February 10, 2013

MOFGA casts wide net to find new head for new era

Organic farming group seeks additional applicants for executive director job, to move organization forward following death of Russell Libby

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

UNITY -- Officials at the country's largest organic farming association are hoping more applicants will seek its top post.

click image to enlarge

Russell Libby

Staff file photo

Melissa White Pillsbury, the organic marketing coordinator at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said the organization is casting a wide net for its next executive director.

"We would love to get as many submissions as possible," she said. "They are some big shoes to fill; but we're not necessarily looking to fill shoes. We're looking for the next generation of leadership."

Since October, MOFGA has been under the direction of interim executive director Heather Spalding, after its 17-year leader, Russell Libby, stepped down. Libby, who had been diagnosed with cancer, died in December.

Within days of his death, Libby was the subject of a New York Times obituary, and flags throughout Maine were set at half staff, by order of Gov. Paul LePage. An endowment fund in Libby's name raised $30,000 for the association in less than a month.

Libby's stature loomed so large in the organic farming community, it's possible that some potential applicants are intimidated by the legacy, White Pillsbury said. Those people need not apply.

"We really need someone who is going to rise above it and persevere," she said. "We definitely need someone with a strong, engaging personality; someone who is a people person and can lead."

Associate Director Chris Hamilton said some might perceive Libby as a tough act to follow, but Libby would have said otherwise.

"He was certainly well respected and loved here at MOFGA, but he would be the first to admit that he had his strengths and he had his challenges, and there would be people who can follow him and do a great job. He very much wanted that to happen.

"He was an excellent executive director and there are others who can do it as well."

White Pillsbury belongs to a 10-member search committee, made up of MOFGA board and staff members. The group will begin reviewing a "healthy number" of applications this week, but there is no deadline for submissions, she said. "We're going to continue the search process as long as it takes to find the right candidate. We're confident that we'll be able to do that," she said.

The ideal applicant will advance the organization's goals of helping help farmers and gardeners "grow organic food, fiber and other crops; protect the environment; recycle natural resources; increase local food production; support rural communities; and illuminate for consumers the connection between healthful food and environmentally sound farming practices," according to the job posting.

Hamilton said the selection process will be transparent.

"MOFGA has always operated as a large tent. It's a big membership organization and the members will have an opportunity to meet with the finalists," he said.

Spalding, who worked closely with Libby for more than 15 years, is not seeking to fill the slot permanently, Hamilton said.

Hamilton, who has been associated with MOFGA since 2000, wouldn't say whether he will pursue the post.

"We'll see," he said. "It's an exciting opportunity to lead a really important organization in Maine. Hopefully there's going to be a lot of interest in it."

Under Libby's leadership, MOFGA became the country's largest state-level organic association, with more than 6,500 members, 418 certified organic farms and processing operations, a 400-acre year-round education center, more than 1,500 volunteers and 32 employees, according to previous reports.

Libby directed the development of MOFGA's Common Ground Education Center. He also supervised the expansion and growth of all program areas of the organization, including agricultural services; educational events and farmer training; the annual fair in Unity; organic certification; publications such as MOFGA's quarterly newspaper, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, websites, social media outlets and public policy initiatives.

Ben McCanna -- 861-9239
bmccanna@centralmaine.com

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