December 10, 2012

Former MOFGA leader dies; ran group more than 17 years

Russell Libby, 56, of Mount Veron, succumbed to cancer on Sunday, according to MOFGA president

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Russell Libby, who for more than 17 years was executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, died Sunday. He was 56.

click image to enlarge

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Executive Director Russell Libby introduces Kathleen Merrigan at the Common Ground Country Fair on Sept. 23. Libby, executive director of the organization for 17 years, died on Sunday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Libby, of Mount Vernon, resigned from the MOFGA post Nov. 2 and became the organization's senior policy advisor.

He had been battling cancer for quite some time, according to Barbara Damrosch, president of MOFGA's Board of Directors.

"He was an incredible man," Damrosch said Sunday from her home in Harborside. "I've known very few people as exemplary in leadership as Russell. He was a very strong leader, very wise. He had a lot of acumen about what do to at any given moment."

MOFGA hosts the annual Common Ground Country Fair, which draws about 60,000 visitors to Unity each fall.

Libby became MOFGA's executive director in 1995 after more than 10 years on the organization's board of directors. In October, he announced that he would step down and that Heather Spalding, the deputy director, would become interim executive director until a new one could be found. At the time, Libby issued the following message:

"After 17-plus years as MOFGA's executive director, it feels like the right time to be moving to new challenges in my life."

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 information the organization issued in October.

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.

Damrosch said Libby was involved in MOFGA just about until the end of his life -- advising the staff, sometimes from home and sometimes by going to the office. He had been quite open about his illness, but he died sooner than many thought he would, she said.

The last time Damrosch saw Libby was Nov. 11, when he gave the keynote address and then led a three-hour workshop at the Farmer to Farmer Conference at Point Lookout, in Northport.

He discussed the future of farming in Maine, policy issues and advancing the cause of organic farming and small farms, Damrosch recalled.

"He was wonderful. He was absolutely wonderful," she said.

John Bunker, a member of MOFGA's board of directors and a former board president, said Sunday that Libby was a close personal friend and colleague who will be missed.

He described Libby as a public person who also was capable of having deep, close and wonderful friendships. Libby never thought of himself as having an outgoing, gregarious personality; but hundreds who met him at conferences, MOFGA fundraisers or workshops felt they had made a close connection to him, according to Bunker.

On Sunday, a young person told Bunker that through her relationship with Libby, she felt she had gained the confidence to do things she never imagined she could do, he said.

"He was very inspiring, very, very humble but a very engaging person, in the best sense of the word," Bunker said. "He was very funny, too. We had really good times together. He loved to make fun of himself. He was somebody who could hobnob with the elite in Washington and hang out with pretty regular, everyday people in Maine; and I think he taught himself how to feel comfortable in all those different environments."

Damrosch said that during Libby's years with MOFGA, the membership grew to the point that it is the largest state organic organization in the country.

"There are more members in MOFGA than in all of the Northeast Organic Farmers' Associations combined," she said.

Damrosch said Libby ensured that the transition to new leadership would go smoothly. He left the organization on a good path, in strong financial health and with a great staff and an army of volunteers, she said.

Beyond that, Libby was a compassionate, generous and modest man who will be missed, she said.

"You're never prepared for the incredible sadness when you lose somebody who is this beloved," she said.

According to his obituary, Libby is survived by his wife, Mary Anne; his three daughters, Anna Libby, of Orono, Margaret Libby, of Mount Vernon, and Rosa Libby, of Portland; as well as his parents, Ronald and Sandra Libby, of Sorrento.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Mount Vernon Elementary School, with a potluck lunch to follow.

Amy Calder -- 861-9247
acalder@centralmaine.com


Correction: This story was revised at 9:55 a.m., Dec. 10, 2012, to state that Point Lookout is in Northport.

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