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Reaching Out Like a Tree: The Expanding Reach of NOFA/Mass Under Julie Rawson’s Stewardship over 36 Years

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2020 July Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director

The roots of NOFA/Mass are sunk deep in the collective realization of a generation: that the institutionalized drive for domination and power is inimical to a peaceful and happy society. Formed in the 70s in the wake of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and the invention of dangerous chemicals used variously in warfare and in industrialized farming, NOFA was a envisioned as a space of mutual support, education and collaboration for those who sought to create farms and communities rooted in a more humble relation to natural systems.

From this fertile ground came many organizations, NOFA/Mass and her sister chapters being among them—that advanced a vision of a better world in which humanity takes natural systems for their guides and seeks a place within those systems; not as masters over them.

NOFA/Mass has grown over the decades since its incorporation, much like a tree—quickly upwards at first with a central core team of founders and volunteers, then spreading outwards into branches, as staff positions and programs were developed, and along the way forming seeds—initiatives that NOFA spawned but that fell from the tree to become fully their own organizations.

Trunk

All along, the heartwood of NOFA/Mass has been Julie Rawson. “Her accepting the position as Executive Director really solidified the organization,” recalled Lynda Simkins, former NOFA/Mass Board President, Executive Director of Natick Community Farm, and longtime friend of Julie’s.

Before the position was created, Julie worked as the central organizing force of the organization under the title of “Coordinator,” a title for a not-always paid position encompassing the role of organizing and centralizing the work of various volunteer, contract and part time positions.

Truly a grassroots organization, NOFA/Mass was largely volunteer-run in the beginning. “The distinction between the board and staff was very fuzzy,” as Julie described this period of time. There were no paid positions in the beginning, and much of the early work was done by the board.

Lynda Simkins, then President of the NOFA/Mass Board of Directors, and Julie Rawson at an early NOFA Summer Conference.
Lynda Simkins, then President of the NOFA/Mass
Board of Directors, and Julie Rawson at an early
NOFA Summer Conference.

In the 90s and early 2000s, the organization began to formalize its activities into programs with staff positions associated with them. “We needed to grow, and in order to grow we had to have staff,” explained Simkins. “We couldn’t rely entirely on volunteers to do everything—while the organization began in sharing and generosity, moving into paid positions, small as they were, it was about people having a little extra income and giving back to the organization in a professional way.”

The organization grew substantially over the 90s and 2000s—creating organic certification (1986) and later, in influencing the first National Organic Standards, creating a policy program, running conferences, educational events, advanced growers seminars and a range of initiatives.  “As the organization grew and more people came in there were more ideas, more policies, more things to put in place. We felt stronger, that we could really move the organization forward.”

As staff positions increased, it became more intricate what we were doing, and I was responsible for more,” Julie explained. Hesitant at first to take on the title of “Executive,” she “grew up a little bit and decided it wasn’t the worst thing.”

Julie honed many skills in her time building her farm and NOFA as an organization, but some qualities she brought were simply native to her personality: boundless energy, high spirits, an instinct to give everyone a role in a collective task, and a relentlessly positive and pragmatic approach.

Jonathan von Ranson, former newsletter editor and board member and NOFA/Mass president, recalled that his most poignant memories of his time at NOFA/Mass were of assembling the newsletter mailings at Jack and Julie’s farm.

“Once a month I would pick up the newsletter from the printer, and [bring it to Many Hands Organic Farm]. People would gather quickly and we’d get right down to business. It would take an hour and a half to two hours to put together the mailing, and there would be chatter and camaraderie. It was a very high-spirited house. Julie was the main reason—she has this kind of upbeat, positive approach to life that is infectious. She’d always give you a big hug when you came in… and the kids were quite involved in both the farm and in NOFA at the time—they each had their own personalities and we all enjoyed hanging out with them.”

“I remember getting—let’s just say ‘invited’ to stuff envelopes for NOFA as a teenager,” recalls NOFA/Mass incoming Executive Director, Jocelyn Langer. “It was a big festive work party with whoever was around—that ‘Many Hands’ sort of approach. She would take something that could be boring and make it a game of efficiency with competition to come up with the fastest method—it was a bit of an adrenaline rush. That’s probably how I got started working for NOFA, at age 14 or 15,” she laughed.

