few here just to give new readers a sampling of the kind of people who formed the association.


Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Samuel Kaymen was exposed to all the movements and motivations of the 1960s. Feeling that his life was spiritually undernourished, in 1964 he and his wife Louisa dropped out of the dominant mainstream society. After six years searching they found themselves in rural Unity, New Hampshire, and started their first self-sufficient garden.

With no previous experience in agriculture, Kaymen learned all he could from outdated library books, eventually stumbling across Edward Hyams’ Soil and Civilization. Hyams argued that when a civilization loses is its topsoil it begins its decline, The fall of all the great civilizations of the past could be linked to agricultural collapse. Kaymen was shocked. “I didn’t know that agriculture was important,” he wrote, “I thought that food was assembled in the backs of grocery stores!”

But with his surprise came inspiration. For the next dozen years Kaymen worked to build a self-help organization of like-minded growers who would farm in an organic, natural, and sustainable way. He organized the founding meeting of NOFA in 1971 in Westminster, VT, got a truck and sold local organic produce to day care centers in Harlem, secured a railroad car load of rock phosphate for distribution among members, put together the first NOFA Summer Conference 1975 in Wilton, NH and brought in Wendell Berry to address the 350 attendees, started a farm there at High Mowing School, developed a yogurt business in the garage to support the dairy, and founded Stonyfield Farm Yogurt.

One of the growers attracted to Kaymen’s vision and energy was Robert Houriet. Previously a journalist and political activist, he had written a book called Getting Back Together about the country commune movement and with his wife Mary had founded such a commune in Vermont called Frog Run Farm. Becoming a major actor in NOFA, Houriet gradually came to feel that the trucking operation was consuming too much energy and centralizing the group too much for his anarchist leanings. Instead he proposed that NOFA work on a grassroots level — using farmer’s markets as a means of organizing cooperatives — to make the association into a federation of local cooperatives.

Both the Vermont Northern Growers Cooperative in East Hardwick and Deep Root Cooperative in Northwestern Massachusetts and Southern Vermont were successful NOFA spin-offs resulting from this effort, growing root crops, largely carrots, with common processing, storage, and marketing. But one developing problem that bothered Robert was that the most successful farmers tended more and more to abandon the coops in order to sell directly to wholesalers — who had become interested in local farm produce — and began competing with each other. Houriet’s efforts, however, resulted in NOFA growth in Vermont (it had previously been strongest in New Hampshire because of Kaymen’s influence).

Born in New York City in 1950, the early life of Grace Gershuny took place away from the agricultural epicenter of northern Vermont, where she lives today. Attending Queens College of the City University of New York, she earned a BA in Mass Communications. But by 1973 she, too, was a market gardener in Vermont. In the mid 70s she was recruited by Houriet to set up a farmer’s market in Newport. That led to volunteer work organizing an early organic certification program and becoming Vermont NOFA State Coordinator in 1979.
Once the Organic Food Production Act was passed in 1990 the USDA offered Grace a job helping with the drafting of regulations for the National Organic Program. She accepted and became immersed in the world of federal regulatory law for several years. Gershuny went through the trauma of rolling out the initial NOP regulations in 1998 — which were very poorly received — and once the USDA decided to withdraw them helped draft the new regs that went into effect in 2002.

Al Johnson came to his interest in farming after getting ill in second grade and changing to a healthier diet. He graduated in environmental education at Boston University and after a stint in the Peace Corps (Solomon Islands) found NOFA in Vermont, taking a job under Gershuny setting up educational on-farm workshops and the first winter conference in 1980. He also was an early certification inspector when NOFA was running the program, before the NOP. Al eventually settled in New Jersey, helping start the NOFA chapter there and serving on the board for many years.

A pioneer in organic agriculture in New England, Bill Duesing graduated from Yale University in 1964 and worked as a Cooperative Extension agent before turning to organic principles in the early 1970s. In 1971 he found land near Oxford, CT and started attending early organic farming meetings in Vermont, including the first NOFA Summer Conference at High Mowing (1975) in Wilton, NH. He has said that in the 70s the conventional establishment was not helping those who wished to grow organically and they had to start NOFA as a self-help group.

Duesing was also interested in the antinuclear movement and in promoting solar energy. In fact, Connecticut NOFA started as an outgrowth of his work as an extension agent promoting solar energy and energy saving. In 1990 an organic landscape workshop at the summer conference got a number of landscapers interested in learning organic approaches as alternatives to the use of pesticides. Eventually this resulted in the Organic Land Care Program, which developed standards for accreditation and then a five-day training course in 2001. This program was hosted at the CT NOFA chapter, of which Bill was executive director.

Another early member who came to NOFA through the back-to-the-land movement in 1970 was New York’s Steve Gilman. A market gardener seeking to make his living from the land without chemicals because of their impact on food and the environment, he avidly sought information from whatever sources were available: Rodale, the Nearings, Cooperative Extension, and focused on building farmers markets. By 1976 he had what he would call a farm and had linked up with NOFA figures such as Kaymen and Houriet, and would later be helpful in building the NY NOFA chapter.

A farmer, activist, and writer, Elizabeth Henderson has played a strong role in NOFA since the 1970s. Although a city kid, she discovered rural America as a teenager at summer work camps and loved the experience. After completing a doctorate at Yale on the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1974, she took a job at Boston University as a professor of Russian literature and culture. The sudden death of her husband in an auto accident, however, plus her distaste for academic hierarchy, changed her career plans. In 1979 she and a group of friends purchased 65 acres in Gill, Massachusetts, built a house, barn and greenhouse there, and began cultivating the land.

She formed an organic certification committee for local farmers and helped organize a Massachusetts chapter of NOFA in 1982, of which she was the first president. In 1988, however, she moved to New York and began farming first on Rose Valley Farm and later on Peacework Organic Farm. In both cases she established CSAs, a marketing innovation which had been successfully tried earlier in Germany and Japan. Henderson has served actively in NOFA-NY on the board, on the Interstate Council, and as a founder and NOFA emissary to fraternal groups such as the Agricultural Justice Project.

Activities and Allies

The earliest activities of NOFA were those necessary to help the members survive as farmers.
Perhaps their most fundamental need was learning about how to practice this new and strange trade. Coming largely from an academic background, members were used to seeking information from established authorities such as governments and universities. But these were the very institutions that were peddling chemical agriculture – what NOFA members wanted to avoid!

Practical Self-Education
What to do? They had to educate themselves. Thus the search into older writers such as Hyams and the Nearings, the formation of, first, informal study groups, then on-farm workshops and, later, major activities like an annual summer conference and schools like High Mowing, and the establishment of publications such as The Natural Farmer.

Older traditions of thought were helpful in this process. Biodynamic (BD) farming offered many similarities to the organic approach, and NOFA members sought out allies among BD farmers from whom to learn. Early NOFA meetings were often on such farms, such as at Wilton, and the early summer conferences were co-sponsored by the BD Association. Permaculture was also highly regarded, with Tasmanian ecologist and Permaculture originator Bill Mollison occasionally showing up at Wilton to give workshops, along with McGill University soil ecologist Stuart Hill.

But NOFA also sought out information from practitioners of cutting edge thinking experimenting with new materials, varieties, and technologies. The work on greenhouse growing, aquaculture and alternative energy that had recently taken place at the nearby New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, particularly, was read and studied by many early NOFA farmers. Co-founders John and Nancy Jack Todd were among the Wilton guests who gave occasional workshops.

Anarchist theories shaped some early organizational efforts in NOFA. Just as in the recent “occupy” movement, officials and hierarchical structures were suspect as standing in the way of true democracy. Decentralization was a goal. Anarchist Murray Bookchin was a popular early speaker at NOFA events and both Robert Houriet and Grace Gershuny mention being influenced by his talks and writings.

In flyers and posters announcing the 1971 foundational meeting of NOFA, Samuel Kaymen had listed 9 skills that the organization would teach. They included such topics as proper composting, seeding, weeding and other aspects of farm production. Conspicuously missing from the list, however, was marketing.

“This shows how naive I really was,” Kaymen later said (1998).

Without marketing, of course, even the best farming techniques would not bring early NOFA growers the farm viability that eluded so many of them. So the organization set up trucking operations to get produce to markets like New York, organized farmers markets to sell product locally, made close connections with the newly burgeoning food coops, helped larger growers ally with others to establish farmer coops which could collect, clean and package crops to meet the requirements of wholesalers, and tried to educate members about minimal crop quality standards.

As Grace Gershuny remembers it in her book Organic Revolutionary:

“Early NOFA organizers aimed to distribute produce from organic farmers in Vermont and New Hampshire to activists and food coops in northeastern cities. This entailed costly and time-consuming truck routes to pick up a case of broccoli here and some carrots there, and barely paid the cost of delivery for products of very questionable quality—when payment was even involved. Jake Guest, one of the earliest growers, then based at Wooden Shoe Farm in New Hampshire, tells a story about a load of Chinese cabbage bound for Chinatown in New York City that ends [with the proposed buyer shouting]:, “that not cabbage, that garbage!” It didn’t take too long or too many truck breakdowns to convince the guys (and it was primarily guys at that time) that this was not exactly sustainable.

“Despite the prevailing distrust of the profit motive, the more serious growers quickly learned that you can’t make a living growing vegetables— you have to sell them. A change of strategy was clearly called for, and the group quickly adopted a new mission of “local food for local markets.” The focus would now be on revitalizing agriculture and helping the predominantly dairy farmers in our region diversify by initiating farmers markets and wholesale grower cooperatives. Quite a bit of research and analysis went into discussions about the feasibility of eating more locally and seasonally, along with despair over the lack of infrastructure for accomplishing that goal.

“The resurgence of farmers markets in the 70s and 80s is one of the success stories of the early alternative agriculture movement. Farmers markets were at first viewed with suspicion by conservative local merchants, who feared that they would take business away from established grocery stores. “We don’t want that kind of people hanging around in public areas,” was the response I got in 1975 when I set out to organize a farmers market in Newport, Vermont, about twelve miles from our home. We contented ourselves with a less central location in the neighboring hamlet of Derby, with support from a sympathetic merchant. For two or three years we had only a handful of vendors, including crafts and baked goods. I was the largest produce grower, generating almost $400 from my half-acre garden in my best season—enough to pay the taxes, anyway.”


NOFA-VT board 1985

photo courtesy Grace Gershuny in “Organic Revolutionary”
NOFA-VT Board-staff meeting, Hardwick, VT, 1985: (l-r) Miranda Smith, Jack Cook, Meredith Leonard, Robert Houriet, Joey Klein, Amy Darly, Stewart Hoyt, Grace Gershuny

Although education and marketing assistance were early needs of member farmers, perhaps the most iconic effort of NOFA was to propose and agree upon standards to enshrine organic practices and differentiate them from those of conventional farming, and then to create a mechanism for local groups to verify which farms were in compliance with those standards and grant those farms a certificate that their owners could use to demonstrate to customers that the farm’s claim to be organic was in fact based on more than self promotion. By 1977 organic certification was a focus of NOFA in Vermont and New Hampshire both. As new chapters came into being in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1980s, certification was one of the first programs they undertook.

The same general phenomenon was happening with young people ‘returning to the land’ and setting up organic standards and certification elsewhere around the country, of course. A 1980 National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) survey found 17 organic certification programs in as many states, including a couple by distributors and manufacturers for their farmer vendors. Three states, California, Oregon and Maine, actually had organic labeling laws on the books. All these programs had a consistent set of basic organic principles since they all took the IFOAM Basic Standards as their starting point, but they exhibited a range of acceptable practices and divergent verification procedures.

The usual certification mechanism was a list of standards that had been agreed upon by a farmer-led committee and approved by the overall organization, an application procedure for farms (including basic information such as a map, field histories, and soil test results), an inspector (usually an experienced farmer) who would make a farm visit, walking the fields and talking with the farmer while poking his or her nose into barns, sheds, greenhouses and equipment, an application fee to cover the expenses of the inspection, an administrator to keep the whole process on schedule, and a committee (sometimes the standards committee, sometime a different one) to evaluate the application information and inspector’s report and make a final decision on whether an annual certificate for a specific farm would be issued.

The committees were voluntary, as were the administrators at first (increasingly they required compensation). The inspectors usually had to be paid for their time and travel. There was a constant comparison of standards between the different certification programs — which were inherent allies in needing to keep standards, paperwork and fees reasonable to farmers while assuring consumers that the label meant something.

At first only a trickle of growers sought certification. They were selling their products locally, to people who either were not concerned about their growing methods or were happy to buy direct from a producer they trusted. Occasional stories of fraudulent organic claims were not enough of a motivation to most farmers to go to the expense and hassle of certification. As the organic market grew, however, and particularly as stores and distributors became important players, third-party verification increasingly was required to make a sale.

Organic Goes Federal
Certainly the most intense period of activity involving NOFA in alliances was the period of 1989 and 1990 during which the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was drafted and presented to Congress.

In early 1989 the CBS news program ’60 Minutes’ ran a segment produced by the National Resources Defense Council on Alar, a ripening agent applied to apples that had been found to be carcinogenic. The public response was immediate anger, with apple sales nose-diving and parents dumping jars of juice down the drain. This storm of public concern fit perfectly with the growing consumer demand for organic food and encouraged Senator Patrick Leahy in his effort to give “organic” a legal federal definition and create a USDA label for such food.

