By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director
Tucked into a home on Stockton Street in Codman Square, Dorchester, Julie sat on the bed with three-month old Dan and leveled with Jack: she wanted to move back to the land.
Jack had, by this time, founded a cooperative game design company called Future Pastimes, later and Eon Products (which would go on to publish the games Cosmic Encounter and Dune, a board game based in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi universe) and was working as an organizer in Boston on policy issues like the bottle bill and progressive approaches to energy rates that would protect low-income residents.
“Jack was always the policy organizer, and I was always the street organizer, the grassroots door-to-door kind of organizer,” explained Julie, who had continued to work one day a week for Somerville United Neighborhoods (SUN) with her organizing friend Lew Finfer after starting to have children. Lew was the former roommate of Jack Kittredge who was responsible for Julie’s first encounter with Jack over the breakfast orange (to read that story, please see our first installment in this series). Julie’s job with SUN was to walk the neighborhood with SUN organizers as a “low paid consultant” who were organizing door-to-door for neighborhood issues impacting working class people, and occasionally for state and national campaigns according to coalition priorities.
“One day a week I would take the most recent child who had been born and bring them along in my backpack,” Julie said, “until they were 6 months old and could spend the day with the babysitter.”
All of the Kittredge kids—Dan, Paul, Ellen and Charlie—were born at home on Stockton Street between 1977 and 1981. In addition to organizing the household and working with SUN, Julie raised food for her household in her Dorchester backyard. “Our yard was 10×40 feet, and the garden was 10 x 30 feet. We had a little 100 square foot area in the back that contained our compost pile, three rabbit hutches in which we bred rabbits for meat, and a little area for the kids to play.”
Julie had heard of NOFA, but being “just a gardener, I didn’t think I could join. I thought it was just for farmers,” she explained. (“Sound familiar?” she asked me in an aside, referring to that common misconception that NOFA/Mass is exclusively an organization for farmers).
“Between organizing and raising my kids, my garden was my salvation,” she said. But years would elapse before Julie could break out of that 10’x40’ space and expand to create her diversified farm.
Jack had invested in some land in Sandford Maine with his gaming partners, and at first suggested to Julie they could move to that land to start their farm. It was a place to get away, to camp and enjoy the woods, but it wasn’t farming land. “It was rocky, woody and full of swamps and mosquitos,” Julie described, “and when I saw it, I knew: no hope of fields here.”
So, selling out his share of the Maine woods to his partners, Jack and Julie saved and searched. Jack was open to the idea of moving out of the city. Although he had been raised in the suburbs of Maryland, his parents had a large garden and made regular trips out to local farms to bring fresh produce home, preserving their own food and keeping closely in touch with the seasonality of local farming.
Alongside this experience, he and Julie had seen so many young people– of both their own and the coming generation—who appeared disconnected and sadly adrift. It seemed that these kids lacked a sense of purpose, and that their immediate society didn’t trust them to have responsibility and a role. In organizations like churches and 4-H, young people could find concrete ways to meaningfully contribute. Likewise, growing up on a farm, kids could work together with their siblings and parents to build, grow, prepare, preserve— learning all the way, and sharing together in both the labor and the fruit. Everyone would have a role.
Julie and Jack found and purchased the land that would be Many Hands Organic Farm in 1980. They spent another two years working and saving in Boston before moving out to a mobile home on the land in Barre on July 3, 1982, where they lived as they built their home.
Jack, who had begun his journalistic career as a child printing a bi-weekly family newsletter (and selling it to his family members for nickels) began drafting a funny, lighthearted weekly newsletter detailing the family’s adventures building their new home and farm. They mailed it out to friends and family in Boston and across the country, attracting weekend guests to come and help. Both sides of the family—siblings and parents alike, came to lend a hand, including Jack’s mother (in her seventies by then) who cleaned and sorted and painted. Everyone had a role.
The family was finally able to move into the shell of the house on December 4th of that year– but it was just a shell. They lived there as they built the walls around them. “One time, Ellen fell out of the kitchen wall and into the greenhouse – and the same week Charlie fell out of the back wall and into the trench around the foundation,” Julie laughed. Those incidents, of course, made great copy for the newsletter (though Julie’s mom was not amused).
Now with land and the beginnings of her farm, before even a year had elapsed since her move, Julie called the President of the newly-incorporated State Chapter of NOFA, NOFA/Mass. Liz Henderson, one of the farmers at Unadilla Farm in Gill Massachusetts, answered the phone. “I asked how I could get involved. We were out here in Central Massachusetts, I was raising these still rather small children, and I wanted to use my organizing skills and offer my services at some level,” Julie said.
