The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this week, is best-known for cultivating interest in locally grown, organic food. Over the years, some observers have also noticed its long-standing vegetarian friendliness, especially at the Common Ground Country Fair. In 2012, for instance, in a story about the fair, the New York Times mentioned “the vegetarian crowd” in the second sentence.
But MOFGA is not now nor has it ever been a vegetarian organization. True, as the state’s organic certification agent, MOFGA in 2020 certified 564 vegetable farms and plant-based producers. But it also certified 118 livestock and dairy farms, and it trains farmers how to butcher chickens and pigs and similar tasks.
So why is the Common Ground Fair the most vegetarian– and vegan-friendly agricultural fair in Maine (and likely New England, too)? Why does the MOFGA newspaper feature so many plant-based recipes? And, underlying both questions, how did MOFGA come to be linked with a welcoming attitude toward plant-based eaters?
To sleuth out the origins of this baked-in veg-friendliness, I’ve read historical documents and connected with people who helped shape MOFGA. The picture that emerges reveals a magic sauce of 1970s environmental concerns mixed with traditional Maine thriftiness, amplified by the number of vegetarians among the organization’s founders and enriched by overflowing vegetable gardens.
The result is MOFGA’s lasting vegetarian flavor.
Early Veg Influencers
By the 1970s, Helen and Scott Nearing were celebrity radicals, two of the country’s leading homesteaders and vocal vegetarians. They were also key early influencers of MOFGA. Both Nearings spoke at the 1971 Thomas Point Beach gathering in Brunswick that led to the formation of MOFGA four months later. The Nearings’ farm in Harborside is listed in the first directory of 24 Certified Maine Organic Farms, published in August 1972 by the fledgling organization.
“MOFGA’s story must begin with Helen and Scott Nearing, whose 1954 book ‘Living the Good Life,’ about their homesteading experiences in Vermont, impelled so many people to seek the rural life,” gardening expert Barbara Damrosch wrote in the forward to “Fertile Ground: Celebrating 40 Years of MOFGA,” published in 2011. Damrosch lives on land that her husband, nationally known organic farmer Eliot Coleman, purchased from the Nearings.
Vegetarianism was central to the Nearings’ Good Life ethic.
Abbie McMillen, an early MOFGA organizer and the newspaper’s first editor, told me the Nearings played a significant role not only in shaping the young organization but in cultivating its vegetarian leanings. “They were notoriously hospitable, with their Monday night gatherings,” remembered McMillen, who lives a quarter mile from the Nearings. The Nearings used to host weekly intellectual get-togethers at Forest Farm, their hand-built, stone homestead, a tradition that continues at the nonprofit Good Life Center that is now housed on the premises.
The year before MOFGA was founded, the Nearings’ previously niche 1954 book was reissued and fast became a must-read within alternative circles. “Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World” advocates homesteading, organic farming and a vegetarian diet. “Long ago we decided to live in the vegetarian way, without killing or eating animals,” the Nearings wrote, “and lately we have largely ceased to use dairy products and have allied ourselves with the vegans.”
While they never became full vegans, the Nearings were friends with Jay and Freya Dinshah, the founders of the American Vegan Society, with whom they collaborated to bring the World Vegetarian Congress to Maine in 1975. The Nearings criticized “holding animals in bondage,” as they phrased it in “Living the Good Life,” and Helen, in particular, offended some nonvegetarians with her blunt assessments of their meals.
In 1980, Helen elaborated on the couple’s evolving vegetarian diet in her heavily vegan cookbook “Simple Food for the Good Life.” “Scott and I, as vegetarians, have lessened our dependence on animal products,” she wrote. “We drink no milk, eat no eggs (except what may come in dishes served away from home), wear no animal skins or coats of leather, and try to get nonleather shoes and belts. We are not purists, nor entirely consistent in our avoidance of harm to animals. We both eat honey, stolen from the bees.”
During the couple’s lifetimes, and after, the Nearing homestead attracted thousands of visitors. The vegetarian leanings of these Good Life pilgrims, some of whom eventually settled in Maine, was documented by journalist Jean Hay Bright in her 2003 memoir “Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life.” The book chronicles Bright’s years living on a wooded lot she bought from the Nearings in a neighborhood that included the Colemans and other back-to-the-landers. Bright quotes from a 1973 letter she wrote to her mother advising she warn visiting cousins “about the crowd that the Nearings draw. Long-hair, hippie types, mostly vegetarians, some into yoga, weird clothes.”
Coleman and his first wife, Sue Coleman, were vegetarians in those days, as was MOFGA’s first executive director, Chaitanya York, according to Tim Nason, who began editing the organization’s newspaper in 1973 and was himself a vegetarian for several years. When Rosey Guest first connected with MOFGA in 1978 – as an apprentice at Horsepower Farm in Penobscot – she was also a vegetarian. For many years, Guest helped coordinate MOFGA’s apprentice program. Today, she and her husband run the solar-powered Bluebird Hill Farm in Jefferson.
“It was the decade of the first Earth Day,” Guest said of the 1970s. “We learned about our meat coming from CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). All of this new information was causing activism and turning us into vegetarians.”
Guest said vegetarianism was common among the people interested in organic farming not only during the 1970s but throughout the 1980s and 1990s, too. During those decades, many of the applicants for spots in MOFGA’s on-farm apprenticeship program were vegetarian, according to Guest, a fact that could make placements difficult on some animal-based farms. MOFGA’s match materials for the apprenticeship program still reflects this reality. The form each farm completes to create a profile of itself prompts farmers to discuss room and board arrangements, such as whether they are “a vegetarian household” or can “provide vegetarian meals.”
Guest said the high percentage of vegetarian applicants shifted after 2005, when farming became “cool and popular” and was no longer the sole domain of “the black sheep” of the family.
In February 1972, Susan Ferriss was elected treasurer at MOFGA’s first annual meeting, but more people probably know her as the writer of Organic Cookery, a column in MOFGA’s early newspapers. In the June 1972 newspaper, Ferriss tackles the subject of meat-free cooking, revealing: “My family has been vegetarians for about a year,” and sharing recipes for cottage cheese-spinach casserole, walnut balls, Turkish ratatouille, golden cheese bake, lentil roast and a cheesy pesto called green sauce.
Her column set an early precedent that subsequent columnists continued: Highlighting vegetable-centric, vegetarian dishes.
The newspaper’s food columnist from 1974 to 1982 was Barbara Mather, who wrote under the title “Spoons and Spiders.” Mather’s recipes were vegetable-based and largely vegetarian, although she wasn’t a vegetarian herself. This tradition of vegetarian-friendly food columns continues with the newspaper’s longest-running column, Harvest Kitchen by Roberta Bailey.
Bailey is a seed farmer with her husband at Seven Tree Farm in Vassalboro. In 1984, when she started the column, Bailey said she’d recently learned that the macrobiotic diet “is about eating locally and with the seasons, and that really struck a chord with me.” Bailey, herself a vegetarian for a short time, decided to emphasize eating seasonal vegetables, including in the winter when root cellars, freezers and, these days, high tunnels, extend locally grown vegetables through the winter.
“I gravitate more toward vegetarian meals and recipes because anybody can add meat or protein to any meal as a side,” Bailey told me recently by phone as she picked peas in her garden. “But I think there is a huge creativity in and a lot of need for good, vegetarian recipes and information.”
In the summer 2021 MOFGA newspaper, for instance, Bailey shared recipes for hummus, tabouli, blueberry smoothies and cream of broccoli soup, all vegan. Each recipe originated at the all-vegan Better Hummus and Gardens booth she co-ran at the Common Ground Fair from 1981-87. Vegetarian food booths have been part of the fair since its start in 1977, when Portland vegetarian restaurant Hungry Hunza was among the vendors. Heirloom apple expert John Bunker ran a sprout salad and green smoothie food booth at the fair from 1978-81.
Likewise, the tradition of vegetarian food at MOFGA potlucks grew from early roots. In 1972, Mort and Barbara Mather, who farm Easter Orchard Farm in Wells, attended the first meeting of the York County chapter of MOFGA. Mort Mather said the chapter meetings soon became potluck suppers, where everyone would bring something made from their gardens.
“The only time I remember it didn’t work out so well was one August when most of the food that came was platters of tomatoes,” recalled Mather, a former MOFGA president. All the chapter members grew organic vegetables, Mather said, and had plenty to spare. However, those, like him, who were raising animals for meat had a limited supply.
“Nobody was going to buy meat for these things,” Mather said, reflecting a frugality that was a product of both the era and Maine values. As a result “probably 90 percent of the dishes were vegetarian,” he said.
Bailey had a similar experience at the early potlucks for the Tri County MOFGA chapter (Washington, Aroostook and Penobscot counties), often held after on-farm work parties or meetings to place the group FEDCO seed order. “Most often the meals were vegetarian,” Bailey said, “because some of the people were vegetarian so it was the simplest way so everybody could partake.”
McMillen, also a vegetarian for a short time in the 1970s, recalled that serving vegetable-based dishes at early potlucks made it simpler to maintain food safety “when there is a long travel time between cooking and eating, and refrigeration may not be available.” She and others also found trying out new vegetarian recipes “interesting and fun.”
Veganic farming expert Will Bonsall of Industry writes in MOFGA’s summer 2021 newspaper that the organization stands out from similar groups across the country because MOFGA is more of an alternative group than a traditional trade association. In addition to the traction it gains from its alternative edge, Bonsall, who directs the Scatterseed Project, attributes MOFGA’s growing influence to its collaborative approach and “the general seeking of common ground.”
For the past 50 years, that common ground has translated into thrifty, creative, plant-based meals when the MOFGA community meets around a table.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @AveryYaleKamila
Vegan Cream of Broccoli Soup
This recipe was developed for the all-vegan Better Hummus and Gardens booth, which sold pita and hummus at the Common Ground Country Fair from 1981-87. Food columnist Roberta Bailey, who co-ran the booth, included the recipe in the Summer 2021 edition of the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener newspaper. It is reprinted with permission.
1 cup diced onion
1 cup chopped mushrooms
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
3-4 cups vegetable stock or water
3 cups chopped broccoli (some stem is OK)
1 cup rolled oats (more if you desire a thick soup)
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 cup grated carrot
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon salt
In a heavy soup pot, sauté the onions, mushrooms and garlic in oil until translucent. Add the stock, oats and broccoli and cook until soft. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor. If you’d like a thicker soup, add oat flour – or grind some rolled oats – and add to enough water to make a thin paste, then stir this mixture into the soup.
Add the basil, carrot, nutritional yeast and salt. Let the soup simmer for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if need be.