Organic farming groups, needing to confer on this pending development, organized an unusual national meeting in Leavenworth, Kansas in December of 1989. The Organic Food Production Association of North America (OFPANA), organized in 1985, helped get representatives from across the country to come and many, who had been reading about each other for years in newsletters, met for the first time. Kathleen Merrigan, the Leahy staffer charged with drafting the law, had sent out early versions of the legislation. She came, answered questions, and listened to farmer concerns, changing some aspects of the law on the spot.

The groups meeting formed a fledgling Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC) with Tom Forster, who had worked on the Oregon Tilth organic program and with Gene Kahn at his Cascadian Farm in Washington State, as sole staffer.

Grace Gershuny describes what happened next:

1989 NOSF Network

photo courtesy Grace Gershuny in “Organic Revolutionary”
Northeast Organic & Sustainable Farmers Newtork Team — a seven-state project funded by LISA (precursor to SARE), 1989-1990.
Front (l-r) Ed McGlew, Margaret Christie, Enid Wonnacott, Miranda Smith Rear (l-r) Grace Gershuny, Vern Grubinnger, Judy Green, Karen Idoine

“An unprecedented scenario unfolded in Congress in the spring of 1990. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was introduced as one of many titles included in the omnibus legislation known as the Farm Bill, which was moving through Congress that year with little fanfare. Introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it won easy passage there, but the House version, introduced by Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, faced undisguised hostility in that chamber…

A lobbying campaign brought organic farmers and a host of allies to Washington to meet with their Representatives, who were also bombarded with letters and phone calls from members of the Organic Foods Act Working Group (OFAWG), an informal coalition consisting of OFAC’s thirty-five member organic producer groups plus 25 environmental and consumer public interest groups. The higher-rolling organic business community, organized as the Organic Foods Alliance, also played a role in the lobbying effort. As a result, the OFPA was introduced on the floor of the House where it narrowly passed, and President Bush (the first) signed it into law—an event that has been called “a legislative miracle.” For the first time since the Reagan administration banished it ten years earlier, the “O” word was now grudgingly accorded official credibility.”

As Gershuny so vividly relates, the ability of the farming and the consumer halves of the good food movement to form an alliance was crucial in getting the OFPA passed. (When those two parts of that movement were on opposite sides, as occurred in 2010 during consideration of the Food Safety and Modernization Act, what passed Congress satisfied neither side.)

Of course, the movement was at that point more a vision than a reality, comprising a tiny portion of national food industry dollars. It was simply not on the screens of the major food companies, enabling us to work below their radar and pass mechanisms that seemed to guarantee strong and independent organic standards. It has taken them almost 30 years to roll back those guarantees.

New Alliances?

During those 30 years, however, organic farmers have also been at work — building a supply of quality food, informing consumers about what to look for, and educating themselves about better and better practices. NOFA has been in the forefront of farmer groups doing this work, widening the circle of support for a good food movement.

2010 NOFA IC Retreat

2010 Interstate NOFA Council Retreat
Seated (l-r) Ben Grosscup, David Pontius,Julie Rawson, Steve Gilman, Jack Kittredge
Standing (l-r) Bill Duesing, Kate Mendenhall, Enid Wonnacott, Bettylou Sandy,
Marion Griswold, Leslie Cox, David Glenn, Jack Mastrianni

Many potential allies now present themselves to help us build toward our original vision of living meaningful lives in harmony with the earth. There are of course the consumers, still worried about toxins, carcinogens and other poison and contaminants we put into our food. And there are the environmentalists, concerned about soil, water, air and biodiversity – all things that the industrial food system seems to believe are expendable. We have long counted these folks as our friends, most of the time, for a long time.

But the continuing failures of modern corporate agriculture have awakened new allies to whom we need to reach out. Alternative energy proponents have become far more conscious of the role of factory farming in increasing demand for fossil fuels, from use synthesizing fertilizers or petrochemicals to fueling food production, processing and distribution. Smaller farms using fewer chemicals and selling locally can make a big dent in the fossil fuel picture. Decentralized, local food production and marketing also are attractive to those concerned for the values of animal welfare and social justice.

Interest in alternative health has skyrocketed over the last generation. Cancer and degenerative diseases of all kinds are growing at epidemic rates. More people now understand that “Let food be thy medicine” is not only good advice but is crucial to our survival. And they know the food being discussed is not processed, fumigated, irradiated, and adulterated. It is food grown simply in healthy soil by traditional methods. And guess who is growing that?

Perhaps most encouraging of all these new forces is the expanding scientific understanding about soil carbon’s ability to act as a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. It can mitigate climate stresses for a period, giving us a respite to gain control of emissions and bring them to sustainable levels. Farmers are better prepared to sequester carbon than anyone else on the planet.

We have the keys to solving many modern problems in our hands, which might surprise (and would certainly please) our early NOFA predecessors. Maybe they weren’t so naïve after all!

NOFA-NY Collaborations

NOFA-NY_What Can I DoNOFA-NY has a long history of collaborations, as all programs and projects flourish when working in partnership. Whether it is farmer to farmer education, specific projects with education institutions, or joint policy initiatives, collaboration is at the heart of much of the work we do, as we are a community of farmers, gardeners, consumers, educators, and organizations. Below is a sample of building an organic New York!

Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA). For about a decade during the tenure of Representative Jim Walsh, (Congressional Rep from Central NY), NOFA-NY and the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG) annually pulled together farmers in the district to successfully lobby Rep. Walsh to be the lead champion of a well-used technical assistance program for farmers: Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas. Every year, ATTRA was zeroed out in the budget, and every year, we would meet with Rep. Walsh, and encourage farmers to meet and make phone calls to ask him to get it funded. While he often told us he wasn’t interested in supporting conservation programs, he always came through, and he eventually became a supporter of organic agriculture. This happened only as a result of collaborating with NYSAWG and activating organic farmers in his district.

New York Organic Action Plan. Over an eight year period, volunteer members of the NOFA-NY Policy Committee collected input from people across the state who care about an organic future. With waves of activity and spells of dormancy, the process involved hundreds of people through web-based questions and face to face brainstorming sessions. After discussing what is working, what is not working and then putting those ideas within the context of change, an overall goal was set to move New York’s Organic Action Plan forward: Create an ecological New York State where healthy food and access to land are considered human rights. NOFA-NY created an infographic so everyone can make a difference and implement the New York Organic Action Plan. We will be presenting this plan to the organizations with whom we worked on GMO labeling for their endorsement and support.

Food Safety Outreach Project. In response to the Food Safety Modernization Act, NOFA-NY partnered with Cornell University, NOFA-VT, and University of Vermont to develop the Food Safety Outreach Program to expand Food Safety education to small and mid-sized farms in New York and Vermont. Through support from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the four partners compile the best training materials, develop curriculum, and conduct on-farm workshops to educate farmers about Food Safety in order to help them create their on-farm Food Safety Plans.

Neighborhood Shares Program. In collaboration with local Community Supported Agriculture farmers in Rochester and Buffalo, NOFA-NY provides affordable CSA memberships to low-income community members so everyone has access to fresh local produce.

NOFA-NY Field Days. Since 1983, NOFA-NY has collaborated with organic farmers to conduct farmer to farmer education. Over the course of the years, NOFA-NY has worked with 100s of farmers to spread the knowledge of organic farming techniques through high tunnel use, dairy management, food safety, and carbon farming, to name only a small handful of the methods that enhance organic farming.

Only in partnerships can we grow local organic food and farm communities across the state, region, country, and world!

Collaboration by NOFA-NJ

Collaboration is the number one driver of NOFA-NJ’s success, especially given the very small size of our staff. Nearly all our recent successes have involved effective collaboration in some form. In addition to serving the needs of our producers in NJ, we also strive to stimulate demand for their products with outreach efforts to the general public. There is no way to have a broad reach like this, from production to consumption, without good partners. We have too many partners to list in a short summary, but some of our more recent collaborations are illustrative of how we operate.

Smaller, organic farms are the primary constituents we serve. The range of issues they face requires a breadth and depth of knowledge that no one person could ever hope to attain. Our farmers have questions about business, soil, entomology, certification and other topics. Even within certification, few people can confidently handle production, processing and livestock. Our solution has been to develop a roster of vetted resources, which requires collaboration. For example, on Right to Farm issues, we rely upon our friends at the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), the very same folks who built and maintain the njlandlink.org resource with us. We conduct most of our workshops at member farms, and we work with other organizations, like Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), National Young Farmers Coalition, and Master Gardeners, to reciprocally promote events.

Consumer outreach relies even more heavily upon good partnerships. Public libraries, especially the Princeton Public Library, have given us numerous speaking, book club and film screening opportunities. Locally, social media groups, businesses, Meetup groups, churches and especially universities have been indispensable. We do not have the capacity to take on national issues alone, so we are heavily reliant upon the strength of related or kindred organizations like the NOFA-IC, NOC, Rodale, Weston A Price, Environmental Working Group, Food & Water Watch, the Humane Society, Cornucopia, Moms Across America and others to represent our views with authority.

Recently, our best efforts have been those that involved the most collaboration. Our excellent “Sourcing Health Locally” event was a joint venture with The Suppers Programs last September. A few months later, in late 2017, the mayor of Princeton, which is home to many NOFA members, reached out to us to help write a proposal for the prestigious Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge that addresses problems around food waste. On February 21, Princeton was awarded the distinction of “Champion City”, along with $100k, to take our plan to the next level. To make that happen, Mayor Lempert convened representatives from several leading organizations, including NOFA. Every grant application we have prepared in 2018 has involved other parties, including both public and private entities.

The most impactful collaborations are those that bring together people with different backgrounds or viewpoints. Last year, we convened a local grains workshop that brought together conventional and organic farmers. This year, we are all working together on our upcoming Deer Management Symposium. Nothing does more for our movement than an open door with a big welcome mat.

Massachusetts and the GMO Labeling Win that Got Away

photo courtesy NOFA/Mass NOFA/Mass staff Amie Lindenboim & Marty Dagoberto (at microphone) at state GMO labeling bill hearing

photo courtesy NOFA/Mass
NOFA/Mass staff Amie Lindenboim & Marty Dagoberto (at microphone) at state GMO labeling bill hearing

Organizing by NOFA/Mass in 2005 and 2006 helped to pass local resolutions in 30 Massachusetts towns and cities calling for mandatory GMO labeling. Seeing the local demand in her district that included Amherst, Representative Ellen Story started introducing a GMO labeling bill each year in the state legislature. Support, however, was small until in 2012 a highly contested state ballot initiative in California caught the attention of food activists, farmers and parents across the country.

During that summer the NOFA Summer Conference, not coincidentally, featured the popular anti-GMO author and lecturer Jeffrey Smith, who delivered the keynote and facilitated a preconference communications training. It was here that MA Right to Know GMOs, a single issue action group, formed.

That group, with NOFA/Mass, MASSPIRG and MoveOn.org, built a broader coalition of nearly 500 community groups, environmental organizations, farms and local businesses expressing support for GMO labeling.

By the time the 2015-16 bill was released from committee, it had more than 75% of the state legislators as cosponsors. Many reported it was the #1 issue they were hearing about.

As the end of the legislative session approached, excitement was also building in neighboring Vermont, which was about to enact its own GMO labeling law (July 2016). By this time more than 20 other states had introduced similar legislation and it felt like Massachusetts could be the next to pass.

Late in July, only weeks after Vermont’s law went into effect, Congress passed an industry-sponsored law that pre-empted state level labels. Vermont’s law was null, the Massachusetts GMO Labeling bill was dead.

Despite this, many people learned about the existence of GMOs in our food and try to avoid them. Voluntary “non-GMO” labels are now quite a common selling point and the USDA is charged with coming up with some sort of GMO label sometime soon.

Here are a few lessons learned about coalitions from that experience.

Structure: We had two tiers: the actual organizing Core of four groups, and then the list of “Network Partners” (approved by the core) endorsing the work of the core. This gave us a “big tent” without getting “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Each core group had relatively distinct constituencies: the farmers and gardeners, the consumer advocates, the liberal activists. It’s important for legislators to hear from a diversity of demographics, so this was a strength of the campaign.
Accept that organizations want to put themselves in the lead. Share credit, everyone can repackage progress/wins for their own people. Give groups autonomy on how they talk about the issue to their people. Share materials without “pride of authorship” (promote open sourcing of communica-tion materials.)

Communications: Establish regular communication systems such as weekly calls among the core. Communicate updates and breaking information as needed, first to core then immediately to partners.

Decisions: Aspire to consensus, but only when necessary (ie. for joint statements or synchronized timing of actions, etc). It never came down to a vote for us, but we had established that in such a case, each group in the core would have one vote, so three out of four would be needed to proceed. I think work-ing toward consensus is the right approach. Keeping the group small makes it possible.
Generally, promote autonomy. But be clear about “red lines,” i.e. what NOT to say or do. A partner group suggested putting labeling on the bal-lot, but we thought our chances were better for legislation and a ballot question would allow legislators to bypass the pressure we were generating. So partners couldn’t support the ballot route as well.

Money: Be clear about finances. Our coalition did not have a shared budget, each organization had to leverage its own resources. Fortunately the fiscal sponsor for MA Right to Know GMOs was a 501c4 and because of the national interest was able to secure us funding for a lobbyist and PR firm. These two elements were of critical importance in the later stages of the campaign. Don’t avoid hiring professionals to negotiate the tricky waters when you get close to a win. There are some sharks out there who know the waters and will fight you seriously at that point.

Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED)

For a non-profit to collaborate with other non-profits on a project is not uncommon in Vermont, given that we have an abundance of non-profits. However, to collaborate for eighteen years on a project—not typical!

