In his latest column, John Cross ’76 remembers Russell Libby ’78, long-time director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and one of the country’s leading experts and advocates for sustainable agriculture.
I hadn’t seen Russell Libby ’78 since his 30th Reunion, but during our brief encounter on that early June day on campus the years rolled away, a familiar twinkle was in his eye, and the conversation flowed without apparent effort. Ours was one of those college friendships based on mutual respect, trust, and shared experiences; it was always going to be there, even without regular contact in person, by mail, e-mail, or social media. There was a lot to admire about the young man from the small Maine town of Sorrento (population 200) who signed the matriculation book at the College in the fall of 1974. He was, as we used to say, “wicked smart,” a soft-spoken young man of deep convictions and the ability to get to the heart of a matter with a clarity of reasoning and expression that made him a formidable debater. His dry humor kept any tendencies towards pomposity – in himself and in others – in check.
Russell died on December 9 at his home on Three Sisters Farm in Mt. Vernon, Maine, after a two-year battle with cancer. I learned only recently of the health challenges that Russell had been facing. I had meant to be in touch with him on a more regular basis; I had admired his accomplishments from afar and looked forward to our next meeting. I had hoped to write this column in time for Russell to read it himself, and so that he might know how much his friendship meant to me and that he might hear from his many friends in the Bowdoin community in his final days. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time.
Russ majored in economics at Bowdoin, and he brought his keen analytical skills to bear at the National Center for Economic Alternatives in Augusta and then for ten years at the Maine Department of Agriculture. Issues such as the economic viability of traditional farms and the integrity of the food supply became a personal and professional calling. In 1983 he joined the board of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and served as its executive director for 18 years. Under his leadership MOFGA became the largest such state organization in the country (impressive for a state with a total population just north of 1.3 million), and the association moved from a small office to the 250-plus-acre Common Ground Education Center in the Maine town of Unity. Russ was not just a leader in the State of Maine, he was a national figure as well, testifying in Congress on farm bills, and working with land trusts, philanthropists, farmers, chefs, legislators, and other stakeholders. None of this would have been possible without Russell’s gift for working with people from all walks of life, and for finding connections and common goals among disparate interest groups.
Russell was persuasive because he lived according to the principles that he espoused. He pointed out that if each family would spend just $10 a week on locally-produced items, then those dollars would be re-spent locally, creating jobs, preserving traditional farmlands and woodlots, and maintaining high-quality foods. His reverence for the land was matched by uncommon wisdom, patience, and persistence. Russ mowed the grass in the orchard with a scythe; he cleared new pasture land with an eye towards the future, leaving the sugar maples, cutting scrub growth, and prioritizing the trees to be harvested first for firewood. His knowledge of nature, sustainable practices of horticulture, animal husbandry, and woodlot management was encyclopedic.
I know so much more about Russell than I learned in my infrequent encounters with him over the past 35 years because he wrote poetry – beautiful, complex, honest, and spare poetry – throughout his adult life. A book of his poems, Balance: A Late Pastoral, was published in 2007. He adjusted his own work and expectations to rhythms and scales of time and space, achieving a harmony with the land and an inner peace that is altogether rare today. The same calloused hands that brought forth the land’s bounty also wrote extraordinary poetry, were the instruments of the loving touch of a devoted husband and father, and gave unhesitating assistance to a neighbor in need.
The seeds that Russell planted have already taken root at places like Bowdoin. The College’s Dining Services are once again ranked at or near the top of college and university dining services in the country. Bowdoin has been a leader in adopting practices that encourage sustainable agriculture in Maine through partnerships with local producers, the maintenance of the Bowdoin Organic Garden, and best practices for minimizing waste. Outcomes such as this – not credit or accolades – are what Russell wanted more than anything. The example of Russell Libby’s life will be for me an ever-present reminder that anything is possible when we seek common ground. It is also reinforces the importance of expressing appreciation and admiration to those whose friendships have meant so much to me, even though there may be a separation of time and distance.
With best wishes of the season and for 2013.
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations