Russell Libby, Organic Farming Advocate, Dies at 56

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Russell Libby, one of the nation's leading advocates for organic farming, died on Sunday at his farm in Mount Vernon, Me. He was 56.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Mary Anne, said.

What began with his fourth-grade teacher handing out packets of vegetable seeds to her students in Sorrento, Me., nearly five decades ago, evolved into a lifelong passion for Mr. Libby and a deep concern about industrial farming and its use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"We have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in the modern world," was a refrain in his many speeches.

For 17 years, until he stepped down last month, Mr. Libby was executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which he had built into one of the largest of the organic movement's state organizations.

Since Mr. Libby was named director in 1995, membership doubled, to more than 7,000, and the number of organic farmers and producers in the state increased to 420, from 85.

Under Mr. Libby, the organization moved from a single office in Augusta, Me., to a 400-acre complex of offices, exhibition halls, a library, a teaching kitchen and farmland in the town of Unity. The association distributes educational material throughout the country, places apprentices on farms in Maine and provides advice to local farmers on financing, marketing and food safety, as well as agricultural techniques.

Mr. Libby also held sway with public officials, playing a central role in lobbying Congress to amend the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 to protect organic farmers. The act vastly broadened the power of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate food production.

"The original legislation would have made it extremely difficult for small farmers to comply with the requirements," said Fred Kirschenmann, a fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, adding that some requirements "really had nothing to do with the safety of food."

In a statement, Kathleen A. Merrigan, the deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, called Mr. Libby "a powerful voice for and leader of small family farmers."

Russell Wayne Libby did not grow up on a farm; he planted those seeds from his teacher in the backyard. Born on Aug. 16, 1956, in Lincoln, Me. (the family later moved to Sorrento), he was the oldest of four children of Ronald and Sandra Libby. His father was a detective with the state police.

After graduating from Bowdoin College in 1978, Mr. Libby went on to earn a master's degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maine. He became a researcher for the National Center for Economic Alternatives, a small nonprofit organization, and later for the Maine Department of Agriculture.

Besides his wife and parents, Mr. Libby is survived by three daughters, Anna, Margaret and Rosa; a brother, Chris; and two sisters, Pamela Fowley and Ronda Nichols. Beyond organic farming's environmental and health benefits, Mr. Libby saw its value to local economies. In many speeches, he espoused a "Ten Dollars a Week" concept: the idea that communities could thrive if every household spent that amount on locally produced food, rather than buying from supermarket chains.

On his 65-acre Three Sisters Farm in Mount Vernon, he and his daughters tended to the apple, pear and cherry trees, and to sheep, hens and a pony. They sold eggs to people around town.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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