Since its inception in 1971, NOFA-VT has served as an educator of consumers about healthy food and has advocated for changes which sustain the local food system. Beginning in 1994, NOFA-VT experimented with school food initiatives, based on organic farmer interest: conducting a pilot food purchasing project at three schools in 1996, and holding a “Vermont Farm to School Forum” in 1998 with a focus on strategies for increasing local purchasing by public schools. <!–more–>We were expert at connecting our family farms — organic and aspiring to be organic — with their communities, especially around food. What we were not expert at yet, but were passionate about, was connecting to schools so that local food could be served to school children. We realized we needed to partner with other established food and farm organizations that were working with schools — Food Works and Shelburne Farms. Thus, the statewide, collaborative farm to school project was created in 2000. The mission of Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED), is to raise awareness about healthy food, good nutrition and the role that Vermont farms and farmers play in our communities.

How is it possible to collaborate for so many years? Why didn’t our organizations finish the project and move on? As the landscape of school food issues was changing, it became apparent that our Vermont organizations would have a greater role in this movement if we worked together to share resources and ideas. Each organization does what it does best, without trying to learn and do it all. NOFA-VT provides training and technical assistance to farmers and school nutrition personnel. Food Works was (it folded in 2014) an educational organization specializing in community-based food/garden curriculum and integrating themes of hunger prevention and ecology into curriculum. Shelburne Farms is a well- established nonprofit education center and working farm dedicated to cultivating a conservation ethic by teaching about stewardship of agricultural and natural resources and by practicing sustainable rural land use.

Collaborating, which requires joint decisions, joint fund raising, joint staff hiring, and shared administrative tasks has not always been easy or efficient. Imagine the number of meetings! However, we have purposely kept Vermont FEED as a project of two strong partners who continue to grow the farm to school movement in Vermont. In addition, as new farm to school initiatives started in communities across Vermont, we saw the need for statewide network building to share the ideas and strategies for addressing farm, food and nutrition issues and identify some of the key economic and policy issues. Now the Vermont FEED partners are the backbone of our statewide farm to school network. With about thirty other organizations and state agencies we have developed a shared goal to address food system changes at both the local and state level and became a Farm to School model project nationally.

NOFA-NH Alliances

NOFA-NH aligns with many of New Hampshire’s most active and renowned organic farmers, producers, markets, distributers, programs, educators, associations and fellow non-profits.

Through our collaboration with MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH, we bring together incredible authors with a vast array of knowledge on relevant topics at our annual Winter Conference, further engaging our community through book signings at our conference’s Green Market Fair. This year, MainStreet BookEnds worked with NOFA-NH and participating authors and conference presenters to showcase the books of Phillip Ackerman-Leist, Will Bonsall, Ross Conrad, Andrew Mefferd, Dr. Daphne Miller, Michael Phillips, George Heilshorn and Nathan Searles. This important alliance adds so much value to our winter conference, its attendees and community each year.

Since 2013, NOFA-NH has participated in NH Gleans with partners Seacoast Eat Local, NH Farm to School and the Seacoast Gleaning Coordinator. NH Gleans is a network of organizations working to increase the availability of fresh and local produce distributed to food pantries, soup kitchens, community suppers and schools throughout New Hampshire. A network of gleaning coordinators harvests food from farms and farmers markets that would otherwise go undistributed or unsold, and donates that food to partnering community organizations. Our alliance with Seacoast Eat Local and NH Farm to School enables NOFA-NH to provide gleaning services throughout the seacoast area of our state. Last year, Seacoast Gleaning Coordinator and volunteers collected 17,620 pounds of food that was distributed through the NH Gleans network of 85+ community partner organizations.

NOFA-NH’s alliance with Concord Food Co-op benefits both organizations’ members and the community at large. Through this alliance, NOFA-NH provides discounts to Co-op members on our programs such as bulk ordering and conferences. In turn, the Co-op aids NOFA-NH in fundraising and outreach for pro-grams such as our subsidized Farm Share Program. Concord Food Co-op and its farm Shaker Organic Gardens are a Farm Share Program partner. Last year, the Co-op and Shaker Organic Gardens were one of 8 certified organic NOFA-NH member farms that provided subsidized CSA shares to 40+ low-income NH resi-dents.

In 2017, NOFA-NH worked with NOFA-VT and NOFA/Mass to organize a series of rallies for the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. We continue to explore The Real Organic Project, and hosted project leaders Dave Chapman, Roger Noonan and Michael Phillips during a panel discussion at our 2018 Winter Confer-ence. Upholding and educating the public about soil health remains one of NOFA-NH’s primary policy initiatives.

We also collaborate frequently with our neighbors, NOFA-VT and NOFA/Mass. Our work on the NOFA Cost of Production Project resulted in the publication of 8 robust fact sheets outlining the cost of production of vegetable crops commonly grown in the Northeast. The factsheets support farmers’ production plan-ning and assists them in increasing the profitability of their farm businesses. These resources have been immensely valuable to NH growers.

Much like soil microbes and mycorrhiza interact to create rich tilth and healthy plants, our alliances enable NOFA-NH to enrich our community and carry out our work.

Wins, Losses and Work Still Ahead

What does NOFA achieve by taking part in advocacy and policy work? It is good to look back and see whether joining in coalitions has led to any successful policy change.

In 1998 NOFA was part of a large coalition demanding that USDA withdraw the initial set of regulations they had proposed for the National Organic Program (NOP) and start over. Together with this coalition that included all organic farming associations and our faithful customers around the coun-try, we were successful in making this demand. USDA took another four years to complete a final Rule, the regulations that the NOP uses to this day. As Roger Blobaum, NOC member and long-time organic proponent, has remarked, “Getting the feds and organic farmers together in 1990 wasn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. It had many of the characteristics of a shotgun wedding and when it was over, there was no honeymoon. Although these two have tried to work things out, they have been on the verge of a breakup ever since.” (From a speech at the MOSES Conference, March 6, 1993). NOFA continues to watch-dog the NOP as a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC).News on organic in the 2018 Farm Bill does not sound very hopeful. For more detail, see article on NOC by Abby Youngblood.

There have been several other NOFA efforts aimed at preserving, reforming or strengthening the NOP. We were successful in specifying that all the res-idue and GMO testing that certifiers do (both random and for cause) be included in the NOP requirement that certifiers test 5% of all certified entities annually. We succeeded in stopping retail chains from using the Grower Group organic certification category. With the passage of the Pasture Rule, we seemed for a while to be successful in opposing the use of the organic label by mega-dairies that did not allow access to pasture for their cows. It is hard to believe that 10,000- or 15,000 cow dairies can logistically pasture so many cows and milk 2-3 times a day. We breathed a sigh of relief in 2010, when USDA-NOP issued its final Pasture Rule, requiring that cows graze on pasture a minimum of 120 days per year (more if conditions are practicable), eating at least 30% of their dry matter intake on grass. Things came to a head with a Washington Post (1 May, 2017) article titled “Why your “organic” milk may not be organic.” Reporter Peter Whoriskey had observed a Texan mega-dairy for eight days in good weather, never seeing over 10% of its 15,000 cows outside. Aurora and the other big dairies continue to evade proper oversight and undersell family-scale dairies in the marketplace. We have also pushed for a clear definition of organic origins for replacement livestock; we got some better language, but a big loophole remains, exploited by mega-dairies.

Over and over again, we have saved the cost share payments for organic certification fees. We will have a hard fight again to keep them in the 2018 Farm Bill.

While the NOP is far from perfect, the system of organic certification that it oversees is the most respected eco-labeling program in the US. To keep it this way, and to make continuous improvement one of its baseline principles, takes constant vigilance, as does any democratic process. As long as over 90% of the food eaten by people in our region comes from third parties (grocery stores, food services, etc.), farms will need a reliable label to communicate with the public.

Hemp, Labeling and Food Safety
NOFA-NY members would like NE farmers to be able to legally grow industrial hemp – that day gets closer. In NY farmers can grow hemp if it is part of a research program.

We opposed USDA plans for a National Animal Identification Program. After a few years of trying, USDA seems to have given up on that one.

We have opposed mandatory irradiation of foods for food safety and the sale of cloned animals for human food, so far with success. And we did win the labeling of irradiated foods.

Although it took five years to change federal policy on crop insurance, organic farmers no longer have to pay an extra premium only to be reimbursed at conventional prices. The organic crop insurance premium is gone and organic farmers now receive organic prices. A new program insures Whole Farm Revenues and gives a premium for farms that have more than three crops. Gradually, this program is becoming more farmer friendly and useful for smaller diversified farms.

The Food Safety regulations are final, though some sections like water testing are still not resolved. The huge coalition of farm groups that worked on FSMA has been successful in getting FDA to recognize that safety measures should be different for family-scale farms than for large-scale processors. NOFA has been working on food safety as a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

GMO Labeling and Commercialization
Although we lost our state level fights for GMO labeling when it was preempted by the DARK Act of 2016, that legislation does require some sort of la-beling. In expectation of the Vermont GMO labeling bill, some food manufacturers started labeling their products right on the package and continue to do so. USDA is still pussyfooting around with how to do it and may yet come out for QR codes instead of on-package labels.

For decades, NOFA members have wanted farms and food manufacturers to make information on all chemicals and irradiation used on foods and in food production available to the buying public. We still have a lot of work ahead to make full transparency of labeling a reality. We have made no headway yet on a moratorium on GMO commercializations or plantings.

Fracking and Licensing Undocumented Workers
Together with many other residents of the NOFA states, we have helped hold off hydraulic fracking for gas. This battle is far from over, as is the effort to prevent the construction of the pipelines and other infrastructure for storing and exporting natural gas and liquefied natural gas.

In Vermont, Migrant Justice led the successful campaign for legislation to allow undocumented people to access drivers’ licenses. In NYS, NOFA-NY sup-ports the Green Light NY campaign for similar legislation headed up by Alianza Agricola.

NSAC’s long list of achievements
• Substantially increased farmer awareness of funding opportunities offered through the Value-Added Producer Grants Program

• Increased opportunities for direct marketing from small family farms to consumers through the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP). NSAC designed the legislation for FMPP in 2001, led the campaign to secure its addition to the farm bill in 2002, and secured mandatory funding for the pro-gram in 2008.

• Expanded the scope of FMPP in the 2014 Farm Bill, transforming it into the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), by craft-ing and securing legislative champions for the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (LFFJA) – a marker bill which expanded support to local and regional food systems.

• Secured financial and technical assistance for very small business start-ups through the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program

• Secured loan guarantees for local and regional food enterprises to help rebuild infrastructure for a healthy food system through the Local and Regional Food Enterprise Provision of the Business and Industry (B&I) loan program (2008 Farm Bill). Expanded the scope of B&I in the 2014 Farm Bill to in-clude urban projects and businesses.

• Supported the growth of organic agriculture through the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program

• Supported innovative loans to help new farmers buy their first land through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Down Payment Loan Program

• Secured targeted federal credit assistance to beginning and minority farmers through set-asides, target participation rates, and special incentives

• Expanded outreach, education and assistance for beginning and minority farmers through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program

• Created and steadily expanded the award-winning, keystone Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program

• Established and continuously supported the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative as a first step toward a fair share of federal research dollars for organic systems

• Secured funding for research projects that foster small farms, environmental protection, rural economic and community development, and new markets through the Fund for Rural America, the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems, the National Research Initiative, and now the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative

• Promoted accessibility to information on sustainable agriculture and secured funding for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service Pro-gram

• Developed the nation’s first-ever “green payments” program supporting advanced stewardship systems through the Conservation Stewardship Program

• Restored and rebuilt conservation cost-share assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

• Ensured flexible support for local innovative conservation projects through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program

• Created opportunities for implementing conservation techniques and activities for organic and transitioning-to-organic farmers through the EQIP Or-ganic Initiative

• Secured permanent funding for the restoration and protection of agricultural wetlands through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

• Secured payments for conservation buffers to improve water quality and habitat through continuous enrollment options in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

• Extended soil and wetland conservation requirements to crop insurance subsidies

• Protected critical grasslands through the creation of the Sodsaver program and the development of a grasslands initiative within CRP

• Established strong roles for farmers and NGOs to influence the shape of conservation programs through State Technical Committees

Of course the 2018 House Farm Bill puts many of these programs on the chopping block and it is anyone’s guess what will emerge in this Congress.

The Work Ahead
We still have our work cut out for us to achieve justice for both farm workers and family-scale farmers with fair contracts, pricing that fully covers production costs and recognition of farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated vocation. The “Farm Crisis” will continue until we achieve farm justice.

Liz Bawden: Working with NOFA-NY for a Pasture Rule

Holstein cows

photo courtesy Nathan Bawden
One of the Bawden’s Holstein cows, and her camouflaged calf, on pasture where they belong!

New York’s St. Lawrence County — the state’s largest — is also its northernmost, bordered by the St. Lawrence River and, across the river, Canada. The part of the river bordering the small towns in the northwest corner of the county is known as the ‘Thousand Islands,’ named after some 1800 islands in just a few miles of river. It developed as a playground for the rich and super-rich during the ‘Gilded Age’ between the Civil War and World War I, with wealthy families buying whole islands and building vacation homes on them. George M. Pullman of sleeping car fame, as well as the heads of Scribner’s Magazine, Macy’s Department Store, the American Tobacco Company, and the Singer Sewing Machine Company were some of the executives creating such island ‘castles’. For the merely rich, sumptuous hotels were erected on islands and shore alike, reached by rail and then river steamboats. It was quite common for families of the rich to spend all summer there to escape the heat of New York City.

