Reflections on NOFA-VT past and future
My involvement with NOFA began in 1975, when I helped organize a farmers market that is now in Newport, VT. “Local food for local markets” was the primary approach at that time—it only took us 30 years to get the rest of the world to pay attention. We also emphasized farm diversification, introducing many more vegetable and small fruit growers into a state that was even more heavily dependent on dairy than it is today.
In 1977 I volunteered to develop a certification program—at the time, NOFA was one bi-state organization of Vermont and New Hampshire. For the first few years we had at most 5 certified producers at any given time. The basic concept and approach remained intact for many years, with standards decisions made by vote of the membership. This was the time when organic producers began to take marketing seriously—certification was both a way of defining organic for ourselves and a way of providing assurance to consumers who did not have direct contact with the producer.
The eighties began with a couple of landmark USDA publications, “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming” and “A Time to Choose,” both of which were dumped by the Reagan administration (wrong choice). I had been VT State Coordinator in 1979, the first full-time staff person, and was succeeded by Sara Norton, who pulled the organization together during a difficult time.
The eighties could be characterized as the time of the “birth” of the organic industry. OTA (Organic Trade Association, then OFPANA) was started in 1984, along with OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association). NOFA-VT (now VOF) was briefly an OCIA chapter, really getting serious when a big Maryland produce distributor offered contracts to NOFA growers if they got certified. It was also a time when “sustainable” began to be a more acceptable term to “the establishment,” and NOFA Council, now 6 state chapters, received one of the first LISA (Low Input Sustainable Agriculture, now SARE) grants in 1989.
By this time I was market gardening and had stepped down from being certification czarina when we hired Enid (right choice). The end of that decade saw full tilt national organizing as the dreaded Federal legislation appeared on the horizon. Vermont NOFA was very much a leader in that effort, especially since Pat Leahy was the sponsor of the bill that later became the OFPA. We also published Organic Farmer magazine through Rural Vermont (another project started in the 80s as an offshoot of NOFA), and helped organize the Organic Farmers Associations Council (OFAC), a key player in getting the OFPA passed.
A lot more happened that deserves mention, but for me the most memorable part of the eighties was organizing the NOFA Summer Conference in 1983, when it was held at Johnson State College. It had been alternating between Vermont and New Hampshire, and had lost money the previous few years—I’m proud of having come out in the black, but even more so of the fantastic keynote lineup we put together: Starting with a performance by Bread & Puppet, we listened to Grace Paley read poetry, and then heard from Pat Leahy, who was the champion of “sustainable” agriculture and nuclear disarmament. But the star of the evening was Murray Bookchin, who was in fine polemical form, rallying us to overturn the industrial food system. I later went on to teach at the Institute for Social Ecology, an important influence in my thinking then and now.
Fast forward to 2009, when organic products populate virtually every supermarket in the country, and certified producers in Vermont alone total an astonishing 533+. Ideally, that kind of growth will continue—there are a few helpful provisions in the new Farm Bill, for example. But there’s a long way to go before organic becomes the predominant form of agriculture, and many forces arrayed to block it.
Of course, “we” were never a monoculture and are less so now. Now we are again confronted with a choice: Do we want to protect the niche of premium priced organic, even if it never exceeds 5 percent of the food system? Or do we really want to replace the corporate agri-industrial model with a bioregional food system grounded in ecological relationships? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on what strategies will move us in the direction we want. Amazingly enough I’m still engaged in that discussion, and hope to see NOFA once again lead the way.