Similarly, board meetings were characterized by hard work, dedication, community and a blending of heady topics with simple farm tasks. Before email and phone conferences, board meetings were held in person once every other month. “We would drive from across the state, arrive, have lunch, meet for four hours and drive home. It was quite a commitment on a Sunday afternoon,” explained Simkins. Von Ranson described the feeling of those meetings: “Board meetings were always accompanied by a potluck meal. [Julie] would often be working on something like shelling peas or cleaning garlic and was still able to fully function in the meeting. She is a very diplomatic person-- if there were philosophical arguments that drew us off topic she was able to reign us in and keep us on track.”

Julie’s communication skills were also key to the organization, though Julie attributes this skillset more to intentional work than to natural capacity. Lynda Simkins commented on how she saw Julie as a supervisor in her years at NOFA/Mass: “Julie was a good communicator—she could get out of people what she needed, and tell them what they needed to hear,” explained Simkins, adding that Julie was able to conduct hard conversations in a way that participants each left feeling good about the outcome. “She is very intuitively acute and also intellectually acute,” summarized Von Ranson.  

Julie also knew how to surround herself with people who had complimentary skillsets and to defer to the abilities and the approaches of others. Simkins gave the example of the way Jack Kittredge’s and her own tendency to create rules and structure played against Julie’s pragmatism and drive.

“I was much more of a make-rules-and-stick-by-them kind of person-- if you had board minutes and guidelines I insisted that we either change them or stick to them, and I was very persnickety about budget. Julie was more about making things happen expediently. While we may have differed in our opinions, we always came to an agreement. Julie’s skills as an organizer were phenomenal and that’s what kept us going and kept us together.”

Branches

Julie grew NOFA/Mass from a volunteer-run group into a non-profit organization with 11 board members and over 20 staff who hold one or more of over 30 part-time positions. Today, the organization has clear bylaws delineating staff and board roles and limiting the number of hours that a board member may work for the organization in a staff capacity. Today, our Board President, Laura Davis, also serves as an Organic Certification Advisor and Soil Technical Advisor while our Personnel Chair, Paul Bertler, handles logistics for the Conferences.

Key staff roles in the organization today include Directors of Policy, Communications, Development, Marketing, Education and Administration, and programmatic roles like Education Events Coordinator, Summer Conference and Winter Conference Coordinator and a variety of roles responsible for managing registration, membership, outreach and specific grant-funded projects and initiatives that focus on issue like Soil Carbon, Soil Technical Assistance and Food Access.

The first paid position within NOFA/Mass was the Summer Conference Coordinator. As we wrote about in the previous installment in this series , Julie and Jack proposed to the Interstate Council that NOFA/Mass take charge of the event, taking a cut of the proceeds as their pay. This entrepreneurial template set the pattern for how many NOFA/Mass programs began. “Over the years people would come to us wanting to do something, and we would help them get it started, but we would let them run it as their own initiative,” Julie explained.

“Julie always found creative ways to pay for good things to happen,” explained Jack Kittredge in his discussion of the beginnings of the Organic Food Guide.. Oftentimes, seed money from the organization would lead to program growth through the hard work of talented program coordinators. Julie excelled at offering driven individuals the space to take initiative and be ambitious, setting only the floor and never the ceiling for a program’s expectations. Eric Toensmeier (now an expert on perennial agriculture and carbon farming and a professor at Yale) was one of the organization’s first Education Events Coordinators, planning and running 10 workshops per year.  That program expanded under his leadership and subsequent organizers into nearly 20 workshops per year and an Advanced Growers Seminar program, eventually providing a net profit to the organization to support other programs.

Incoming Executive Director Jocelyn Langer recently reviewed some printed-out email correspondence between herself and Julie regarding her role as the Teen Conference Coordinator for the Summer Conference. “She was advising me on writing and getting grants for the program—I’m surprised that at that point someone [her age] had faith in me, at my age, to give me that advice and let me run with it—I probably raised $2500 for the Teen Conference that year, so it wasn’t a ton of money, but it was enough for the event to be successful and it had a big impact on me. It pointed me in the direction that has given me the career experiences I’ve had, and that has led me back to NOFA today.”

Each new initiative that NOFA/Mass took on had the full support of the organization, but because program coordinators were empowered to manage their own programmatic budget, participate in fundraising for their own programs, cultivate coalitions and advisors, and be self-reliant to the extent of their abilities, NOFA/Mass created self-sustaining and successful programs with empowered leadership.