Today the renown of the Thousand Islands has largely disappeared. For the enjoyment of the remaining summer tourists, some old town halls along the river, once luxurious with second floor theaters devoted to opera production, have been renovated and the upstairs turned into auditoriums for contemporary music and theater with the downstairs now made into gift shops selling local art and crafts. Out on the river one can still buy passage on a tour boat to learn the history of the castles and mansions one is drifting by, built during the region’s heyday.

Liz and Brian Bawden in their kitchen in Hammond, New York

photo by Jack Kittredge
Liz and Brian Bawden in their kitchen in Hammond, New York

Agriculture, of course, has long been the occupation of the not-so-rich of the area. The farmland soil along the river is as flat as alluvial soil deposited anywhere, but is not ideal for agriculture composed as it is largely of glacial till with marine silt and clay sediments. Yet it is good enough to have supported numerous dairies over the years. Before the advent of fluid milk as the diary product of choice, butter and cheese sales paid the farm mortgage. In the 1880s there were 92 creameries in the county, 7 in the town of Hammond alone. Factory Road in that town was so named because of the cream ‘factory’ situated there.

Although that factory has long been gone, failing as dairy preferences changed and demand mounted for fluid milk in the early part of the 20th century, a farm on Factory Road, two miles from Canada, is where Brian and Liz Bawden have raised their family and still milk 55 cows.

Liz is president of NODPA (Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association) and a member of the NOFA-NY board.

“I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts,” she relates. “My dad was an accountant. But I went to UMass and I always wanted to farm. I remember a conversation with my dad and he looked me in the eye and said: ‘Do you have any idea how hard your grandparents worked to get off their farm?’ (She laughs.) That was true. I remember my grandmother hated cows!”

Liz was trained as a naturalist. She worked in parks and museums, mostly – for the Audubon Society in Massachusetts, the Connecticut Children’s Museum in West Hartford, the Dallas Nature Center, and ended up with the Toronto Conservation Authority at Blackcreek Village, organizing their interpretive staff. That is where she met and soon married Brian, becoming a dairy farmer by marrying one.

“It’s handy on the farm,” she suggests, “to have a person who knows how to identify grasses or knows what kind of a tree that is. Being a naturalist isn’t bad, but I’m not so good at fixing things!”

Bawden feels that farming, for women, is a way of working to contribute to the support of the home, and raising your family at the same time.

She says: “You are gardening, canning, doing the housework, working in the barn – doing all those things while you still have your kids. You don’t have to farm them out to anyone else. A lot of women don’t have that choice. I think it is really important to kids to have both parents with them when they are growing up. On a farm you can have that.

“Nathan,” Liz recalls, “when he was three years old was feeding out the salt and minerals to the cows from his little pail and teaspoon. He knew every cow, remembered their faces. That teaches kids, at a very young age, that they have a contribution to make. And they want to help. ‘When the tricycles leave the barn, that’s the end of the farm’ is really true of dairies. You always want another generation coming along.

But it took awhile for Liz to get used to the isolation of farming.

“My job was really coordinating a staff of 60 people,” she says, “who all did really cool and neat things. But I went from having this huge, giant group of people I interacted with all the time to a bunch of cows. It’s a massive change and it took me a while to adapt to it. Brian, however, is the kind of gruff farmer who can work all day by himself and not need to see people.”

Brian’s grandfather came to Canada as a child, as one of the many who were brought over from Britain during the air raids in World War II. He ended up as a classic mixed farmer there – shipping cream and raising crops, beef, poultry and a little of everything.

Organic Dairy Producers

photo courtesy NODPA
Organic Dairy Producers at the 2009 NODPA Field Days hosted by Roman Stoltzfoos at Spring Wood Organic Farm in Kinzers, PA

Canada has a supply management system, so dairy farmers have a quota, based on kilos of butterfat they have the right to ship. Brian wanted to go in a different direction, though, and sold his quota. Then Liz became pregnant and the couple decided if they could possibly farm without her having to go back to work, they would. But things were difficult on the farm without a quota, so they decided to move to the US.

“We were starving to death up there,” Liz recalls. “Brian looked at 40 different farms. This one wasn’t the best, but it was what we could afford. He still had family in Canada so we wanted to be close to the border. We moved to Hammond in 1999, paying $70,000 for the house and 120 acres.”

Brian had read about organic farming (or ‘ecological farming’)in the 1970s. One day he mentioned it to the milk inspector, saying: “You know I’m kind of interested in organic. If there is an organic milk market we should check that out.” The next day the man from Horizon Organic was in the driveway with a contract! They shipped their first organic milk in September of 2000.

Over the years their son Nathan grew into a young man and they built the herd up to 115, counting the calves, heifers and dry cows. The original farm did not have enough land for a herd that size, so they also bought two nearby farms, ending up owning 425 acres plus a second house.

“And about 18 tractors,” Liz says, rolling her eyes. “We do 99% of the work with 5 of them, but my husband and son got into admiring different old tractors for various aspects of performance. Fortunately, Nathan is good at fixing them up and making them look as good as new!”

The relatively low price of land along the northern reaches of St. Lawrence County has attracted
several Amish communities to the area. Their black buggies and horse-drawn equipment are evident on local roads and fields.

“Dairy is the main Amish cash income.” says Brian, “but the milk processors aren’t taking on any new dairy farms so it is a tough time for them.

“They milk by hand,” he continues, “and take the milk in milk cans to their community milk houses, where there will be five to six electric coolers. The facility has to be in the coop’s name to have electricity. The farmers will sell the coop a half acre of land and the coop then builds the milk house, puts the electricity in, and bills the farmers back.

“The state law is that milk can’t sit in the cooler longer than 24 hours,” he concludes, “but the processors aren’t allowed by the Amish to pick up on Sunday. So the truck drivers don’t like them. And their quantity of milk is small. The biggest Amish dairy farmer that I know is milking 18 cows. A small place will do five.”
The Bawden’s organic certifier is the NOFA-NY LLC. Liz got active in NOFA by getting on a peer review committee for their certification program.

“We would review the farms,” she explains, “and give our feedback. I didn’t know much about vegetable farming, so I learned a lot about that. But when they got a dairy they would give it to me to review. I did that for a number of years. I got to know Lisa Engelbert (certification program administrator) very well that way. I didn’t really have too much to do with the overall NOFA-NY chapter since we were busy farming. But only a year ago or so I was asked to join the board. I think they wanted another farmer on the board and thought they should have some dairy representation.”

Liz has been active in the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers’ Association (NODPA) since 2002. She appreciates the fact that organic dairy farmers are so willing to share information with each other.

“They work together,” she says, “help each other out, share their special secrets. Conventional dairy people tell me that is really unusual. If you have a sick cow or calf, what do you do? You can’t bring out the drugs. You can’t call your vet for a diagnosis because the vet will likely just tell you here are the drugs you should have. So in the early days people would just go on the computer with a listserv like Odairy and type ‘I have a sick cow, what should I do?’ People would chime in ‘Try this’ or “Try that’.”

Milk Economics 101

Milk is a nutrient-dense fluid and supports rapid microbial reproduction, which can spoil the milk. Extreme temperature is usually used to prevent that. Cold below 40˚ F slows microbial growth and heat above 145˚ F for 30 minutes (or 161˚ F for 15 seconds) kills almost all microbes. Federal and state laws require that virtually all milk and dairy products sold in the US must be pasteurized. Thus it is chilled immediately after milking, picked up daily at the farm by a processor, taken to a processing facility, and heated to the required level for pasteurization.

Cold milk can go a day from being picked up until it is processed. The tankers aren’t refrigerated, but they are insulated so the milk will stay cold for a while. In the Northeast we have a lot of consumers and not enough farms to supply them. So for the most part we are constantly trucking milk in from other regions that are oversupplied.

When the Bawdens converted to organic, Horizon was the only organic brand picking up in the area. Now at least four processors — Horizon, Organic Valley, Maple Hill and Upstate Farms – serve the region with trucks. That competition is a good thing for farmers. But there is a national oversupply of organic milk and the producer’s relationship with the processor is not as firm as it once was.

“Now you don’t actually get a contract,” says Brian, “just a letter of commitment — at least from Horizon. It’s all in their favor. They can terminate at any time, but we can’t. The way the price works is they commit to a base price. It used to be about $25 a hundredweight but that has been declining. Then there would be additional premiums, which could be worth up to an extra $10. There are premiums for components like butterfat, premiums for quality and what they call ‘market adjusted’ premiums.

“For example,” Brian continues, “cows produce a lot of milk in the Spring when the grass is lush. So your cows will peak then, up to a thousand pounds a day more, for a small herd. But the market is generally stable all year, so the processors don’t really want seasonal herds with the cows calving in the Spring and then tailing off and going dry in the Fall. So usually there is a Winter premium that goes for three of four months, starting in December.”

“Also,” adds Liz, “when we were young, butterfat was supposed to be bad for you. Now they realize we need animal fat and so butter is good for you. Skim milk is not good for growing children. There has not been a farm-separated cream industry in this country for a long time — probably a couple of generations. But in Canada they had one until the 1980s. Cream shipping was another way to farm. Where we farmed, and hour and a half north of Toronto, the milk trucks didn’t run in the winter. The roads were not passable enough. So you just shipped cream. You could bring a couple of cream cans to the local creamery and not depend on a milk truck. That is how people survived. You were a mixed farm. You sold the cream, fed the skim to your cows, veal calves, pigs and even chickens.”

If you have a Holstein herd like the Bawdens the average butterfat of your milk is about 4%. With Guernseys or Jerseys it will be higher. At a butterfat count above 3.5%, which is considered whole milk, the farmer gets a premium.

The primary factor that dairy farmers can control, when it comes to farm viability, is the diet of the cows. In non-organic operations the conventional wisdom holds that if you keep your cows in the barn and don’t put them out, they will use up less energy on exercise and you will thus get higher milk production. But a lot of organic farmers feel that pastured cows are healthier – because of the exercise they get, and also the nutrients they browse.

“There are things we don’t understand,” says Liz, “about what a cow needs to eat. For instance cows will eat dogwood at certain times in the summer. I don’t know why, but I see them do it when bringing them in. I bring them in along this one fencerow and every one of them stops to snag a mouthful of dogwood. The more you know about things, the more you realize how much you don’t know.“

Working for a Pasture Rule

When the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), the law setting up the National Organic Program, was passed in 1990 it specified that cows should get these benefits by being out on pasture during the grazing season. It didn’t occur to anyone at the time that they had to spell out what ‘grazing season’ actually means. But some certifiers took the position that, because there wasn’t any quantifiable specification in the act, the duration of a farm’s grazing season was left up to the producer. There were dairies that simply did not graze their cows at all. Or they would graze their dry cows but left the milking cows inside.

This omission enabled farms to follow traditional conventional dairy practices of confinement, yet qualify as organic. After a few years organic producers became concerned that too much milk produced under inadequate standards was reaching the market.

NOFA-NY dairy farmers, including Liz, Kathy Arnold and Kevin and Lisa Engelbert, helped form a coalition with other organic groups around the country to create a Pasture Rule with some teeth in it. They joined with the ODPAs (Organic Dairy Producers’ Associations) in the Western, Midwest, and Northeastern states that were also organizing around the grazing issue, forming an umbrellas group called FOOD Farmers (the Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers).

Their biggest concern was to come up with a Pasture Rule for organic production that enforced adequate grazing but didn’t put some organic farmer out of business because it was too stringent.

“We had to account for Southern California,” Liz sighs, “where it is so dry, and coastal Washington state where it rains all the time. We wanted to first of all do no harm to a dairy farmer.”

What they came up with is that cows should be able to graze in the grazing season, which shall be not less than 120 days, and that during that period they should get no less than 30% of their nutrition, on a dry matter basis, from the grazing.

For those not familiar with feeding cows, measuring ‘dry matter’ is a way to standardize various ruminant feeds by ignoring the moisture in them. Virtually all feeds contain some water, but fresh grass has a lot more than dried hay. If you know how much water is in your feeds, then you can compare them on a ‘dry matter’ basis. Fresh grass varies but is usually between 17% and 30% dry matter. Baleage (hay baled before it is fully dry and then wrapped in plastic and allowed to ferment before being fed) can be anywhere from 25 to 45%. Hay has some moisture, but is close to 90% dry matter. Grain is considered 89%.

“We decided,” recalls Liz, “that there had to be a minimum grazing period. It had to be at least 120 days. Most places have a much longer grazing season. In the Southwest, for example, they might have 2 separate grazing seasons, a Spring and a Fall season, with the Summer too hot and dry to grow grass. Your grazing season is based on your climate. They called me, farmers in Maine, all around – asking ‘Is 120 days going to hurt anyone who is honestly trying to graze their cows?’ All of us had short grazing seasons because of our northern locations. We all said ‘no’.”

“But what we know now,” she continues, “is that some farms are letting out their animals for 120 days and then bringing them back inside, saying ‘we have met the 120 day rule and now we can feed them in the barn’. But their grazing season could last for another couple of months. Our grazing season here, almost in Canada, is typically May 15 to October 15. That’s five months.”

Liz says that she feels the coalition that came up with these draft regulations was a farmer-based organization. The drafts were then sent to Ed Maltby, NOPDA executive director, who was active with NOC (the National Organic Caucus). Then groups like MOSES, Food and Water Watch, and other consumer groups would have input on all the things in the drafts they felt it was important to change and modify. The process took a long time before approval was final. The Pasture Rule ultimately became law in 2010.