Liz gave Julie a list of people in Region Three. At that time, NOFA was broken into six regions and members were organized according to region. “So, my job was to call up the people in Region Three who were members to find out what they were interested in. It has always been a part of NOFA/Mass practice to call up our members and ask them what they’re interested in and how the organization can serve them,” explains Julie, who to this day answers the NOFA/Mass phone and places calls to new members and donors to ask them about their needs and interests.
“One of our original NOFA friends was Peter Wartiainen who had a homestead in Barre. He would call himself organic, but he used a little bit of Captan on his seeds.” A true “salt-of-the-earth character and a practical old buzzard,” Peter sugared a red maple grove and kept his eggs in his leaky basement, selling the oldest ones first so that his customers had to crack them over a bowl to sort out the rotten ones from the good ones. He loved his basement, he said, because although the ‘water ran in, it would always leave again.’
It was Peter who brought Jack and Julie to their first NOFA/Mass Annual Meeting, and while the organization was electing board members from the floor, it was Peter who nominated Julie and got her elected to the NOFA/Mass Board of Directors.
At the time of Julie’s first board meeting, the organization was very small, and while the membership organizer was very effective, “the treasurer at the time didn’t always get around to cashing the checks that were mailed to her,” so growth was slow. Before long, Julie took over the treasurer’s role and the membership organizing role as well.
But the first thing she did as a NOFA/Mass Board member was to organize the first NOFA/Mass Bulk Order in 1985. While Sam Kaymen (one of NOFA’s founders) had organized a bulk order of rock phosphate in the early 70s, the NOFA/Mass bulk order offered a wide range of products. With pickup sites at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln and the New England Small Farm Institute in Belchertown (and soon at Many Hands Organic Farm) the Bulk Order eventually grew to serve nine pickup sites in three states and over 400 growers at its peak, utilizing the help of over a hundred volunteers to receive, sort and distribute orders.
Despite the many roles Julie held with NOFA/Mass in the early 80s, Julie did not take a paid role with the organization until 1986. “We went to the summer conference in 1985, which was at Green Mountain College. At that time, NOFA Vermont and NOFA New Hampshire took turns running the conference, but no one chapter took full responsibility for it. In 1986 at Johnson State they lost money on the Conference for the third year in a row, and were considering not doing another one. They were asking the Chapters to split the bills for it, but it wasn’t profitable and that was untenable. So, Jack and I offered to run it under the auspices of NOFA/Mass—but our offer was to take all the risk and all the gain, except for the first $1500 (which would go to the Interstate Council) and NOFA/Mass would take the rest. I was paid $4000 that year, and that was my first paid job with NOFA.”
Julie attributes the success of the conference to her teamwork with Jack. “One of the things that Jack has brought to NOFA is fiscal management skills and a small business-type of attitude to running the organization. Fiscal solvency was his priority, while my priority was always bringing new people into the organization, making sure people had a good time and were learning. We had really complimentary skills to keep the organization going.”
Just two years later, The Natural Farmer (the quarterly journal of the NOFA Interstate Council) was struggling and in a similar position to the Summer Conference. Jack leveraged his lifelong experience and passion for newsletter writing to take it on, and he has been running The Natural Farmer ever since. The Natural Farmer now serves 5000 members across all the NOFA Chapters and Jack has been its editor and producer for 32 years.
While solvency of NOFA’s programs were of course essential to
their success and future, Julie and Jack took on these projects for their importance to the movement. “We really wanted NOFA to be a manifestation of whole family being important, from the infant to people in their 80s and 90s,” she explained. “A lot of people in NOFA have eschewed the church for its negative aspects, and have seen NOFA as that guiding force in their lives. In my view, the Summer Conference has been the place where this has been most manifest in our work at NOFA.”
To this day, the Summer Conference is a truly multi-generational and diverse event, with presenters and volunteers ranging in age from teenagers to grey-haired elders, and with topics covering not just commercial farming but urban gardening, raising backyard goats and chickens (and rabbits), soapmaking, beekeeping, gardening and other home and family skills. The children’s parade forms the center of the Summer Conference Fair, and the children’s conference has been a consistent part of the nearly 50-year old event. “Kids are included,” Julie explains, “because the central idea of NOFA is that everyone has a role – from the passing on of wisdom from older people to the innovation of younger people, and from the food systems innovators to the gardeners to the farmers. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, gardening in your backyard or running a commercial farm —everyone has a role in contributing to create a healthier food system that works in collaboration with natural ecosystems.”
To be continued: NOFA’s role getting in (and getting out of) Organic Certification, On-Farm Events, Advanced Grower’s Seminars, and Policy Milestones.
To honor the legacy of Julie Rawson, please make a gift to the Healthy Future Fund.
Get a taste of the NOFA Summer Conference for yourself by registering for the first ever VIRTUAL NOFA Summer Conference. Online workshops for the whole family, July 20 – August 9, 2020.