Wisconsin Historical Society documents story of organic, sustainable agriculture movement
By Roger Blobaum
A new effort is underway in Wisconsin to document the history of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement in the U.S. The Wisconsin Historical Society is collecting and archiving organization records, conference proceedings, papers and records saved by organic and sustainable agriculture pioneers, and other materials.
Jonathan Nelson, a collections development archivist, heads this effort at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. A grant from the Ceres Trust is helping fund a project archivist and other support needed to get the collection and archiving process underway. The first two personal papers collections have been received and archived.
Early Years of Organic
The first personal papers collection was donated by Loni Kemp of Cannon Falls, Minn., a national sustainable agriculture leader for more than 25 years. Her donated materials include papers saved while serving as a founder and 15-year board member of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and as a board member of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.
The second personal collection, donated by Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford of Winona, Minn., documents the founding and early years of the International Organic Inspectors Association. It also includes papers from Ford’s service as MOSES board member and president, and of Riddle’s service on the National Organic Standards Board and the board of the International Organic Accreditation Service.
Records provided by FairShare Coalition, an organization of organic CSA farmers in south central Wisconsin, are now being processed. Next in line to be processed and archived are papers in a large collection donated by Cissy Bowman of Clayton, Ind., national organic policy leader and pioneer organic farmer and founder/operator of an Indiana-based organic certification organization.
A Perfect Home
The Historical Society has been collecting, preserving, and sharing stories since 1846. Although its collection focus is on Wisconsin and the Midwest, its national mass communications, labor movement, and social action movement collections are highly regarded by historians. Its U.S. agriculture history collections include a vast number of archived items documenting the history of Cyrus McCormick and the International Harvester Company.
A collection donated in the 1940s by the widow of F.H. King documents some early organic farming history. King, former chief of USDA’s Division of Soil Management, traveled to China, Korea, and Japan in the early 1900s to find out how people could farm the same fields for 4,000 years without destroying soil fertility.
Farmers of Forty Centuries, King’s classic book describing how this was accomplished, is based on papers and photos archived at the Society.
Contacting Pioneers of Organic
The concept for this collection started more than two years ago when the Society’s statewide collection survey and analysis showed there was a gap about organic and sustainable agriculture in its overall collection. The initial attempt to launch the collection by sending letters to several Wisconsin-based organizations and institutions did not go well. Most of the letters were not answered and follow-up attempts were largely unsuccessful.
During this period, I approached the Historical Society with an offer to donate my collection of personal papers, documents, photos, and other historic materials saved over more than 40 years of involvement in the movement. I was surprised and pleased to find out that the Society was establishing an organic and sustainable agriculture collecting effort. In addition to donating my own collection, I offered to help identify and collect historic materials from others.
I have since provided the Society with a list that includes profiles and other contact information for more than 100 leaders and pioneers in the organic and sustainable agriculture movement. I also have provided profiles and other information on more than 60 organic and sustainable agriculture organizations, including quite a few that were important in the 1970s and 1980s but have since disappeared.
Since then I have been working closely with Jonathan, contacting potential donors and following up by mail, email, phone, and in-person meetings. This joint effort includes donor discussion meetings at the Historical Society and joint meetings with potential donors at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference.
The key collecting areas the Society is attempting to document include leaders and pioneers in the organic and sustainable agriculture movement, pioneering national organic agriculture organizations and development of the organic agriculture infrastructure, organizations that promote and assist organic farming, organic certification organizations and the standards development process, and companies that develop, sell, and distribute seeds, organic fertilizer, and other production inputs.
Organizing my own collection and forwarding boxes of papers and other materials to the Historical Society is a continuing effort. Donations so far include papers covering 14 years of active involvement in MOSES, six years on the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, five years as a founder and associate director of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association, and five years as a member of the Codex working group that developed international organic guidelines.
The MOSES organization materials I have donated will be expanded by adding programs, recordings, photos, and other materials that help tell the 25-year story of the Organic Farming Conference. MOSES’ Executive
Director Faye Jones and I are working together to complete the collection of MOSES and MOSES Conference materials in the History Society collection.
I also have forwarded to the Society files covering the complete history of the Organic Farmers Associations Council, a national organization of organic farmer groups and organic certifiers that played a key role in developing the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. The files, which had been stored for many years in a barn in New York State, had been in my care until they could be forwarded to the collection in Madison.
Website Chronicles Story of Organic
A large number of items from my collection have been posted on my organic history website (rogerblobaum.com), an initiative designed and edited by organic farming pioneer and author Atina Diffley. The website is linked to the Historical Society collection. This provides immediate access to selected materials that will be received and archived in the Society collection later.
Historic materials on the website include photos and stories from the early 1970s when I interviewed, tape recorded, and photographed Midwest organic farmers for articles published in Organic Gardening and Farming magazine and other publications. Farmers in these articles describe soil and livestock health and other benefits of organic farming, early efforts to market directly to consumers, and strong interest in organic research and extension.
Roger Blobaum served on the MOSES Board of Directors from 2005 to 2013. He coordinated Ceres Trust organic research programs for the last five years. He recently received the University of Wisconsin’s 2013 Honorary Recognition Award for “significant contributions and unselfish service” to organic farming.
January | February 2014