“Were there people opposed to it?” Liz asks. “For sure. I was told there were a lot of large CAFOs from California watching closely. They wanted to go organic, but if the Pasture Rule passed they might not. I’ve never been to a dairy CAFO, but I’ve seen pictures of Aurora, with 15,000 cows in one location in Colorado. I know I’m not seeing what looks like any reasonable amount of pasture. I know how many acres per cow we need here, and we get rain!

“Yet they are certified by the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Oregon Tilth,” she continues. “But Colorado didn’t have a certification program when Aurora started up. So Aurora said ‘We’ll tell you how to do this.’ Brian and I pay about $2000 to be certified each year. But when you have a CAFO or business that is the size of Aurora, the certification fees are going to pay the entire salary of the person doing the inspection. They’re big enough they can change the rules.

“Aurora is a model that has pushed the envelope,” she concludes. “I don’t mean to pick them out in particular. They are certainly not the only large farm that people feel has run fast and loose with the standards. But because they are vertically integrated as well they have become the poster child for the big CAFOs and Big Organic. That is a scary thing. Vertical integration is not something that has hit dairies yet like it has hit other parts of organic production – pork and chicken and that sort of thing.”

Competition from big organic CAFOs has hurt dairy farmers in New York. Aurora is in Colorado and Texas, but milk packaged by Aurora was sold in New York under the ‘Woodstock Farms’ label, Liz says. The organic task force, a group Liz was part of that was organized in New York with a lot of organic dairy members, was telling people that if you want local organic milk you should buy containers that have ‘36’ as the first part of the processing plant code. That plant is in New York. Of course the milk could come from Pennsylvania or Connecticut, because milk is trucked across state lines, but it would have been processed in New York.

“On the Woodstock Farms label,” says Liz, “was a nice little red barn and a cow out in pasture. So the marketing made it look like it was from my farm, but the money was going to theirs! I wouldn’t have a problem if they put a picture of their farm on their box of milk. But they didn’t want to do that!”

Liz believes certifiers are also responsible for the problem: “People in the East said QAI (Quality Assurance International), Oregon Tilth, and CCOF are the ones that certified questionable CAFOs. We have always been certified by NOFA-NY. They have a reputation as a tough certifier. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps you on your toes. But there are always people looking for a certifier who will let you do what you want. It just boils down to human greed.

“The National Organic Program is what we have,” she concludes. “The question is can we fix it? A dairy farmer doesn’t have the ability to say ‘I don’t like the NOP anymore’. A vegetable guy can do that – they can go with the Farmer’s Pledge to say they are different and sell the vegetables at the market. We can’t do that. Being an organic dairy is kind of like being pregnant – you either are or you are not. You are either certified organic or you are on the conventional truck. If you don’t have the NOP certification you don’t have a market. In hindsight, we perhaps made the rule too soft.”

Leading Change Organically: IFOAM Organics International and IFOAM North America

“Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.” (IFOAM definition of Organic Agriculture)

NOFA has been a member of IFOAM-Organics International for decades. Our relationship with IFOAM reaches back over 40 years to its founding in 1972. Sam Smith, Willie Lockeretz, and Judy Gillan, who soon became Massachusetts NOFA members, were active in IFOAM back in those days. French goat farmer Anton Pinschof still grumbles that Eliot Coleman lost the group’s papers from the first meetings in France. I love the way Pinschof refers to organic agriculture as the “peaceful peasant revolt of the 20th century.” Although still headquartered in Europe (the City of Bonn, Germany, provides free offices), IFOAM is outgrowing its eurocentricity and today includes 1003 members from 127 countries, with 356 in Europe, surpassed by 374 in Asia.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, IFOAM was the world leader in the development of organic standards. When NOFA folks decided to engage in organic certification, we used the IFOAM Basic Standards as our template and adapted them for our region, as did organic farming groups in other parts of the country. For years, the NOFA Interstate Council Policy has used the IFOAM Principles of Organic Agriculture as our basic policy platform.
During the era of Organic 2.0 (1980 – 2015), IFOAM’s focus was on legitimation: the principles were codified into standards and a worldwide system of certification, regulation, verification, accreditation, and harmonization of the various standards was put in place. IFOAM’s mission statement was “To lead, unite and assist the global organic movement in its full diversity.”

Starting with the 2008 elections to the IFOAM World Board when farmer Andre Leu became president, IFOAM’s top priority shifted from certification-accreditation-harmonization to promoting “small-holder” organic agriculture. For its 40th anniversary in 2011, IFOAM launched the Sustainable Organic Agriculture Action Network (SOAAN) to reclaim leadership in organic standard setting and to set a high bar that enables people around the world to distinguish between the mounting waves of greenwashing and authentic transformation that will lead to stable, healthy, just and sustainable communities. IFOAM subsequently built on SOAAN for Organic 3.0, the springboard for future policy endorsed at the 2017 General Assembly. Organic 3.0 aims for the broad adoption of truly sustainable agriculture, value chains and consumption in line with the principles of organic agriculture.

Under Leu’s leadership, IFOAM completed a strategic plan and wrote a new more activist mission statement –“leading change organically.” Leu is one of the authors of Organic 3.0. I have heard him speak several times on this topic and on the work that lies ahead. As Leu sees things, the problem of poverty has not been resolved. In many countries, farmers are in debt and losing their farms to banks and land grabs. He wants IFOAM to put its energies into bringing the most vulnerable among us out of poverty. “Organic farming should be the system of choice and then we will all have good and healthy food.” He defines Organic 3.0 as a bottom up, collective vision based in a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. In Leu’s view, there are diverse ways to insure transparency and integrity: Participatory Guarantee Systems and Community Supported Agriculture embody the holistic empowerment of our stakeholders – farmers and aware shoppers take control through local democratic efforts. Organic 3.0 means building partnerships with all efforts that are working towards true value and fair pricing so that we stop stealing from future generations –the worst of all crimes. This is Leu’s mantra – “Regenerative, Resilient, Relationships.” (From his speeches at the 40th Anniversary celebration and “CSA and PGS, Empowering Farmers and Consumers, Beijing CSA conference, 2015.)

IFOAM has helped persuade the UN that small scale organic agriculture is much more promising than industrial agriculture if we are serious about arresting climate change and ending world hunger and has been an important voice in shaping the Sustainable Development Goals (See BOX). The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report was another result. In partnership with and funded by FAO (the Food and Agriculture organization of the UN), IFOAM engages in projects that support the development of family-scale farms in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Together, IFOAM and FAO will be undertaking a project to find out how much uncertified organic farming is underway. IFOAM is a champion of Regenerative Organic and is out there arguing that a transition to a Green Economy with strong environmental protections and reduced GHG emissions is our only hope.
IFOAM is an excellent source of materials for NOFA’s policy work. From its website you can download well-crafted position papers : Global Policy Toolkit on Public Support for Organic Agriculture, Use of Nanotechnologies and Nanomaterials in Organic Agriculture; The use of Organic Seed and Plant Propagation in Organic; The Role of Smallholders in Organic Agriculture; The Full Diversity of Organic Agriculture; The Role of Organic Agriculture in Mitigating Climate Change; Smallholder Group Certification for Organic Production and Processing; Position on Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms; Organic Agriculture and Food Security; Organic Agriculture and Biodiversity. “The World of Organic Agriculture” 2018 edition, graphs, and infographics can be downloaded at www.organic-world.net/yearbook/yearbook-2018.html

Increasingly as membership has grown on all continents, IFOAM has decentralized its activities through regional bodies. IFOAM allocates 25% of membership income from a geographical area for regional activities. North America is the last region to form its own body and includes Canada, the US, and the English-speaking countries of the Caribbean. There are 40 members, or, what IFOAM calls “affiliates.” IFOAM NA – held its first meeting at Expo East in the fall of 2016, and elected a board: myself, Jeff Moyer, Sarah Brown, Bob Quinn, Leslie Zuck, Ryan Zinn, Dag Flack, Brian Baker and Lisa Pierce. Ryan and Lisa have since stepped down to be replaced by Jennifer Taylor and Shannon Jones. Brian Baker serves as president. IFOAM NA’s Mission is to provide a forum to exchange ideas and engage in North America-specific activities to advance organic agriculture and its principles, in partnership with IFOAM-Organics International and the global organic community.

IFOAM expects regional bodies such as IFOAM NA to play a leading role in the transition from Organic 2.0 to Organic 3.0, particularly with respect to including wider sustainability interests and empowerment from the farm to the final consumer. How IFOAM NA will accomplish this is not yet clear. Its first task is to get set up as an organization, to raise some additional funds and hire staff. The Board is determined not to compete with existing organic organizations and seeks to define a special role spreading understanding of the principles of organic which go way beyond the NOP. IFOAM NA also intends to sponsor regular conferences on organic research.

NOFA Alliances: NSAC

NSAC’s Marketing, Food Systems, Rural Development

photo courtesy NSAC
NSAC’s Marketing, Food Systems, Rural Development meets in Madison, WI, in 2017

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is one of NOFA’s oldest alliances. With an expanding membership currently at 130 organizations from all around the country, an energetic and seasoned staff, and offices just a stone’s throw from the legislative office buildings on Capitol Hill – NSAC is well-positioned to advocate for the many-faceted interests of grassroots sustainable agriculture and organic groups at the House, Senate and government agencies.

NSAC was founded in 2009 via a merger of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture that were earlier attempts to create effective policy alliances of rural grassroots organizations to meet the farm crises of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. When repeated tractorcades to DC involving thousands of farmers failed to persuade the Federal government to maintain the policy of “parity” (government supported fair pricing for farm products that covered the costs of production), farmers and their allies turned to organizing for sustainability. If the government would not support farm gate prices by setting price minimums and managing supply, perhaps there could be payments to farms to practice conservation and to rural communities for development.

Active in ag policy since the late 70’s, Ferd Hoefner headed up many of these early organizing efforts and then came on board as the first NSAC Policy Director. Over the years these efforts have brought about some major accomplishments including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Value-Added Producer Grants Program, the National Organic Certification Cost Share, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program.

However, it is a testimony to the political severity of today’s times that many of these hard-won sustainable agriculture reforms and advances are now on the chopping block via back-room machinations in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill – with some important long term conservation programs slated to be completely zeroed out. More on this in a moment.

Farm Bill focus

In addition to addressing such issues as food safety legislation and climate change, much of NSAC’s efforts are directed toward the multiple phases of the Farm Bills which authorize programs and the annual Appropriations process which fund them. Although this farm, food and rural development legislation must be reauthorized every four to five years by Congress, continuing work goes into formulating proposals, getting bipartisan support for old programs and new marker bills (legislative language proposals) ahead of time, developing a Farm Bill platform and orchestrating coalition advocacy efforts for their inclusion.

Then, once the House and Senate versions are merged in conference and the Farm Bill is passed on the floor by Congress, continuing vigilance is required to ensure success during the following multi-year program implementation and funding process. Even though the finalized Farm Bill programs are authorized with mandatory or discretionary funding – the actual money must be authorized through Congressional Appropriations committees and are subject to the annual budget process which requires another whole set of outreach and advocacy efforts.

The Farm Bill is organized into ag-related Titles such as commodities, conservation, trade, research and rural development as well as nutrition which includes the food stamp or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which was initially authorized in 1964 to give urban lawmakers a stake in the farm-based legislative process. For this current 2018 Farm Bill, the SNAP program ranks high on the hit list for the Republican majority causing a large rift in a normally more bipartisan process. A Democrat strategy to counter these dealings is emerging to delay the 2018 Farm Bill past the September 30th deadline until after the November elections. Because of increasing citizen unrest over the direction of our government, strategists are gambling on a major shift in the constituency of the House and Senate.

Partisan battle delays that have occurred with past Farm Bills are acutely problematic, however, because the smaller “tiny but mighty” programs below a $50 million baseline cut-off become suspended and are stranded without funding until a new Farm Bill is finally passed. Organic initiatives were orphaned in this situation when Congress failed to pass the 2012 Farm Bill – which wasn’t authorized until 2014.

NSAC’s Priority Setting Process

As you might expect, developing annual policy priorities for 130 diverse member organizations in 50 states – and raising the funds to take them on – is quite an undertaking. Over the years NSAC has evolved an effective process grounded on the work of six issue committees (some with active sub-committees) that meet at least monthly by conference call and then face-to-face twice annually at the Winter and Summer meetings held at various member locations all around the country.

Research, Education and Extension (REE) focuses on USDA and other public agricultural research and extension programs as well as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE).

Marketing, Food Systems, and Rural Development Committee (MFSRD) explores value-added marketing channels for sustainably-produced farm goods as well as economic strategies that build the vitality and sustainability of rural communities.

Conservation, Energy, and Environment (CEE) helps formulate policy options and positions on a broad array of agricultural conservation programs, renewable energy policy, and environmental policy issues.

Farming Opportunities and Fair Competition (FOFC) aims to improve market conditions for farmers by advocating for commodity program reform, farm credit, and beginning farmer and rancher provisions, among others.

Food System Integrity (FSI) develops and advances policies that ensure a safe food supply and support for family farms, healthy food systems, and opportunities for sustainable farmers.

Diversity (part of the Grassroots Council) incorporates and assesses social justice and diversity as operational elements of NSAC’s activities, including in the Organizational Council, Policy Council, Issue Committees, any ad hoc committees, and other operations of NSAC. Additionally, the Diversity Committee works to incorporate and assess social justice and diversity concerns within NSAC’s policy priorities, advocacy strategies, communications, and all other NSAC approved or supported activities, by making recommendations to appropriate council or committee.

