“In the summer of 1971, a gathering took place here at the Earth Bridge Land Trust, between the villages of Putney and Westminster Vermont,” explains Al Johnson. “The gathering [in Windham County in the southeastern corner of Vermont] brought together people with a wide range of backgrounds, but they all had one thing in common, and that was to grow food in a way that sustains the Earth. This is the story of the organization that was born that day.”
Al Johnson is not a professional filmmaker. He’s an organic inspector, and has been running educational forums for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) for 44 years. He has been president of NOFA’s Interstate Council and is now its treasurer. He decided to celebrate NOFA’s 50th anniversary by producing a documentary (watchable on YouTube), ORGANIC ROOTS – 50 Years of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, that would allow the organization’s founders and early adherents to tell their stories.
It was an ambitious undertaking, especially for one with no experience at this kind of project, but Johnson traveled, camera in hand, throughout the northeast and found an impressive range of subjects who were eager to share their experiences. Filming took place in spring and summer of 2021, and the documentary premiered the following year at NOFA’s summer conference.
The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) is a coalition of NOFA chapters in seven states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. “Our purpose,” their website declares, “is to advocate for and educate on organic and sustainable agriculture, family-scale farming and homesteading in rural, suburban and urban areas, agricultural justice and other related policy issues.”
What seems to unite many of the founders was the anti-war movement of the late ‘60s. They credit the unifying force of that opposition – plus the wish to break away from mainstream concepts of living – as providing the organizing mechanism that NOFA founder Samuel Kaymen was able to use to bring these farmers and would-be farmers together what’s proven to be a vital cause.
Jake Guest, another of the founders, talks about his early days on a commune, which was “a political collective at first, but it didn’t take long to change into just trying to live together on the end of a dirt road on a little piece of land. We had no electricity or running water,” so they decided to grow their own food. “Word got out that we were going to … get together in Putney with this guy Samuel Kamen, who was living in some kind of communal situation” (and) who wanted to establish a new collective.
“At some point we came up with the name, The Natural Organic Farmers Association, which was pretty presumptuous because none of us were at the point of being farmers. We were just a bunch of hippies who were growing our own food.”
Joey Klein, another early NOFA farmer, explains that “we took the model from the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the anti-war movement, and translated it into a farm-positive, nature-positive, food-positive organization.”
Kayman, who also was the founder of Stonyfield Farm, died in 2022 at the age of 86. He is represented by earlier audio recordings. “Everyone has to share in the care for the earth and the production of food,” he says. “We are all members of the soil community.”
Elizabeth Henderson is a board member of NOFA-NY and the Agricultural Justice Project, and she is a founder of the Peacework Organic CSA. “We were setting out an alternative,” she says, “that despite all the evidence that said it was not going to happen – we did it anyway.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing. Howie Prussack in Brattleboro, an early NOFA member, recalled the opposition farmers markets faced in Vermont, which tells you something about the evolution of Vermont’s social consciousness. “I helped co-found the Brattleboro Farmers Market, which I think was the second or third farmers’ market established in Vermont. Back then there was a lot of opposition in town … ‘what kind of people are going to come to this market?’ They didn’t know if it was a tag sale or a bunch of hippies …They worried it was going to detract from the town – the opposition was crazy.” But once the crowds started coming, the attitudes changed. “Other shopkeepers started hanging out on the periphery, trying to catch some of our overflow.”
The original vision was of a more centralized food distribution model. Robert Houriet, an early NOFA coordinator, was looking for a way to get into agriculture on a hands-on basis. “It wasn’t working out at the commune I was living at – they didn’t want to get into agriculture. I went to the Barton (Vermont) Co-op for a meeting that was called by Samuel to organize the local farmers.” They began working through the co-ops – “that’s where everything got started.”
Early on, NOFA members would pick up produce from farmers and bring it a distribution center in the Bowery in New York City, “and there would be a hundred people waiting for us – and they would cheer!” It proved unwieldy enough that Houriet helped effect the transition to using farmers’ markets. “They were a vehicle for cooperative activity,” he recalls, and he encouraged others to use them by co-writing a farmers market manual, which sold throughout the country. “It was the only manual out there for how to begin to organize a farmers market.”
Grace Gershuny, another early NOFA activist, organized a farmers’ market in Newport, RI, at Houriet’s urging. Similar stories are told by Sara Norton, an early NOFA coordinator, and Elizabeth Henderson, another early NOFA farmer-activist.
What was missing were growing standards for the farmers. Bill Duesing, former president of NOFA’s Connecticut branch, says, “In the late 1990s – in 1999, maybe – a group of people got together in two states, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the first thing we did was write some standards, which were published in 2001.” They then developed a course to teach those standards, a course that gained widespread use.
Jake Guest helped to develop an organic certification process. “We were babes in the woods. Literally. We didn’t know anything. One of the things that we started doing with NOFA was trying to come up with some standards.” He recalls that when he would tell people he was growing organic vegetables, “they’d ask, ‘What’s that?’ There was no idea for most people what that meant. So we had to give it a meaning.” He and some associates began working on a set of standards for NOFA members. “I read through the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, and took what they thought was organic and made a list. And started putting this together.”
Adds Prussack, “There already was faux-organic showing up, so how could we differentiate? There were people showing up at the farmers’ markets with signs saying they were organic, but we knew they weren’t.” Not surprisingly, the conventional markets also were problematic. “I remember back then, when you went to the produce department and said you had organic potatoes, they’d look at you and say, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ So most of the time my stuff was sold as conventional.”
The clear advantages of organic practices became evident to farmers like Kevin Engelbert, whose farm, in central New York on the Pennsylvania border, has been in the family since 1911. “By 1979,” he says, “we couldn’t maintain cow numbers, we couldn’t grow crops. That year we had to buy 20 red heifers just to maintain herd size.” At a family gathering that year, he boasted to his grandmother that he’d just made that purchase, and she admonished him by noting that she and his grandfather had red heifers to sell every year.
Kevin realized that the problems probably were linked to the $25,000 he spent on chemicals and fertilizer every year, as well as the $100-a-month vet bills. “In 1980, we began experimenting with farming without chemicals and herbicides. In 1984, we got certified. Our herd got healthier, and instead of having the vet come every week, we went to every other week, then once a month, then by 1987 we were on an as-call basis.”
Many, many NOFA members appear in on-camera interviews, and Johnson lets them tell the NOFA story, effectively segueing from topic to topic as the interviews unfold. And it’s clear that all who were interviewed maintain the enthusiasm that birthed the organization. As Johnson puts it, “We still are a movement that is fueled by passion and volunteerism.”
Sound and video quality are variable throughout, but generally good. Voices can sometimes be difficult to understand, especially when the subject was filmed outdoors, and the tyranny of auto-focus is evident on occasion, when a background is in better focus than the subject.
The history of NOFA is so compelling and inspiring, there was little need post-production to add shakiness or other movement to titles, or to distress any of the footage in order to make it appear old. Similarly, the adding of images and sound effects, like a stock photo of a bonfire and crackling sound, when one of the subjects interviewed mentions a bonfire is distracting and unnecessary to draw in the viewer to this remarkable story.
[ORGANIC ROOTS-50 Years of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the inspiring 70-minute film celebrating the 50th anniversary of NOFA, is viewable on the website of NOFA as well as directly on YouTube]
(B. A. Nilsson, 7/4/23)