UNITY, Maine — The new executive director of the country’s oldest and largest state organic organization has some big gardening shoes to fill, but brings with him decades of experience helping small farmers all over the country.
Ted Quaday took the helm at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association at the beginning of October. He succeeds longtime organic advocate Russell Libby, who led the organization from 1995 until his death last year and who was called a “ powerful voice for and leader of small family farmers” at his passing by the deputy secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture.
Quaday, who originally is from North Dakota, has spent the last 15 years advocating for family farms and sustainable agriculture, first with Farm Aid and then as a communications director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation of Santa Cruz, Calif.
“The work that MOFGA’s doing is so critically important,” he said Friday. “The opportunity to come to Maine and head an organization with the track record that MOFGA has — well, I was totally glad to accept it.”
The Maine organization, which was formed in 1971, now has 11,000 members, and its annual Common Ground Country Fair brings tens of thousands of people to Unity every September to learn, teach, sample food, look at animals and otherwise enjoy rural living.
The new director described his first days on the job as “exciting and active,” and have allowed him the chance to sample heirloom apples and meet some of the organization’s many involved board members.
“It’s great. I’m getting a chance to get out and meet people all the time. It’s fun,” he said.
Quaday said that he grew up as a hockey-playing kid who has been involved with gardening and soil building his entire life. His family always had a garden, and even though he didn’t come from a farming family, in North Dakota, agriculture is hard to avoid. After college, he worked as a reporter and anchor for a local TV station in Fargo.
“If you’re covering politics in North Dakota, you’re always bumping up against farming. It’s part of the framework,” he said.
He grew so interested in that framework, he went on to study public administration in Boston, and was hired by Farm Aid, the organization that Willie Nelson found in 1985. There, he focused on farm and food issues between 1998 and 2008, during a decade when the food movement was “growing by leaps and bounds.” In that period, the USDA finally implemented organic standards and interest in organic agriculture took off. In Santa Cruz, he was involved in advocating organic farming at the national level.
“Organic is really about paying attention to nature and to what nature is telling you about the health of your soil,” he said. “It’s the difference between people who are building soil and nurturing soil, and those who are mining soil.”
In Maine, MOFGA’s work is important both locally and beyond, he said, especially as the changing climate poses new challenges for crops and farmers. Increased interest in organic farming has led many people without agriculture backgrounds to the vegetable fields, and in Maine MOFGA has helped provide them training and support.
“In 60 years of industrialization, people have lost their memory of how to think about a diversified farm structure,” Quaday said. “The folks that have come back to farming now have to relearn the system.”
He said that Libby was a visionary of the food movement, who helped shape it both in Maine and regionally.
“My objective is to follow that vision,” Quaday said. “It’s a democratic approach. We need to ensure that those voices will always have an opportunity to be heard and heralded.”