As a result, some programs have remained part of NOFA/Mass, but some became seeds and separated into their own organizations or parts of other agencies. These ‘seeds’ of the NOFA/Mass tree have gone on to have significant impact in the world today.


NOFA/Mass staff and board, 2019.

Seeds

NOFA/Mass has been change-making in Massachusetts for over three decades, and has inspired and influenced thousands of people, but there are a few programs and institutions that began with significant input from NOFA/Mass that are now separate from NOFA/Mass that deserve mention here.

Organic Certification

“The very first time I remember meting Julie,” Lynda recalled, “was in 1989. I had just returned from a conference about organic certification in Washington DC and I had all these ideas about how it would affect small farmers. People told me to go to NOFA. So, I went to this church basement in Worcester where the annual meeting was being held. I stood up and shared my opinions about organic certification and was asked if I wanted to join the board.”

 

In 1986, NOFA/Mass began certifying organic farms and became one of the earliest organizations to do so, following California Certified Organic Farmers and around the same time as NOFA-VT, NOFA-NY, and Oregon Tilth. “We certified 14 farms that first year,” Julie recalled. “By the time there was talk of a National program, there were 44 independent certifiers.”

The first inspector for NOFA/Mass was Eero Ruuttila, who went on to work for SARE, UConn and Johnny’s Selected Seeds among other sustainable farming companies. Other inspectors included Ed McGlew, who also ran the Winter Conference, and Margaret Christie, who later served as the Executive Director of CISA.

While the organic inspector position was a paid role, NOFA/Mass formed a volunteer Organic Certification Committee comprised of ‘readers’ who would review applications and make decisions. Liz Henderson organized and drove NOFA’s certification work and led the committee, and Jack Kittredge served on the committee for nearly the entirety of its tenure. In 1999, Don Franczyk joined the committee and later took over the NOFA/Mass Organic Certification Inspector role. When NOFA/Mass decided not to continue certifying organic farms under the new National Program, Don and the NOFA Certification Committee formed Baystate Organic Certifiers, which today certifies over 400 operations across New England.

Read more about the history of NOFA/Mass, Baystate Organic Certifiers in The Natural Farmer

The decision not to continue offering certification allowed NOFA/Mass to become a leader in the movement to demand integrity. “It took 4 years for the federal program to be formed, and it was originally going to allow ‘the big three;’ irradiation, sewage sludge, and GMOs,” explained Julie. NOFA/Mass helped to organize the activism and generated more public comment about the big three than any other bill prior.”

Lynda Simkins recalled it as a very exciting time. She, Liz Henderson, Jack Kittredge, Julie and Enid Wonnacott all went often to national meetings and events in Washington DC to advocate for organic standards that would uphold the vision and goals of the founders of the organic movement. “All around the country there were different happenings, groups putting together conferences and dialogue to move forward with organic integrity,” she remembered.

NOFA-VT and NOFA-NY continue to offer organic certification. For more information on Organic Certification in Massachusetts, see Baystate Organic Certifiers.You can also contact Laura Davis, NOFA/Mass Certification Advisor, at lauradavis@nofamass.org for support with certifying your farm or business.

For more about NOFA’s organic certification history, see:

Organic Land Care Program

In 1999, Priscilla Williams of Pumpkin Brook Organic Gardening, now a member of the NOFA/Mass Board of Directors, wrote and received a grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust—the program that raises proceeds from special license plates—to coordinate the crafting of the first Standards for Organic Landcare. Together, an ad hoc volunteer committee of scientists, landscapers and activists from the Massachusetts and Connecticut chapters crafted the first Standards, followed by the deployment of the first comprehensive course in organic land care in both MA and CT and the creation of the Accreditation program for organic landscapers in 2002.

Today, the Standards for Organic Land Care are IFOAM-recognized, accredits about 500 Land Care Professionals and offers several accreditation courses each year. The next Accreditation Course will take place online through the month of August 2020.

Gardening the Community

Gardening the Community (GTC) began with seed money from NOFA/Mass. A donor was gifting the organization $25,000 each year to start new initiatives. Betsy Corner, NOFA/Mass member and war tax resistance activist, had started a prison gardening program at Holyoke Jail which went on to be internally run and organized for 10 years.

