UNITY — The keynote address at today’s Common Ground Country Fair was about the role of women in agriculture, but it was dedicated to the family of a man remembered as a visionary in organic farming.
“He was a man who was really important in my life as a farmer, said Deb Soule, today’s keynote speaker. “Russell Libby had such appreciation for young farmers and I miss him dearly, as I believe many of us do.”
Soule is the founder and owner of Avena Botanicals, a West Rockport-based nationally recognized company that makes organic beauty and health products. She launched the company at the fair in 1985, when it was still held in Windsor, she told the hundreds gathered on the fair common to hear her speak.
She spoke of the many successes and challenges faced by women throughout history and those yet to come, both in Maine and the larger world.
She also remembered Libby, who died in December at age 56, was involved in the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which puts on the fair, for 30 years, first on the executive board, then as executive director.
It was the second day of the fair, which closes Sunday. As Soue spoke, fairgoers listened as they enjoyed both unusual and traditional fair food such as squash burgers and vegetable tempura, Maine baked beans and pie in a cone.
Soule, 46, said she was inspired by female farmers, gardeners, artists and beekeepers locally and globally.
“As a woman born and raised here in Maine, I am grateful to live in a state where organic farming and gardening is supported,” said Soule, who began her address by thanking the MOFGA staff, over half of whom are women, she said.
Soule, who grew up in Millbridge, began cultivating herbs at the age of 16.
Soule read several lists of women who had an influence on her, including women from MOFGA, Maine and around the world.
Beginning with MOFGA, Soule mentioned Marilyn Wentworth, one of MOFGA’s founders and Abbie McMillan, who is known as the birth mother of MOFGA, which was founded in the 1970s.
“We do not have to look far to find women caring for the earth and offering inspiration and leadership,” said Soule.
One of the most prominent women to influence views of the natural world was Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” who spent summers in Maine and advocated that plants that are often thought of as weeds be preserved for their value as pollinators.
Soule also mentioned women around the world who are currently influencing agriculture, including Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work encouraging women in Kenya to grow seedlings and plant trees.
She read from the book “Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India,” by Vandana Shiva, who describes women as the providers of food security around the world. Shiva, who is a past keynote speaker at the fair, makes the argument that women have a critical role in sustainable agriculture based on their historical relationship with gathering food from the earth and preparing it for their families.
“I wish I could name every amazing woman that I know and that all of you know, but there is no way to mention all the women across New England and worldwide who are changing the face of agriculture,” said Soule, who following her address set up a basket for fairgoers to put the names of inspirational women in as a way to remember them.
Fair Deputy Director Heather Spalding said Soule was invited to be one of three keynote speakers at the fair because of her long relationship with MOFGA and her knowledge of organic gardening.
“She is really a leader in the medicinal herb community worldwide. She has a developed knowledge of growing, teaching and marketing them,” she said.
Soule concluded her address by inviting the audience to support female farmers and gardeners — something she said can be done in a number of ways including by embracing a philosophy that allows them to be successful. Grow food and medicine in earth-friendly ways. Learn to identify edible and medicinal weeds as well as the birds, animals and bees we live amongst. Share knowledge with your community. Tend bees and animals with love. Grow flowers for pollinators as well as beauty. Share food with your neighbors.
Tennessee Watson, 32, of Portland, said Soule’s message was encouraging, especially because of some of the statistics it included on the number of female farmers involved with MOFGA and active in Maine. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state of Maine has the fourth highest percentage of women as principle operators of farms, 25 percent.
“She specifically said that as people of Maine we can do this. We can make a change in agriculture,” said Watson.
Spalding said attendance at the fair on opening day Friday was a record 20,210.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368