The heart of member involvement is through the regularly scheduled monthly committee conference calls. Continuity is provided with live notes taken by paid interns. Committee members develop and carry out their policy and appropriations agendas over the course of the year beginning with a multi-month priority setting process that gets underway in the fall. Starting with a detailed survey, members are asked to rank their priorities for each Committee they serve on. Based on these results each Committee then goes through an elaborate proposal process ranking Campaign Level, Second Tier, Backburner and Sign-On/Support categories for both Policy and Appropriations Issues.

At the Winter Meeting these finalized Committee recommendations are presented to the Policy Council which is made up of Representative (as opposed to Participating) NSAC members who proceed via a series of votes to merge, approve and launch the overall NSAC priorities for the year. The Summer Meetings feature in-depth plenary sessions and committee meetings devoted to strategizing the coalition’s policy and grassroots priorities for the year. Also featured at each year’s far-flung location are meetings with local producers and on-farm visits with a hosted outdoor regional food dinner. As this is a Farm Bill year, for 2018 the Winter Meeting was in Washington DC with the Summer Meeting coming up this August in the Seattle area.


Adding to NSAC’s membership representation functions, there is a Grassroots Council that is responsible for NSAC’s communications and advocacy coordination functions. Meeting frequently by conference call, members are responsible for developing strategies for grassroots advocacy campaigns, capacity building, NSAC member training, and leadership development.  The Council also undertakes coordination of action alerts, media messaging, and promoting diversity throughout NSAC’s work with outreach, training, and other activities. The Grassroots Council is expanding their effectiveness on the ground by hiring Regional Organizers to work closely with coalition organizations. Ariana Taylor-Stanley from the Ithaca, NY area is the new Northeast Organizer – working closely with the NOFA states at the Retreat and Conferences.


At the apex of the NSAC management pyramid is the Organizational Council that governs the affairs of NSAC.  Along with the Managing Director, the Organizational Council establishes the NSAC mission, oversees strategic planning and development, evaluates NSAC’s effectiveness, and provides financial oversight and approval of the annual budget.  The Organizational Council also approves membership applications to NSAC.  Nominated and elected by both Represented and Participating Members, members of the Organizational Council serve two-year terms and meet at least bi-monthly.

Staffwise, NSAC has a dynamic 14 person workforce that includes policy, grassroots, development and operations specialists. Paid internships are extremely competitive. In a leadership shift in 2016 appropriations expert Greg Fogel was elevated to the NSAC Policy Director position while the founding NSAC Director, Ferd Hoefner, working in a leadership role for over 30 years, has moved to the role of Senior Staff Advisor serving in an active mentoring and advisory role to the coalition.

NSAC’s Effectiveness

There’s no question that NSAC has evolved an extremely effective membership-based policy advocacy vehicle, guided and carried out by an expert staff. That this Administration and current Congress are presenting an enormous challenge to the broader grassroots sustainable agriculture/organic agenda is a major understatement, however. NSAC’s many legislative accomplishments over the years, as well as new proposals are now being specifically targeted for cuts or eradication. It’s plain that the way forward is to rally the growing citizen unrest to overturn the present regime and bring back a representative government while NSAC fulfills a critical role on Capitol Hill reforming federal food and agricultural policy and advancing a fair and just food system.

Collaboration at the National Family Farm Coalition

USFSAThe 1970s and 80s were a tumultuous time for many U.S. family farmers. After President Nixon ended the U.S. dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971 to curb inflation, all commodities—from grains to oil—soared in price. Then USDA Secretary Earl Butz sold off U.S. grain reserves and told U.S. farmers to plant from ‘fencerow to fencerow’, which many did. Grain prices remained high for several years and farmers were emboldened to take on more debt to acquire expensive new farm implements, updated cropping systems and more land. As scarcity became oversupply, grain prices fell and profits disappeared, farmers realized that the New Deal farm program was destroyed.

As banks and other lenders demanded repayment for the expansive loans they had provided, many farmers planted even more hay fields and pastures to sell more grain to compensate for the low prices they received per bushel. Trade groups, such as the American Soybean Association, and the American Farm Bureau finally acknowledged this disaster when plummeting land and machinery prices created a banking crisis. At that point tens, of thousands of farmers faced foreclosure and felt they had no alternative, but to sell their farms—which meant losing their homes, livelihoods, and standing in their communities—to get out of debt. Some joined tractorcades, organized by the American Agriculture Movement, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to Washington, DC, seeking support for 100 percent of parity—a price floor based on a crop’s cost of production—and a moratorium on foreclosures. With but a few champions in D.C., foreclosures, auctions, and suicides escalated throughout farm country.

Meanwhile, grassroots activists were organizing in their home states to help farmers, their families and their communities to manage this crisis. Groups were formed in states from Vermont to the Carolinas, from Virginia to California and from Texas to Minnesota. When the federal government offered little to no hope or support, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and dozens of musician friends held a day-long concert called Farm Aid on September 22, 1985, to call attention to the farm crisis and raise funds for farmers in crisis.

In January 1986, with Farm Aid’s support and encouragement, a number of grassroots advocacy organizations, including the American Agriculture Movement, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Land Loss Prevention Project, Missouri Rural Crisis, Northern Plains Resource Council, and more, established the National Save the Family Farm Coalition, dba National Family Farm Coalition, or NFFC.

These leaders agreed that NFFC should be established as a coalition of advocacy organizations, not of individual members. NFFC would be stronger at the onset with an existing base of groups, some with hundreds or thousands of individual members, working from different states toward common goals at the federal level. It would also be easier to organize events and outreach for developing policy recommendations that NFFC would represent to Congress and the administration.

The NFFC was built on two main tenets: raising crop prices in the marketplace to parity to promote family farm agriculture, while eliminating the tax burden of deficiency-payment subsidies; and, encouraging sound environmental farming practices, in part through a ‘bushel-based’ supply management program. These commonsense approaches, which would have kept farmers afloat and from planting every square inch of bare ground in order to stay afloat, were not so common among government leaders. Although farmers have historically been reticent to ask for government assistance, their outreach in the late 70s and early 80s went largely unanswered, amplifying the need for their message to be heard more often in face-to-face meetings by people with influence.

Over the years, NFFC members, staff and allies have collectively written legislative proposals, organized conference panels, and circulated farmer research and writings to educate the public, Congress, and administration about the changes needed to improve farm, food, and trade policy. Some accomplishments include the following:

Serving as a founding member of the Community Food Security Coalition, which grew to include roughly 300 organizations that helped establish and/or sustain equitable national food policies and programs, including Farm to School and Farm to College networks, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program.

Working with allied and member organizations advocating for the development of national organic standards to rally 250,000-280,000 public comments in 1997.

Protecting the rights of farmers to save their seeds and purchase non genetically engineered seeds through the Farmer Declaration on Genetic Engineering, released just prior to the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999.

Suing Monsanto for not testing GE seeds for safety before public sale and for requiring farmers to ‘license’, not buy outright, their seeds and suing the Environmental Protection Agency for deregulating Monsanto’s Xtend cropping systems, despite warnings about crop damage from dicamba drift.

Serving as a founding member of the Community Food Security Coalition, which grew to include roughly 300 organizations that helped establish and/or sustain equitable national food policies and programs, including Farm to School and Farm to College networks, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program.

Working with allied and member organizations advocating for the development of national organic standards to rally 250,000-280,000 public comments in 1997.

Protecting the rights of farmers to save their seeds and purchase non genetically engineered seeds through the Farmer Declaration on Genetic Engineering, released just prior to the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999.

Suing Monsanto for not testing GE seeds for safety before public sale and for requiring farmers to ‘license’, not buy outright, their seeds and suing the Environmental Protection Agency for deregulating Monsanto’s Xtend cropping systems, despite warnings about crop damage from dicamba drift.

Highlighting farmer concerns of Monsanto’s rBGH to the public and numerous retailers, including creameries, who eventually served/sold milk products only from cows not treated with rBGH, and enabling retailers to apply labels to such products for public knowledge (along with Monsanto’s message that milk from cows treated is deemed safe), which ultimately resulted in Monsanto selling its rBGH division.

Stopping the deregulation of Monsanto’s GE wheat with allies in different coalitions and influencing Rep. Dennis Kucinich to hold a hearing to investigate APHIS’ (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of USDA) negligence to farmers after an accidental release of GE wheat and rice near non-GE fields.

Joining La Via Campesina, the international peasant organization supporting communities world striving toward food sovereignty. Activities have included international conferences to develop declarations and platforms; UN Climate Change Conferences of the Parties; agroecology learning encounters; protesting free trade agreements; and helping foil the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization.

Participating in hearings, sign-on letters and editorials with Citizens Trade Campaign to voice farmer and farmworker concerns over NAFTA renegotiations, including U.S. pressure to Canadian dairy farmers to drop milk supply management program, reintroducing Country of Origin Labeling, and removing investor state dispute settlement.

Raising ‘Competition and Concentration in Dairy’ concerns through a farmer member’s white paper assessing sustainability of large dairy farms that launched investigations by Chicago Tribune and Department of Justice; pressuring government agencies to investigate the illegal use of milk protein concentrates; and, offering recommendations for price floors, and farmer-managed supply and other policies in legislation introduced by Senators Casey, Specter, Sanders and Leahy over the past 20-plus years.

Promoting and supporting credit counseling and emergency disaster relief for farmers, in particular after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; and co-authoring a 2011 report on the credit conditions affecting farmers, Don’t Bank on It, which provided the basis for briefings with White House Domestic and Rural Policy Councils, as well as policy proposals for 2012 Farm Bill credit title.

Co-founding the US Food Sovereignty Alliance with members of the U.S. Working Group on Food Crisis after the Nyeleni 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty. Since 2010, USFSA has awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize to national and international grassroots organizations whose work lifts up food sovereignty in their communities.

Joining with Rural Coalition, Community Food and Justice Coalition, Food and Water Watch, and other organizations to advocate for access to educational and fiscal resources by socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, particularly during the Farm Bill process, which has helped maintain funding for Section 2501 programs.

Working with faith-based and environmental organizations to publicize the procurement of farm land in the U.S. and forest land in Brazil by university pension fund manager TIAA, which has since posted more information regarding the location of their U.S. farms and is slowly being pressured to reveal and divest of these investments by pension holders throughout the U.S.

Introducing the concept of InterDependence between family farmers, community-based fishermen, and eaters at Farm Aid 2017 Homegrown Village exhibit by engaging exhibit visitors to help write its Declaration.

Collaboration can be difficult but it is essential for the larger wins—those that ultimately benefit everyone working to grow, catch, harvest, process, transport, market, and serve our food. For all to achieve food justice and food sovereignty, there is an unspoken agreement that such change will not arrive quickly, simply or easily, but few would argue that anything worthwhile ever is.

USFSA: Our Struggle for Food Sovereignty is International!


USFSA members visiting South African farmers

The US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) emerged from a global process initiated during the International Forum on Food Sovereignty: Nyeleni 2007 in Mali. From that gathering, organized by the La Via Campesina International and other global social movements, the idea of creating an alliance of rural and urban-based organizations in the United States was born. The US Food Sovereignty Alliance, as part of a global strategy, has been built over a period of eight years to build power and to move a political agenda led by small scale food producers, as well as groups that contribute to the food chain that makes up our food system. The same process took roots in other countries and regions and currently, there are four other similar spaces: the Australia Food Sovereignty Alliance; the Latin American Food Sovereignty Alliance; the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa; and, the Nyeleni Pan-European Forum.

The organizing of the USFSA was grounded in the relationships and processes led by grassroots organizations and grassroots support organizations. The first iteration was the creation of the Global Food Crisis Working Group to influence agriculture and food policies in the Obama administration. The USFSA, as it is today, was established a few years later at the 2010 United States Social Forum in Detroit, Michigan and then officially launched in New Orleans. Born through a People’s Movement Assembly on Food Sovereignty, the idea of the USFSA was shaped with the participation of several members of La Via Campesina International from Palestine, Haiti and Honduras, reinforcing the idea that it is a process grounded in grassroots internationalism.

In the belly of the beast

At the forum in Mali, participants reaffirmed that the fast-paced consolidation of international agribusinesses, supported by Global North governments, required a broadening reach of rural social movements. In that perspective, building unity in the diversity of ideas and struggles and a stronger connection between rural and urban people were necessary steps to achieve food sovereignty. Another point raised in Mali was the need to strengthen organizing in Europe and the U.S. – two areas in advance stages of consolidation of the agricultural sector and whose governments have great influence in food and agriculture policies that further agribusinesses around the world. Therefore, the creation of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance was a critical piece in the strategy of building power at a global scale.

The building of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, as a viable political space, continues to evolve. More recently, at its 2015 National Assembly, the USFSA decided to implement a new organizational structure to put grassroots leaders more firmly in the driver’s seat, to grow membership and to streamline its work through defined roles among its members. Four regional caucuses were formed: Southeast, Northeast, Mid-West and Pacific Northwest. Each region has elected two grassroots leaders to serve as coordinators and to represent them at the national level. The USFSA’s National Coordination body is now comprised by the regional coordinators, working team coordinators and the secretariat.

With the new structure in place, the USFSA is currently organizing four regional assemblies that will undertake a process to develop shared political analysis and shape the USFSA’s agenda. The regional assemblies will culminate in the IV National Assembly in October 2018 that will define a political agenda, set multi-year goals, and outline a strategy to enact them.

