UNITY, Maine — Deep in the winter of 1971, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Agent Charlie Gould of Lewiston called together a group of farmers who had been questioning conventional gardening practices.

Now 88, Gould recalled this week what that first gathering was like.

“There were about 50 to 60 people,” he said. “We called them hippies in those days. Many were excited because they believed they were at the beginning of something very important.”

That first meeting in Brunswick resulted in the creation of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“MOFGA evolved because people were figuring out how to grow food,” Executive Director Russ Libby said this week. “We are now pretty broad based — farmers, restaurants, others — all the pieces that make up a food system.”

Today, MOFGA is the oldest and largest state organic association in the country. MOFGA has more than 6,500 members, a staff of 18 employees, an organic certification subsidiary that certifies 4 percent of Maine’s farms and 15 percent of the state’s dairies, a year-round education program, a Journeyperson Program that provides training for future organic farmers, and a cadre of more than 2,000 active volunteers. MOFGA also operates a 400-acre education center and farm at Unity. Organic farming leverages $91.6 million annually for the state of Maine.

While organic farming is still small compared to the impact of Maine’s conventional farms, it has certainly claimed a place at the table and is now profitable enough to sustain itself.

Maine’s Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb said he saw a bumper sticker in Vermont recently that seemed to tell the story of MOFGA’s evolution. It read: “Support Your Local Farmer — It’s Not Just For Hippies Anymore.”

“MOFGA has certainly evolved from small beginnings,” Whitcomb said. “It is remarkable how it has embraced a movement. MOFGA is very important to Maine’s agriculture.”

Libby credits some of MOFGA’s early success to the late Frank Eggert, who was not just a MOFGA president in the late 1970s, but a former dean at the University of Maine.

“Frank was at first skeptical about organic farming but then he did some of the earliest organic growing trials in the United States,” Libby said. Eggert determined that there was a lot of room for organic farming in Maine and that Maine could become an organic leader.

“He kind of made organic farming legitimate in a way that did not happen in many other places,” Libby said.

Organic farming is the form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and control pests on a farm.

But especially here in Maine, organic farming is far more — it is a philosophy and way of life.

Ken and Roberta Horn, now of Hermon, had the first certified organic farm in the state: Ken-Ro Farm in Plymouth. Ken Horn said that back then, organic farmers were accepted, laughed at, joked about or embraced, depending on which door they walked through. “It was a very interesting time,” he said. “We wanted to show, rather than tell, that it could be done.”

Horn said when one farms or gardens organically, “It is a complete thing.

“When you buy something at a store, everyone from the truck driver to the store clerk gets paid. But who pays the earth? The organic farmers pay the earth. We take care of the soil so the soil will take care of us.”

According to an impact study of Maine’s organic farming sector compiled by MOFGA in 2010, Maine had 582 organic farms working just under one million acres of land. These farms generated $36.6 million of total economic output in 2007, including providing 1,596 jobs. An additional $55 million is generated indirectly through equipment and supply purchases.

“When we began, there was one farmers’ market in Maine. Now there are 100,” Libby said. “There was one natural food store. Now there are more than 60 and even conventional grocery stores have natural food sections. When we began, no Maine restaurants were featuring a wide range of local food. Today, the entire restaurant industry is looking critically at food sourcing.”

Libby said two areas where MOFGA has shined are providing an entryway into agriculture for new farmers and building the core of the direct-to-consumer market.

“That is what we try to do, build a connection between the farmer and the general public,” Libby said. He said a recent visit to the Portland Farmers’ Market was very uplifting when he realized hat half of the 40 vendors at the market had come out of MOFGA’s Journeyperson apprentice program.

Maine’s organic farm sector has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades, but this growth has also created new vulnerabilities.

While still anchored by a core of diversified farms, most of the recent growth in Maine has been in commodity-based organic products, such as dairy and maple syrup, Libby said. “This leaves the organic sector more vulnerable to market fluctuations. Still, Maine has had and still has the opportunity to be a national leader in organics.”

Whitcomb acknowledged that the conventional and organic sides of Maine’s agriculture industry have often been at loggerheads. “Even I don’t think that organic agriculture can feed the world,” he said. “But there has been an evolution within the industry and within the Department of Agriculture to recognize that it absolutely has a place at the table.”

Libby said one stumbling block has been the inability to get research done at the University of Maine level. “The blueberry industry is doing a really good job of garnering research but the university is not serving agriculture across the board,” he said. “This has made it harder for farmers who want to convert [from conventional to organic]. The lack of a major public commitment to organic has slowed our growth. UMaine is out ahead of many land grant universities but it is not enough.”

Libby said another impediment is that people find it risky and hard to change. “Even the most successful farmers are innovative around the edges but can’t really change the core of what they are doing. It is too risky, economically,” he said.

The 2010 MOFGA report provides suggestions to mitigate risks and remove barriers, including:

• Develop better financial and business planning resources for organic farmers.

• Strengthen alliances between certified organic farms and non-certified sustainable farms.

• Diversify market opportunities for organic dairy farmers – both products and channels.

• Develop market channels with small and mid-sized grocery stores for local, organic products.

• Continue to purchase local Maine foods from MOFGA-certified farms.

One way that MOFGA has been able reach thousands of new people is through its annual Common Ground Fair. The first fair was held in Litchfield in 1977 and drew about 10,000 visitors. In three of the last four years, the fair – now held at MOFGA’s headquarters in Unity – drew more than 60,000 people.

“It has now gone beyond agriculture to include all these rural businesses that are now part of the MOFGA network,” Libby said. “Here is a different kind of rural development – hundreds of people who run their own businesses coming together for one day a year.”

This year, the Common Ground Fair will be held from September 23-25.

“On the whole, because of MOFGA’s role, organic food is much more accepted in Maine, which gives us a secure seat at the table,” Libby said. “I am feeling very optimistic and positive about MOFGA’s next 40 years.”

MOFGA Book Celebrates First 40 Years

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association marked its anniversary with the release of a new publication, Fertile Ground: Celebrating 40 Years of MOFGA.

The 100-page book acknowledges some of the people who started or inspired MOFGA and its signature annual event, the Common Ground Country Fair.

“This celebratory book is not an exhaustive history of MOFGA,” the Association’s Board President Barbara Damrosch said. “It’s more like a family scrapbook that tells some of our story from the early 1970s to today – an encouraging and hopeful story about the way constructive change goes forward.”

For years, MOFGA has maintained an abridged timeline on its website – www.mofga.org. This book provides a lot more depth to the Association’s narrative.

“Anecdotes and historical information sent by long-time MOFGA members was invaluable in filling gaps in the early history and in highlighting just how MOFGA came to be,” long-time MOFGA newspaper editor Jean English, who pulled together the content for the commemorative book, said. “It also shows how lucky we are that so many idealists persisted.”

Fertile Ground is available for $19.71 plus shipping from the MOFGA office, by calling 207-568-4142, and on MOFGA’s online store at www.mofgastore.org.