Recalling Russell Libby

By CAITLIN SHETTERLY  |  February 13, 2013

feat_libby_Shetterly_main
TRUTHFUL Russell Libby portrait by Robert Shetterly, 2012, in the Americans Who Tell the Truth series.
When trying to come up with a few words to commemorate Russell Libby, the former executive director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who died in December at the age of 56, my first thought was: What could I possibly offer which is not already present in my father's stunning portrait? However, over last weekend, as the snow fell and fell, I picked up the phone and called people who knew Russell all over our great state of Maine. In between breaks from shoveling, people took time to talk, intimately and generously. Their stories were plentiful. They tell us more about the man than a sterile list of biographical facts could ever possibly attempt:

My first phone call was to SAM HAYWARD, the executive chef at Portland's world-renowned Fore Street Restaurant. Sam recalled: "On September 11, 2001, Russell and I were scheduled to meet at Fore Street to discuss MOFGA business. I had found out what was happening when my eldest son called to ask why everyone on his college campus, just an hour or so outside of New York, was frantic about some sort of attack which he couldn't get any solid information about. I turned on a cable news channel to find out for both of us, and we stayed on the phone as I described for him the incomprehensible: the images of towers burning, bodies falling before the towers did. Eventually I had to get off the phone to travel to Portland and work, but during the commute I fought a powerful urge, overriding reason, to continue down I-95 to grab my son and haul him home to Maine where I knew there was safety and sanity. Instead, I got to Fore Street, got to my desk, and went through the motions of ordering fish and mushrooms, taking care of business. Russell arrived for our meeting, and waited for me upstairs while I tried to focus on business. Russell collected his thoughts while watching the waterfront from the restaurant's windows. When I finally got off the phone, I joined Russell in the restaurant. We didn't have much conversation. The MOFGA business fell away. Instead there was a sense of holding on to each other, as if in an earthquake, with the ground rolling away underneath us."

Congresswoman CHELLIE PINGREE sent along her elegiac commemoration of Libby, which she entered into our nation's congressional record (Libby, it should be noted, in his 17-year tenure, not only built MOFGA into the largest organic famers and growers association in the country, but he also worked with Pingree to help pass a version of the Farm Bill that, in her words, "better supports small, diversified farms." Her memorial reads: "As an economist, farmer, and poet, Russell . . . could point to the numbers to show positive effects smaller-scale food systems have for our economy. He could speak from experience of the difficulties of operating a small farm. And he could clearly illustrate the good things that happen when we have a closer connection to the land and each other. . . . It's my hope that this body will do well by him and take his vision to heart. 'I'm really not interested in standing over here in the local and organic corner for the rest of my life and waving, "Hi, we're having fun over here,"' Russell said. 'I'm really interested in this kind of food being available to everybody under the basic principle: enough for everyone, always.'"

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  •   RECALLING RUSSELL LIBBY  |  February 13, 2013
    When trying to come up with a few words to commemorate Russell Libby, the former executive director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who died in December at the age of 56, my first thought was: What could I possibly offer which is not already present in my father's stunning portrait?
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