In preparation for these regional assemblies, the USFSA has successfully established new relationships with other national alliances and regional organizations to broaden its participation and scope and to build power. Over the last few years, the USFSA has entered in an alignment process with the following groups, all of which will actively be participating in the 2018 regional and national assemblies:

The Agroecology Research Action Collective (ARC): Formed by ally scholars from universities in the US and Canada, the Agroecology Research Action Collective is working with the USFSA to provide technical and logistical support for grassroots organizations. ARC’s Science Shop will receive research questions from grassroots organizations and plan participatory research projects in coordination with the USFSA.

Closing the Hunger Gap (CtHG): Formed by progressive food banks and food pantries in the US, Closing the Hunger Gap is working with the USFSA to build a shared analysis around food sovereignty and the Right to Food in the United States. The USFSA is also lending its knowledge and experience to Closing the Hunger Gap as CtHG builds a regional and national coordination space for emergency food providers in the US focusing on dismantling racism and power inequalities.

The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA): created in 2013, the Climate Justice Alliance gathers over 60 organizations nation-wide around principles and goals for a Justice Transition. CJA has played a critical role to include the voices of frontline communities in the debate around climate change as well as support the leadership of local communities in the building of real solutions to this environmental crisis.

Food Systems New England: A regional network dedicated to better food and agriculture policies in New England, Food Systems New England is interested in joining forces with the USFSA and the Northeast regional body.

Fish Locally Collaborative: An international network led by the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), the Fish Locally Collaborative is formed by scholars, fishing communities and grassroots support organizations.

The Regional Assemblies organizing process

The USFSA’s regional assemblies bring together diverse members and allies to strengthen relationships, develop a shared political analysis and provide recommendations for the USFSA’s national agenda. These gatherings are not isolated events but coordinated, organizing processes to build power.

With the new regional structure, the USFSA embarks in a nation-wide process of building a dialogue space AND a democratic process where different sectors can meet and develop common strategies. The expectation is that these gatherings will serve as spaces for political education and communication channelling with other existing alliances working to dismantle structural problems for the building of a more just food system.  Currently, there are 42 members of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, including the NOFA Interstate Council. For more information, visit the website at usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org.

The USFSA is having its NE Regional Assembly in Amherst, MA on August 9th and 10th, thanks to the support of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and other regional alliances.


Organic Farmers Association: A national voice for domestic certified organic farmers.

OFA Governing Council

The Organic Farmers Association Governing Council

Five years ago, several organizations began discussing what it would take to build a more effective and authentic voice for certified organic farmers at the national level. A cross-section of representatives from organic farming associations from the East, Midwest, Northwest, South, Upper Great Plains and mountain regions, representing approximately one-third of organic farmers nationwide, held exploratory meetings and conducted surveys with other organizations across the US. This demonstrated strong interest in forming a national alliance of organic farmers and ranchers to fill the current void.

In early 2016, this group began discussions with the Rodale Institute, an organic pioneering organization, who also expressed interest in bringing organic farmers’ voice to the forefront. In 2017, the two efforts aligned as the Organic Farmers Association, sponsored by Rodale Institute.

Organic Farmers Association is an independent and authentic voice for domestic certified organic farmers, focused on national policy issues that are of highest priority for certified farmers. Organic Farmers Association is also committed to building community and networking among the nation’s organic farm organizations. A stronger organizational network will support and grow organization capacity to better serve their local organic farmer-members and build higher-rates of grassroots policy engagement to participate in the national organic farmer voice. To engage certified organic farmers, organizations, and supporters of this work, Organic Farmers Association offers three types of memberships to unify the national organic farmer movement.

Organic Farmers Association (OFA) achieved much in its first year, through the guidance of an appointed Steering Committee. The partnership with and sponsorship by the Rodale Institute provided much needed organizational capacity to build a functioning website and communications platform as well as membership and development support. We published two issues of New Farm Magazine, elevating national organic farm stories. We began a membership program for farmers and organizations to begin to unify our movement at the national level. We established a firm policy, under which only certified organic farmers vote on policy positions and leadership.

In September 2017, Organic Farmers Association farm members elected a Policy Committee of 12 certified organic farmers and six advisory organization members to establish our policy platform. In March 2018, we elected our first Governing Council of 12 certified organic farmers and six advisory organization members to lead the organization through the next phase of growth. Both leadership committees are farmer led and farmer controlled. Both committees are regionally diverse and aim to gain diversity in farm size, commodities, gender, race, and sexual orientation to ensure an accurate representation of the nation’s organic farms. Organic Farmers Association also hired a part-time director, policy director, and membership and outreach coordinator.

In 2017, the Policy Committee established policy positions and priorities for the year, which were approved by the Organic Farmers Association farm membership and have served as a guide for Farm Bill lobbying and education. The Policy Committee also invited all US certified organic farmers to submit policy priorities and positions for the membership to review and vote on this spring, which will establish Organic Farmers Association’s first policy platform.

Organic Farmers Association will continue to monitor the Farm Bill progress, inform its members about how organic programs are faring through the various drafts, and continue to represent the established priorities of organic farmers through the farm bill process.


National Organic Program (NOP) Enforcement to Ensure Organic Integrity
Organic integrity is the bedrock of the organic label. We must have equitable and honest enforcement of the national organic standards across all commodities, states, farm sizes, and throughout international trade.

Organic Farmers Association (OFA) SUPPORTS the full and equitable enforcement of National Organic Program standards: USDA should take immediate action to bring non-complying operations and their organic certifying agents into compliance or else exclude them from the program. Congress should use its oversight authority to ensure that USDA takes the necessary actions to tighten enforcement.
OFA SUPPORTS the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act (H.R.3871), which includes new Farm Bill requirements for USDA, in coordination with Customs and Border Protection, to implement enhanced procedures to track organic imports and ensure that imported products fully comply with U.S. organic standards.

OFA SUPPORTS a consistent interpretation and implementation of the pasture rule for all organic dairies.

Expanding Organic Research
Research on organic agriculture, including soil health and alternative pest- and disease-management strategies, benefits both organic and conventional farmers. Therefore, funding for such research is essential. Unfortunately, over the past five years, while overall funding for agricultural research has grown significantly, funding for organic research has stagnated.

The bipartisan Organic Agriculture Research Act (H.R.2436/S.2404) would authorize $50 million in mandatory funding annually for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).

OFA SUPPORTS passage of the Organic Agriculture Research Act.

Organic Certification Cost Share
The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and the Agricultural Management Assistance Act (AMA) provide organic farmers with modest reimbursements for a portion of their annual organic certification fees.

OFA SUPPORTS renewal of organic certification cost-share programs with adequate mandatory funding to meet projected demand. OFA encourages Congress to recognize how this program helps small and beginning farmers access certified organic markets. Certification Cost Share is included in the Local Food And Regional Market Supply Act (Local FARMS Act) (H.R.3941/S.1947)

National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)

OFA STRONGLY OPPOSES any efforts that seek to dilute the authority and role of the NOSB in the overall standard-setting process, and opposes statutory changes to the delicate balance of stakeholder slot allocations for the Board membership.

Certified organic farmers have needed a strong national voice for decades, and the need for this unified voice is important now more than ever. Mobilizing all the pieces to make this happen quickly and effectively is a challenging process. Leveraging the years of local and regional work of our organizational-member partners, as well as the years of movement-building work of our farmer leaders, have helped us make a great initial stride forward, establish realistic goals for each year, and continue to work to identify ways we can better serve our organic farmer and organic farm organization members.

As a new voice on the national stage, we are working to build coalitions and relationships with other national organic voices so that we do not step on toes, but instead facilitate a collaborative environment to help the whole organic community succeed. Organic Farmers Association is focused on strengthening farmers’ voices and making sure organic farmers have a seat at the table. For more information, visit organicfarmersassociation.org.

Keeping Fairness in Organic: The Agricultural Justice Project’s Food Justice Certification

ajp logoJust as basic as care of earthworms is care of the people in organic farming. This can be accomplished through fair prices to farmers for their farm products and fair and respectful treatment of farm workers, as well as of others who work in organic supply chains. Fairness is integral to organic and is one of the four principles of Organic Agriculture. The roots of the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) go back to the beginning of the National Organic Program (NOP), when some farmer organizations and farmworker advocates realized that the NOP had no standards for fairness in organic trade or for decent treatment of the people who do the farming.

Four people started meeting in 1999, three farmers and one representative of a farm worker support organization – Elizabeth Henderson from NOFA, Michael Sligh from Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA), Richard Mandelbaum of Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas/Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Marty Mesh of Florida Organic Growers (FOG), – to figure out how to keep fairness in organic agriculture in the US. Together, they formed the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). Over the next few years, the group wrote standards for fairness on farms and in trading between farms and buyers, a domestic fair trade certification program. They recruited farmers, farm workers and other members of the organic community to set up a stakeholder advisory committee to make sure that the standards were comprehensive and realistic. The farmworker members of the CATA board reviewed and critiqued the standards. The resulting program – Food Justice Certified (FJC) – provides a way to ensure that fairness is happening on and for organic farms and demonstrates this fairness to the public with credibility.  AJP also created a series of training programs and technical assistance for organic farmers to help them improve labor policies and practices to make their farms more socially resilient and just. Since 2014, AJP has been an independent 501(c)(3) with the four partner organizations represented on the Board.

The mission statement of AJP is ambitious: “The AJP works to transform the existing agricultural system, seeking empowerment, justice, fairness and respect for all who labor from farm to retail. Central to AJP’s mission are the principles that all humans deserve respect, freedom to live with dignity and nurture community, and share responsibility for preserving the earth’s resources for future generations.

The FJC label is based on high-bar social justice standards for farms, processors and retailers, including every link in the food chain from seed to table.  The standards address issues that are pivotal to achieving economic parity, equity and justice in our food system.  The FJC Standards include:

  • Fair prices for farmers negotiated with buyers and based on actual costs to produce food that does not abuse the environment, laborers or livestock
  • Living wages, respect and decent working conditions for all food workers
  • Transparency of expectations for workers, farmers and their trade partners
  • Grievance procedures free from retaliation
  • Protections for children from hazards and assured access to schooling
  • Access to healthcare and freedom from exposure to toxic materials
  • The right to organize for farmworkers and for farmers and other food system workers
  • Closing the income gap between highest and lowest paid employees within a company
  • Conflict resolution without retaliation for raising sensitive issues. You can read the standards and full policy manual on the AJP website – www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org. . For evaluations of the Food Justice label and program see http://fairfacts.thedfta.org/ and http://greenerchoices.org/2017/04/25/food-justice-certified/.

In addition to the standards, AJP provides technical assistance to farms and food businesses to help them improve labor and trade policies.  On the website in the Farmer section is a Tool-kit that includes a long list of resources to help farmers implement fair labor policies and get prices that cover livable wages for themselves and their employees:

  1. A self-assessment check list so a farmer can evaluate readiness for FJC
  2. A self-assessment check list for fair pricing
  3. A downloadable template for labor policies so that a farmer can quickly create a set of employee guidelines that are FJC compliant
  4. Intern learning contract examples
  5. Resources on calculating production costs as a basis for pricing that fully covers these costs
  6. A guide to fair contracts

The Tool-kit also covers conflict resolution. Resolving conflicts in a fair way and enabling employees to raise issues without fear of retaliation are crucial elements of a fair workplace.  Conflicts between farmers and their buyers must also be resolved fairly and without retaliation.

The Agricultural Justice Project conducted a three day training for Food Justice Certification (FJC) for reviewers and inspectors in Deerfield, MA, April 2 – 5, 2018 at Woolman Hill Conference Center. The training is for organic certification staff, organic inspectors and representatives of worker organizations who would like to participate in implementing Food Justice Certification on farms and food businesses across North America.  The April training reviewed the AJP standards, the process for conducting Food Justice Certified file reviews and inspections, and allowed participants to take part in actual farm inspections. Once they pass the final exam, they will be qualified to do FJC reviews and inspections.

Many more farms have benefitted from AJP technical assistance than have engaged in certification.  The reality is that there is very little market pull that would compensate farms for improving labor policies and worker pay. Nevertheless, AJP has contributed to raising public and food movement awareness of the workers on farms, and stirred up the public debate on social justice, equity and fairness – this “third leg” of sustainability. The presence of a high bar program raises the bar for other programs setting a higher target for them. Farms that have engaged in FJC find that they retain workers and spend less time and resources on retraining new people. More committed workers are also more likely to make sure the food they harvest or handle is safe.

Jessica Culley, General Coordinator at CATA, explains why AJP is important to farmworkers: “We all need to realize that the creation of an alternative food system has to include the needs of workers in a measurable way. The goal of FJC is to become a recognizable label to folks in our region—really lifting up the profile of farms and businesses that participate and creating a dialogue around alternative labor practices.”…

Rosalinda Guillen, renowned farmworker organizer and Director of Community to Community in Bellingham, WA, gave this strong endorsement of AJP:

 “As an organization Community to Community believes there is only one certification scheme that adequately addresses farm worker concerns because farm workers were involved in developing the standards from the very beginning, and continue to be at the table regarding all decisions made to changes… We only support the Agricultural Justice Project…the gold standard that we should all be striving for. As FUJ [Familias Unidas por la Justicia] leaders say “fair wages and treatment is about more than just making money, it’s about changing a system built on our exploitation.” None of the current market schemes and labels are created to change the system, they tweak it, the short-term benefits will last only as long as the corporate retailers and agricultural corporations want it to last.” (January, 2017)

Anna Gilbert-Muhammad & Urban Garden Alliances

Anna in her Springfield, Massachusetts kitchen

photo by Jack Kittredge
Anna in her Springfield, Massachusetts kitchen

Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts, trailing Worcester by about 15%. Settled only 6 years after Boston, Springfield was originally part of Connecticut but defected after four years to join the Bay Colony, being burned to the ground during the 1675 King Philip’s War. An armory, created there during the Revolutionary War, was almost captured during Shay’s Rebellion in 1787, an event that helped precipitate the U. S. Constitutional Convention.

