Wisconsin Historical Society is Documenting the Story of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Movement || Nov 2013

By Roger Blobaum

A new effort is underway in Wisconsin to collect and archive organization records, conference proceedings, papers and records saved by organic and sustainable agriculture pioneers, and other materials that help document the history of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement.

Jonathan Nelson, a collections development archivist, heads the new national organic and sustainable agriculture collecting effort at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. A grant from the Ceres Trust is helping fund a project archivist and other support needed to get the collection and archiving process underway. The first two personal papers collections have been received and archived.

The first personal papers collection was donated by Loni Kemp of Cannon Falls, Minnesota, a national sustainable agriculture leader for more than 25 years. Her donated materials include papers saved while serving as a founder and 15-year board member of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and as a board member of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

The second personal collection, donated by Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford of Winona, Minnesota, documents the founding and early years of the International Organic Inspectors Association. It also includes papers from Ford’s service as MOSES board member and president and of Riddle’s service on the National Organic Standards Board and on the board of the International Organic Accreditation Service.

Records provided by FairShare Coalition, an organization of organic CSA farmers in south central Wisconsin, are now being processed. Next in line to be processed and archived are papers in a large collection donated by Cissy Bowman of Clayton, Indiana, national organic policy leader and pioneer farmer and founder/operator of an Indiana-based organic certification organization.

The Historical Society has been collecting, preserving, and sharing stories since 1846. Although its collection focus is on Wisconsin and the Midwest, its national mass communications, labor movement, and social action movement collections are highly regarded by historians. Its U.S. agriculture history collections include a vast number of archived items documenting the history of Cyrus McCormick and the International Harvester Company.

A collection donated in the 1940s by the widow of F.H. King documents some early organic farming history. King, former chief of USDA’s Division of Soil Management, traveled in China, Korea, and Japan in the early 1900s to find out how people could farm the same fields for 4,000 years without destroying their fertility. “Farmers of Forty Centuries,” King’s classic book describing how this was accomplished, is based on papers and photos archived at the Society.

Two important developments more than two years ago helped get the Society’s new organic and sustainable agriculture history collecting effort organized and launched.

The first was a Society statewide collection survey and analysis showing organic and sustainable agriculture was a gap in its overall collection effort. But the initial attempt to launch the collection by sending letters to several Wisconsin-based organizations and institutions did not go well. Most of the letters were not answered and followup attempts were largely unsuccessful.

The second was the offer by Roger Blobaum to donate his collection of personal papers, documents, photos, and other historic materials saved during more than 40 years of involvement in the movement. He was surprised and pleased to find out that the society was establishing an organic and sustainable agriculture collecting effort and offered to help identify and collect historic materials from others.

“Roger has since provided a list that includes profiles and contact information for more than 100 leaders and pioneers in the organic and sustainable agriculture movement,” Nelson reported. “He also has provided profiles and other information on more than 60 organic and sustainable organizations, including quite a few that were important in the 1970s and 1980s but have since disappeared.”

Nelson and Blobaum have been working together since in contacting potential donors and following up by mail, email, phone, and in-person meetings. This joint effort includes regular donor discussion meetings at the Historical Society and joint meetings with potential donors at the MOSES conference.

Nelson said the key collecting areas the Society will attempt to document include leaders and pioneers in the organic and sustainable agriculture movement, pioneering national organic agriculture organizations and development of the organic agriculture infrastructure, organizations that promote and assist organic farming, organic certification organizations and the standards development process, and companies that develop, sell, and distribute seeds, organic fertilizer, and other production inputs.

Blobaum also is organizing his own collection and forwarding boxes of papers and other materials to the Historical Society. Donations so far include papers covering 14 years of active involvement in MOSES, six years on the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, five years as a founder and associate director of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association, and five years as a member of the Codex working group that developed international organic guidelines.

The MOSES organization materials he has donated will be expanded by adding programs, recordings, photos, and other materials that help tell the 25-year story of the Organic Farming Conference. Blobaum and Executive Director Faye Jones are working together to complete the collection of MOSES materials donated to the Historical Society collection.