Russell Libby, a symbol of sustainable agriculture in Maine, died on Sunday at his home in Mount Vernon at the age of 56. His life inspired others to focus on how they, too, could protect the Earth. We can learn from his commitment to leave the state better than he found it.
Through several organizations, Libby helped grow Maine’s organic farming industry by educating many here and elsewhere — primarily about how farmers can make best use of their resources and expand their reach. He made organic farming cool and at the same time provided much-needed pragmatism.
He became involved with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association after attending the 1977 Common Ground Country Fair. He joined the board in 1983 and became executive director in 1995. Through his years, he pushed for healthy living conditions for people and the planet.
In 1970 there was one farmers’ market, in Portland, Libby said at a TedXDirigo event in 2011. At that time, the nearest supermarket selling whole wheat flour was in Boston. No chefs featured local food.
Now, organic farming is a small but vital part of Maine’s economy. In 2008, the state had the 12th-highest number of organic farms in the country. Now, locally produced food is a selling point for restaurants, and new ideas are springing up, such as community-supported fisheries.
Libby taught this state many lessons. Here are just a few that Mainers can continue to learn from:
1. Tell your story. Telling the story of the food you are eating or growing helps people remember and appreciate it. Libby enjoyed talking about the Black Oxford apples he grew at his home. The type of apple tree originated in Paris, Maine, around 1790 and is known for its ability to stay crisp through the winter months if stored properly.
2. Make a commitment. Consider spending just $10 per week on products from local farmers or craftsmen. Supporting your neighbors’ operations helps them employ workers and expand the local economy.
3. Take personal responsibility. Stop supporting practices you don’t believe in. If you don’t like the idea of farms raising chickens in cramped cages, don’t buy their eggs.
4. Care for the Earth. Even if you’re just growing a few vegetables in your backyard, you can limit fertilizers. You can reuse resources, such as by putting down compost.
5. Keep learning; keep an open mind. There are always opportunities to learn new practices or techniques, as is apparent with the annual courses offered by the Common Ground Education Center. Topics touch on energy efficiency, orchards, woodlots, greenhouses, blacksmithing.
6. Think big. “I’m really not interested in standing over here in the local and organic corner for the rest of my life and waving, ‘Hi, we’re having fun over here.’ I’m really interested in this kind of food being available to everybody under the basic principle: enough for everyone, always,” Libby said at the TedXDirigo talk.
7. Be kind. “That one tree might make / three thousand feet of boards / if our hearts could stand / the sound of its fall,” Libby wrote in his poem “Applied Geometry,” published by the Poetry Foundation.
Libby reminds us of the positive influence one person dedicated to a cause can have. He helped nurture the next generation of farmers and advocated for a more thoughtful approach to the environment. He will be missed, but his teachings will continue. As he knew well, all it takes is one well-cared-for seed to grow and spread.