Springfield was known for inventive residents and cutting edge manufacturing for over 2 centuries, including the first use of an assembly line (1819), the first American horseless car (1825), vulcanized rubber (1844), the first American gasoline car (1893), the first American motorcycle company (1901) and the invention of basketball (1891), the world’s third most popular sport.

Although, like many American cities, during the last century its soil has been contaminated by lead and other heavy metals, the city is situated next to the Connecticut River on land that originally was among the most fertile in the Northeast. Early colonists found Native Americans growing tobacco in the Connecticut Valley and continued the practice. High quality shade tobacco production brought in migrant agricultural workers, some of whom settled in Springfield. Currently it is the most heavily Black and Hispanic of Massachusetts’ big cities, at 61% compared to Boston’s 42% and Worcester’s 32%.

Anna Gilbert-Muhammad is the Food Access Coordinator of NOFA/Mass and lives in Springfield. She was born in New York City but, being the child of a Marine Corps father, lived in various places in California as well as Baltimore. While in California, although she was raised as a Roman Catholic, Anna became interested in the Nation of Islam and ultimately converted.

“When I was in LA,” she recalls, “a friend invited me to a mosque event. It was such a fun event and they were such warm people I started going back, even though I was a pretty devout Catholic. I went to study sessions, congregational prayer, different events — particularly the learning ones. I enjoyed that kind of study. And I enjoyed the whole idea that prayer is a conversation between you and God. There are no intermediaries. You know the Catholics have saints, priests, a whole bunch of people between you and God. I went along with it but it was very confusing for me. In Islam there is a direct communication between you and God. You don’t need anybody else, which I appreciated.

“I also appreciated the community work,” she continues, “that the Nation of Islam does, in the restoration of people of color. It is some of the hardest work, but it gives me a sense of purpose. I didn’t have that then. I was working for the State of California at the time and I got paid every two weeks and that was it, what life was about. But there is more than that, especially to be in service to people. And I said: ‘You know, I can live like this.’”

In 2005 Anna attended a retreat for single Muslims in San Antonio, Texas, and met her future husband. They conducted a long distance romance for a couple years, after which she moved to Springfield and they married.

Clean up day in Gardening the Community’s Central Street Garden

photo courtesy Anna Gilbert-Muhammad
Clean up day in Gardening the Community’s Central Street Garden (owned by city and leased by GtC), one of the original Gardening the Community sites.

“We bought a house which had plots in the back that were made for gardens,” Anna says. “He said: ‘You know how we’re always talking about the quality of our food? You should garden. We have the space for it now.’ I was like: ‘Yeah, right. That’s country. I’m not from the country!’ I was getting my nails done every two weeks. I didn’t want to get dirty. I didn’t think I had the time. I was worried things would die on me. But he kept going about it.

“The second year,” she continues, “I said: ‘Alright, to prove to you I don’t know what I’m doing I’ll go along with it.’ I planted yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons (we only got one). But it was nice that I could keep going out back and getting dinner. I didn’t have to go to the store. That got me on the hook. I said: ‘Maybe there is something to it. I’ll try again next year.’ That is when I realized I needed help.”

Anna started searching online for help and came across two organizations, NOFA/Mass and Gardening the Community (GtC), a Springfield youth gardening program that NOFA/Mass had helped start. GtC was meeting at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Anna’s neighborhood. She went there for a workshop on healthy soil, started going to more of their presentations, and got involved as a volunteer.

At the same time Anna found NOFA. She thought her cabbage wasn’t growing right so she Emailed NOFA/Mass for help. They had a program called ‘Ask Ed’, where Ed Stockman, a NOFA farmer, would answer your questions. He asked Anna to send a picture of her cabbage, which she did, and he helped her understand how cabbages grow. This seemed like a helpful organization to Anna. When her husband asked if NOFA was giving any workshops they could go to, she found out they had a winter conference coming up in Worcester.

“So we went to the 2009 NOFA/Mass winter conference,” she relates. “We get there and we’re standing in the registration line and looking around. He says: ‘Do you see anyone that looks like us?’ I looked around and said: ‘Noooo.’ But we stayed because we needed the information. So we went to the workshops and I was the only person of color at most of those workshops. We checked back with each other at lunch. What my husband liked was that during the general business meeting everything was handled quickly. It all seemed very well organized. I enjoyed the keynote speaker, Eliot Coleman. We got over the fact it was so white!

“I came home,” she continues, “and I started to apply as much as I could that season. I’d call my mother constantly for advice and started implementing some of the ideas I got from NOFA. Pretty soon I could taste the difference in my food! It was at NOFA that I got introduced to the idea of no-till, keeping soil covered, caring about what is happening in the soil. I had just figured it was dirt! Learning about soil biology is what really got my attention.”

Anna is responsible for the alliances of NOFA/Mass with groups working on food access issues. This includes a large number of indigenous urban farming organizations like GtC: community gardens and youth training programs as well as food policy and food sovereignty efforts. Since NOFA tends to be so rural and so white, I asked her some pointed questions about how best to be effective in alliances with urban groups that are largely composed of people of color.

“Look at this neighborhood,” she begins. “You see small stores and bodegas, but you don’t see supermarkets like Shaw’s or Wegman’s or Stop ‘n Shop. They are all out in the suburbs. The families here go to the small stores but their selection of food choices is not that good. So any way that other organizations can help with that is great.”

Anna has been participating in Food Solutions New England on behalf of NOFA/Mass. They are concerned about food security and are looking at ways to get as much as 50% of our food produced in New England – fruit, vegetables, fish, dairy, meat, everything. She sees food security and nutritional quality as unifying issues for NOFA and inner-city groups.

Tapley Court Garden

photo courtesy Anna Gilbert-Muhammad
Volunteers dig in at work party (with food, music, a Disc Jockey, and planting contests for children) opening the garden at Tapley Court Apartments, a 40-unit Springfield structure with some low income and some market rate homes.

“Poverty is poverty,” she says. “In the rural parts of Massachusetts there are a lot of people who are food insecure, just like here. That in itself is something we can fight together on. Also, SNAP has been getting some rough treatment right now. Sometimes poor white people vote against their interests — their whole idea is keep the black and the brown and the red people down so whites will be one step up. But they are really not one step up. They’re in the same boat with me. You may have a little privilege being white, but you still can’t eat any better. We’re in the same food stamp line.

“Another option is the Healthy Initiatives Program here in Massachusetts,” Anna continues. “It gives you money back on your EBT card if you use it to buy fruits or vegetables. It was a trial using USDA money to encourage people to eat better. It benefited my community and it helped a lot of farmers’ bottom lines – white small farmers, organic farmers. A lot of CSAs take food stamps. Those are unifying situations we can work together on. I know in Boston there are groups doing policy work around SNAP cuts, and in Springfield the Food Policy Council just passed around a petition about putting money back into HIP.”

“Lastly,” she concludes, “some of the public health institutes in the state are great about programs to improve nutrition in food deserts. We don’t necessarily have to lead the charge on those issues, but we can support groups that are carrying those banners. We can testify at hearings, carry articles in our publications, get people out for events.

NOFA’s real strength in building alliances, Anna feels, is our knowledge about soil and how to raise nutritious, high quality food. New England growing conditions are different from those many people of color are familiar with, and some of the crops they prefer are difficult to produce here. In addition, urban conditions present unique hazards that can’t be safely ignored. High soil levels of heavy metals, especially lead, require testing and often remediation, including raised beds, containers, and other approaches before crops can be planted there.

“I’ve been working with the Urban Farm Institute in Mattapan,” she explains, “teaching people how to raise food. It’s in the inner city of Boston. They’re trying to build healthy soil so that they can grow more nutritious food. NOFA is helping with our soil technical assistance program. We’ll work with you, train you up, and when we go away you can continue on your way. That is the best kind of relationship groups like NOFA can have. “

Anna has been particularly supportive of the no-till and carbon farming work NOFA/Mass has been doing. These practices are not how she learned to garden, but the results – in terms of both usefulness for growing and quality of the produce – has convinced her to spread the word.

“When I first started to garden,” she recalls, “it was all about: ‘go get the roto-tiller and till up everything’ every year. Make your regular rows and keep it moving. But to learn a different way that is better both for the quality of your food and also the environment, that is going to a different level. A lot of people want to learn about that. The gardeners that I have brought to NOFA have found that information very useful and are trying to use it in their gardens, planter boxes, backyards.

“Some don’t understand why they shouldn’t till up their gardens,” she admits. “They come over and watch me and I show them how to do it differently. One good reason, of course, is that you don’t have to rent a roto-tiller and borrow a truck to get it to your garden. Number two, I don’t have as much of a weed issue because I’m not waking up those weed seeds by tilling the soil. By covering the soil, it keep all the good stuff in there. People can understand that, particularly the part about not having to spend money!”

When Anna talks about no-till, she says, she doesn’t get into all the ins and outs of what is going on in the soil biology. She just talks about what the grower can do to do a better job.

Ray Archuleta of NRCS at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre

photo by Jack Kittredge
Anna leads group of Springfield urban gardeners attending a workshop on soil carbon led by Ray Archuleta of NRCS at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre.

“If you speak the language of people,” she advises, “you will soon find out how to pitch what you have to say. You may want to talk about it differently in Dorchester than in Greenfield, or parts of Worcester or here in Springfield. Your relationship should be one of listening carefully and watching what is going on in the community.”

She feels strongly, however, about making sure the community group is in charge and making the key decisions. Gardening the Community, for instance, has alliances with different organizations to help out with growing, to bring in affordable CSAs into the city, and to learn about soil restoration to build up their soil. But GtC stays in charge of the agenda and decides what sort of help they need.

“I think the most useful way to work in a community like this,” Anna says, “is to understand history – understand how we got to this point. A lot of times people come into our communities, do services, and leave. It is almost as if they make their living off of our misery, our suffering. This happens with a lot of social service agencies.

“Working in partnership,” she continues, “you need to let the community take the lead in saying what they need. The Springfield Housing Authority’s Robinson Gardens is a good example of a partnership. The families there are the ones that dictate what they need and as community garden coordinator I try to see what resources I can bring to the table to help meet that need. Those families wanted a garden where they could grow the kind of food that they can’t get here with their SNAP benefits and their paychecks. Same thing at Tapley Court. I just played a supporting role to help them get a garden going.”

For groups like NOFA, which she thinks has a wonderful program – to ask: ‘How can I be an ally?’ is the most useful way to approach forming an alliance. Take the back seat and let the group decide where they want to go.

She also suggests that NOFA make its education events more accessible to communities of color.

“When I first got involved,” she recalls, “all the workshops that I wanted to attend were way out. You needed a car for most of them. That took a lot of planning on my part to be able to attend. When we came to the Soils and Cover Crops one in Barre we had to arrange for a car and a car pool. If we did that same workshop here it could be on a bus line within walking distance for many people. Then more people would be apt to go. Maybe have a nominal fee like $5. I know we are a fee-for-service organization and have to pay for our programs, but could we make a sliding scale? Maybe the folks coming from Longmeadow could pay a higher price than the ones from Springfield (laughs). Just a thought!

“But when it comes to workshops,” she continues, “ask: Is it accessible? Are we covering topics that make sense to people? How is it advertised? For the workshop UFI has coming up this weekend we’re making it a point to push it in the Dorchester/Mattapan area, in the neighborhoods that people can walk from. They’re marketing it to other organizations in the area, youth groups, neighborhood associations, to reach all the people of color in that area.

“It means coming out of our comfort zone a little,” she concludes, “to reach people. When we table at conferences I go with Marty, our outreach staffer, (Marty Dagoberto is a tall Hispanic). People look at us both and do a double take. But us being there makes it easier for some people to come to the table, ask us what NOFA/Mass is about. I tell them about what is going on at UFI or GtC. They ask how can they get to that workshop or how can NOFA work with them.”
Anna also has some suggestions for making an organization’s staff and board more inclusive. The will to do that has to be serious, she feels, and recruitment is often necessary.

“Attracting people of color to an organization that doesn’t have them,” she insists, “has to be intentional. It has to be done every day, not just pulled off the shelf when you need it. We have to set up workshops that will attract the people we want, we have to recruit board members in communities that are different, recruit staff from groups that we are working with. I wouldn’t have known about this NOFA/Mass job without being recruited for it. I would never have gone on NOFA’s website to look for a job. Maybe I would have seen something if it was in the Point of View, which is Springfield’s version of the Bay State Banner. A listing there might open you up to a different pool of candidates. If they see an ad there, people know you are looking for people like them.”

NOFA’s strongest asset, Anna reiterates, is the fact that we are trying to solve problems, make communities stronger, people and the earth healthier. People who believe in those things will be attracted to it.

“NOFA has a deeper meaning than lots of organizations,” she asserts. “For the work I did before, I got paid well. But there was no depth to it. This gives me something not only that I can use, but that I can bring to my community. That’s what I like about NOFA, it’s an organization that is a little different, but it is really doing some good.”