Looking for a new project, Corner made a connection with Bookings Elementary school in Maple High-Six Corners, “a neighborhood with a lot of impervious surfaces, vacant lots and low home ownership—an area that has experienced a lot of disinvestment, and where there are not a lot of places to play and engage with nature,” explained Kristin Brennan, former Gardening the Community Project Coordinator.

Corner sought out a partner from the neighborhood to partner with to build the project, and met Ruby Maddox, a young woman with a background in youth work. Within several months of beginning to work with Corner, Maddox began making the garden a part of the school day for the Brookings students, and she also began the summer program with a few neighborhood youths.

When Corner stepped out of the role, Jonathan Bates (author, Paradise Lot and founder, Food Forest Farm) stepped in and ran the program with Maddox for several years, expanding it to include a small farmstand and programming on food justice until Kristin Brennan took over the program coordinator role, bringing experience from her time working for The Food Project.

By this time, the project was deeply rooted in the neighborhood. Brennan collaborated closely with community members and youth who had been with the project since it first began at Brookings Elementary. Together, the GTC community worked hard to add plots of land to the GTC network and to improve the project’s land security. At the same time, the NOFA/Mass leadership and board was supportive of the program. “I loved Julie’s activism,” said Brennan, recalling:

”When one of the plots of land was threatened, we gathered people from the community to come and stand on the land and be present when the developers came to tour the land, holding signs. Jack and Julie drove down to stand with us. Whenever I was in a bind, Julie was there for me. She would come and attend meetings at the Mayor’s office with me and the community members involved in the project. I remember Julie would ask poignant and authentic questions—she had a real boldness, and [you felt that] she was really looking for the truth and not coming from a place of pride or personal agenda.”

Always a truly community-driven project, eventually Gardening the Community separated into its own organization. The committee of neighborhood advisors became the first GTC Board, and Anne Richmond and Ibrahim Ali became its co-directors. NOFA/Mass continues to collaborate with Gardening the Community through projects led by Sister Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, NOFA/Mass Equity Director and Food Access Coordinator. 

Learn more about Gardening the Community


Gardening the Community staff and youth prepare new
garden beds in a previously vacant lot.

Soil & Nutrition Conference

The Soil & Nutrition Conference, now a program of the Real Food Campaign and the Bionutrient Food Association (BFA), began as a collaboration between the BFA and NOFA/Mass. Dan Kittredge, Founder of the BFA (and Julie and Jack’s son) worked closely with Ben Grosscup, NOFA/Mass Education Events Coordinator and NOFA Summer Conference Coordinator to plan and run the first several of these conferences. Attracting over 100 attendees each year, the Soil & Nutrition Conference was an early introduction for many NOFA/Mass members to ideas about remineralization, carbon farming, and crop nutrient density. Today, the Soil & Nutrition Conference has grown to be its own event and continues to be an innovation space, bringing together cutting edge ideas about health, technology, soil, biology and spirituality. NOFA/Mass continues to have an annual presence at the Soil & Nutrition Conference and shares many speakers and members.

Learn more about the Bionutrient Food Association and the Soil & Nutrition Conference.

Forest   

It is hard to overstate the impact that NOFA/Mass has had on so many lives and communities throughout Julie’s tenure. Her work in the organic and regenerative farming community has helped to train and educate several generations of movement leaders, from her son Dan Kittredge, to the current organization’s Program Directors (myself included), to the leaders of many affiliated organizations, and of course, our incoming Executive Director. 

“NOFA was a big part of my life for so long,” reflected Lynda Simkins, adding, “I think it was really good for me as an Executive Director [at Natick Community Farm] to also be a Board Member of NOFA/Mass and to have those roles overlap—Julie guided and influenced me, and we really grew our farms and our organizations together.  Because she truly believed in the organization, her actions were not self-centered—she learned to be in control, but not to be in charge of everything herself. She always acted for the betterment of the whole, of NOFA and its mission and the movement, which is really something she taught me about how to run Natick Community Farm and even my own family, this idea of focusing on the wellbeing of the whole.”

After completing her transition with Jocelyn, Julie will be spending more time farming while also helping Jack with The Natural Farmer and continuing to serve as the Treasurer for the NOFA Interstate Council.  In Julie’s own words, she’ll be:

“Having fun singing in the fields, living my inner Border Collie, gathering as many people as possible around the kitchen table and in the weeds as I can, laughing.”

To help keep NOFA/Mass going strong into our next phase, please consider donating to the Healthy Future Fund to Honor the Legacy of Julie Rawson.

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